Communication and IT: Still an uneasy alliance

Dee Rambeau presents a depressing workplace scenario that, in my experience, was all too common ten to twelve years ago as everyone began discovering the web as a business tool.

The scenario is broadly to do with who makes decisions in the workplace regarding websites. Is it the IT department, which owns the infrastructure, or is it the communicators, who own the content?

Ten years ago, the worst case was where one of the two believed they owned all of it – infrastructure and content – and that believer was typically IT. What’s more, they generally got away with it.

As a communicator, I have direct experience of that kind of environment plus the battle scars to prove it.

Fast-forward ten years and what’s changed?

A great deal. In my experience, what’s now typical is a collaborative relationship between IT and others in the organization regarding the deployment of technology tools.

No longer just websites. Today we’re talking about the broad raft of social media – blogs and wikis in particular – plus enablers like RSS, as well as emerging tools such as enterprise social bookmarking and tagging.

While all of these media and tools use the web, they are not quite like websites with the conventional thinking behind how you deploy them. It requires a different mindset in how you view what they are and do, and how they can fit within an existing IT infrastructure.

That different mindset applies to both communicators and IT, where both recognize the real stake each of the other has in working together to create a resource that enables employees to effectively use it in order for them to support the organization’s business goals.

Dee’s scenario paints a picture of an organization today where the IT department make it very clear that they own everything and condescendingly will make all the decisions on what’s best for everyone. Her post includes a verbatim letter from the head of IT to the head of PR in the company concerned.

If you’re a communicator, you’ll bristle reading this. I know quite a few IT managers who would bristle, too.

My experience again is that disruptive and destructive workplace turf wars where communicators – whether they’re PR, employee communication or corporate communication – clash with IT over who makes the decisions on technology tools really are much of a thing of the past.

Undoubtedly there still are dinosaur IT managers around as Dee describes, as well as confrontational communicators. Yet I don’t believe Dee’s example is typical of what’s happening in the workplace today.

Mind you, a comment to Dee’s post by Steve O’Keefe indicates a belief that it could be. What’s your experience?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. David Tebbutt

    As much as you might like the world to switch, hysteresis-like, to a new way of cooperating, it’s not going to happen. Some companies will hang on to the old ways for as long as possible, others will embrace the new.

    I always think of these things as a rectangle with a diagonal line running from bottom left to top right, representing the proportions of old (above) and new (below) thinking. Usually the line is more of a curve – long and flat then suddenly curving upwards. Others have more complex models involving chasms and troughs.

    It doesn’t matter. The point is that the world is always in transition from something to another. And your own opportunities lie just above or just below the line – either educating/training or implementing. When the line gets near the top right hand corner, it’s time to think of retiring or finding the next transition.

  2. neville

    My experience is different, David – I see more collaboration than confrontation. Certainly there remains dinosaur IT as well as communicators, as I mentioned in the post.

    But I find it highly encouraging seeing more good things happening than bad.

  3. David Tebbutt

    Isn’t that self-fulfilling? The people you’re going to meet are going to be near the line I mentioned. One way or another, they’re curious. I can tell you that I am close to a number of companies who are quite the reverse. If I were to regard that as representative of the world at large, I would be quite depressed.

  4. neville

    What I see is simply this – more collaboration than confrontation.

    If I think of, say, 10 organizations I know, all of which are addressing social media in one form or another, 7 of those companies have an environment where IT and communicators (and others) work well together. The other 3 most definitely have an IT-as-gatekeeper climate. At one of those, the PR people are the problem more than IT.

    Is all that typical of everywhere? I doubt it. But it’s great to see collaboration rather than confrontation much more often than not.

  5. Dominic Jones

    I was going to leave this comment on the IAOCblog, but they have a rediculous comment submission process, so I’ll do it here:

    If you read the letter that Dee posted, it seems perfectly clear that the problem here was the communciations department lacking a basic understanding of IT.

    They wanted to farm out their Media section to PRNewswire. They wanted a cookie-cutter, template-based Newroom on someone else’s server. They’d not own their domain and if they ever switched vendors they’d lose all their RSS subscribers and inbound links would break because the RSS and all other URL are controlled by PRNewswire.

    I have to side with the IT guy/gal on this one. Whoever the communications people are in this case, they should be ashamed.

  6. neville

    Dominic, we’ve only got that letter to make any assumptions as to what’s going on in this company.

    While Dee’s intro gives a bit of insight, there’s little more that might indicate how the PR people went about their planning and what they actually did that resulted in the letter, only how the IT manager summarizes the situation from his point of view.

    You’re probably right in saying that the communicators don’t understand IT. It seems to me from the letter that lack of understanding flows the other way as well – IT doesn’t understand communication.

    A classic confrontation brewing. Or already brewed, by the look of it.

  7. Steve

    Ha! Seen that one quite a few times. And seen the end result when an organisation’s IT group doesn’t write letters like that one.

    2-4 years later the IT Group is spending *millions* and sometimes a lot more than that, to try and fix the hodge-podge mess of the organisations information assets. They are scattered on multiple incompatible systems. Zero ways of enabling reporting between them. Huge duplication and hence massive inefficiencies in staff and information presented. Inaccuracies. System failures with no accountability or even monitoring. Ballooning “ongoing maintence” costs of little value. And on top of all that? One of them just got hacked into and defaced and you don’t know who is responsible for that system. Either within the organisation or externally.

    And the groups that caused the mess in the first place? Are usually bemoaning the very problems they created and bemoaing the IT Group for failing to fix said mess in a timely fashion. And frequently blaming IT for allowing it to happen in the first place. Hypocritical doesn’t even get close.

    In this case the PR people should have done something along the lines of going to the IT Group with a very high level list of prioritised requirements. Not a detailed solution.

    I personally have saved one employer hundreds of thousands of dollars by demonstrating that the very impressive sounding (and hence expensive) advice they were getting from various sales persons was pure snake oil. Totally unnecessary and unwarranted.
    Or the account manager who insisted we needed to spend ~ $20K to “disengage”. A request for a detailed quote showed that approximately none of the items mentioned were necessary or even relevant. Actual cost to disengage? About $500. The business owners would have probably paid the 20K.

    Oh they do pull the wool over the eyes of non technical people. You’d better believe it.

    Granted, IT is a support and service role. But it is also not up to PR to pour the organisations money down the drain.

  8. Dennis Howlett

    David is right. You’re living on the edge of a bubble, most others are not. Calling them dinosaurs isn’t helpful. Remember dinosaurs were the most successful species to occupy the planet. Until the shrews took over.

    If you were privy to the internal discussions going on at certain global companies – as I am – you’d know there is huge resistance to change because this is nothing to do with tech and everything to do with power struggles. Ever it was so.

    Calling this ‘social’ exacerbates the problem. No-one (and I mean no-one) wants social-psych meat heads running the show. They want process control. And rightly so.

    What is happening now in MOST cases is far from strategic. It’s tactical though it may becdome strategic over time.

    Utlimately, this is not about IT changing but everyone changing. Otherwise you negate any potential for compromise along the way. This ‘stuff’ requires a negotiated settlement that moves with the wave. IM(NVH)O.

  9. Dominic Jones

    Dennis is right about the power struggles. That comes through quite clearly even in the letter that started this all. Instead of focusing on the technical weaknesses of the PR department’s proposal, the guy got all political, basically accusing the PR department of not being on the same “team” as everyone else. Not helpful.

    I’d add to this discussion that in my experience in the investor relations area, companies that get online communication usually have a very senior executive driving the change. It might be a CEO or a CFO, usually a younger one (in their early 40s) and someone who appreciates the value of communication in general, not just online. The same often applies when companies have communicators at the executive level, but not always.

    TNT NV in the Netherlands, which won the FT’s best corporate website last year, has such a CEO. In an interview with the FT at the time, he said something along the lines of having grown up with technology whereas most of his CEO peers had not and so didn’t understand its importance. The article doesn’t appear to be available.

  10. neville

    Dennis, the word ‘dinosaur’ often applies to communicators. It’s not an IT exclusive.

    I’m sure you’re right about resistance to change. Yet I could point out two listed UK companies where the type of change I mention in the post is being warmly embraced by IT. Radical change. Maybe that’s the real edge of the bubble you mention.

    As for most cases being tactical, that’s not my experience.

    Dominic, it’s a good point re the CEO as the change driver. My experience, too is when that’s in place, whether its the CEO or other senior leader, change happens whether it’s online communication or another area.

    The FT article you mention about TNT is linked from the website. Can’t read the article though – FT server error on every attempt. But here’s the link anyway –

  11. David Johnston

    Left a rebuttal to Steve on the source, basically stating that the managers need to communicate and come to a common understanding. And, like neville said, a person common to both needs to get involved and get everyone to come to a common decision and plan of action.

    Dominic, while you are reading between the lines of the letter with the power struggles (which always exists, even if just do to ego and not wanting to ask for help) the letter reads that way because it is technical in nature, and techies (especially when they get technical) just come across harsh. A better solution would have been to send a shorter note and instead setup a meeting to go over what PR needs to do and how IT can help.

    My US$.02 (external commentary permalink)

  12. Communication and IT: Still an uneasy alliance at at

    […] I just read the article Communication and IT: Still an uneasy alliance at which reminded me a lot about the conflicts I and many others face when you find yourself in a situation where the IT folk in a workplace are not on the same level as the PR folk in terms of an IT strategy and a public relations strategy. I find myself in a situation where I’m part of the IT infrastructure and also part of the PR and Public Liason unit and as such I get a good insight into the views on both in regards to the ownership of the content. Is it the IT department, which owns the infrastructure, or is it the communicators, who own the content? […]

  13. neville

    Dennis, I’d define ‘strategic’ quite simply (and broadly) in this or any business context – a communication activity that is designed to meaurably support the organization’s business objectives. How you go about implementing the activity, including what tools you might use and how you’d use them, are the tactics.

    How would you define it?

    David, your last point is to the point, so to speak – if PR and IT actually get together face to face and talk about the overall issue, perhaps they might find the solution that the buisness requires. Maybe they did do that but you can’t really tell that from the letter.

  14. Dennis Howlett

    Hmmm – that’s probably the difference between yours and my perspective. Comms isn’t strategic in my world. It’s peripheral. It’s support. Doing things that earn revenue is strategic. Putting product on shelves is strategic, blahing about them is noise. Negotiating redcued IT cost is strategic to good business health. Fighting with IT is a distraction.

    Can anyone show me a PR campaign that measurably supported strategy? Not seen it in my liefetime. Seen plenty of PR support for sales and marketing. Different.

    But back to the original point about IT and congtrol. There’s a genuine fight going on internally – the politics of control – as to who manages IT ‘stuff.’ The consensus at the moment is that IT needs to manage the core but it has virtually no chance of handling edge stuff like blogs/wikis or tactical purchases, especially if they’re SaaS stuff like

    But you are quite wrong to think that Dee is describing something atypical. Talk to any SAP/Oracle shop you like and I think you’ll find IT in very firm control for very good reasons. Now – if you ask whether that will always be the way, then that’s a different question. Think 2010>2012.

  15. Mr. Dee Rambeau

    Sorry about the late response but “the beat goes on…duh duh duh duh duh…”

    An inherent paradigm in this war between IT and every other department is that many companies are using hugely expensive legacy CMS such as Vignette and the others. Purchased at 6 or 7 figures and installed with great pain anywhere between ’95 and the present…there is NO WAY that a department head is going to get any budget or approval for another (even niche) CMS or web tool.

    The CFO and the head of IT are still trying to justify the SAP/Oracle/Vignette magilla many years later.

    Hence the popularity of easy-to-implement, fits within a manager’s level budget, third-party hosted, templated site tool that bypasses IT’s gate.

Comments are closed.