Employees in today's interdependent, knowledge-intensive workplace have IT needs that are diverse, fast-changing and difficult to articulate. But when we at CEB ask CIOs who in IT is responsible for understanding and responding to these needs, we get an uncomfortable silence.
For years, CIOs have sought a "seat at the table" by building strong links with senior business leaders. Their approach has been driven by the assumption that senior leaders speak for employees on the front lines. This may have been true in the past. But as the workplace becomes more collaborative and knowledge-intensive, and as employees' IT needs diversify, the assumption no longer holds true. In fact, relying on senior relationships is not only inadequate, it can lead IT to pursue the wrong priorities. Instead, IT should interact directly with individual employees to identify their needs and to generate innovations.
The most progressive IT organizations are taking three steps to engage directly with employees and to better serve their needs:
1. Developing Employee-Focused Interface Roles
Service managers, business analysts, and the service desk all have a role to play in building stronger relationships with frontline employees. Service managers should understand what employees need from the services they offer and continually enhance their services to meet these needs. At progressive companies, we are beginning to see business analysts expand their remit beyond projects so that they, too, can help identify emerging needs. The service desk, if correctly resourced, can act as the eyes and ears of IT, picking up on employee challenges and needs in their day-to-day interactions.
2. Adapting Product Marketing for IT
Many of the techniques IT requires in order to understand employee needs already exist in marketing and product management. For example, we worked with a large packaging company where IT service managers adopted the concept of market share management. They track the penetration of their services and manage a queue of enhancements designed to boost their market share. The CIO at another leading company employs staff with anthropological and ethnographic research skills to shadow employees, since anthropologists are trained to spot hidden trends and behaviors unobtrusively, without leading the witness or introducing biases.
3. Making User Experience Design an IT Priority
If IT only listens to senior leaders, investment in user experience tends to be deprioritized as it is cheaper and faster to deploy whatever interface the vendor provides. Many companies spend money to improve interfaces used by customers, but don't think the investment is worth it for their own employees. However, if you actually ask employees what they want from IT, an intuitive, easy-to-use interface comes high on the list. And user experience is even more important when employees can choose to use non-sanctioned external technologies instead. In response, leading IT groups are increasing their user experience capabilities, and making usability an important measure of project success.
In each case, IT is treating employees as its customers, and responding to their needs rather than to what the C-suite thinks those needs are.
An HBR Insight Center