Asking the Right Question

JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
www.infomanagementcenter.com

In the August 15, 2006 issue of CIO Magazine, Michael Schrage discusses the problems that IT organizations have in gaining credibility and respect from their internal colleagues and customers. It may not surprise you to learn that IT organizations are often regarded as infrastructure managers at best and as major impediments to innovations at worst. Schrage believes that for IT to pursue innovation that truly benefits employees and customers, they need to ask those employees and customers the right question.

The dilemma that IT faces—how it is perceived internally—is not much different from the dilemma faced by information development (ID) organizations. In many instances, we hear from senior managers and colleagues that they don’t understand what we do, that ID is a “necessary evil,” that we’re too concerned with the niceties of editing and page layout, or that we don’t really add anything to the bottom line. Similarly, IT organizations are labeled incidental, inconsequential, or taken for granted. Most of the time, ID is simply off the radar entirely. Senior managers not only don’t know what we do, they don’t know we exist.

Schrage recommends a simple question for Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and their organizations to ask of their customers:

“What’s the most innovative thing you think IT is doing for you?”

One CIO of a Fortune 100 company learned that employees thought the most innovative thing that IT did for them was man the help desk. He discovered that people at the help desk regularly emailed employees links to websites where they could get more information about using their computers effectively. As a result, he worked together with the human resources department to set up a program to send employees useful URLs with information about education, healthcare, and well-being. The initiative was well received and helped to make IT more visible and important to the employees.

What is the right question for ID? What question should we ask to learn how we are perceived within our organizations? What question should we ask to better understand how we can become more innovative and be perceived positively by managers and colleagues?

In fact, I believe we should start by asking the very same question:

“What’s the most innovative thing you think ID is doing for you?”

Information development is rarely viewed as innovative by others in our own organizations. However, we often work hard to make contributions that will help our corporations be more successful in serving our customers or will help our colleagues build more user-focused products and services. As Schrage puts it, we desperately need an ID Innovation Brand. Remember that a brand helps people associate certain qualities and virtues with a particular company and product. Think of the brand Oreo Cookies. What immediately comes to mind? Licking icing? Fun? Chocolate? It’s a great brand.

As an ID organization and manager, you need to think about what it takes to reinvigorate your own brand. Schrage suggests that it’s not by “doing things you think are more innovative but by doing those things your customers and colleagues find more innovative.” If you want to find out what they believe you should be doing, you need to ask them. If you asked the question I suggest here, what answers might you expect to get?

“Nothing I can think of.”

“Is trying to make our technical manuals more user friendly.”

“Is trying to get translations done faster.”

“Is publishing information on the website.”

For the most part, you may discover that they don’t know and don’t care. We’re just part of the wallpaper—has to be there but doesn’t get noticed much. If that’s the case in your organization, Schrage suggests going out to every business unit and asking how they define innovation. After you’ve learned what they expect from an innovative part of the organization, you can begin to define ways to bring innovative ideas from ID to the forefront. You might present to the business units your ideas for ID innovations and ask what would seem most valuable to them.

The goals of asking a simple question and working hard to discover the answers are to understand better the perception of your organization and to do something about improving that perception, especially with regard to innovation. You won’t be a successful leader of innovation in information development unless you know what innovation means to your colleagues and management. You can’t be a successful innovator unless you also begin to learn what innovation means to your customers.

Once you’ve asked the simple questions inside the organization, think about going outside. Ask your customers what ID does for them when they try to be innovative in using products more effectively and efficiently. Rather than asking what they do or do not like about the manuals, ask them what they want manuals to do for them. Ask about their expectations for innovation, not about what you are doing today. Focus on turning the corner on an Innovation Brand. If you’re going to be perceived as an integral contributor to your company’s business success, you need to be developing new, innovative products that serve your customers better, just like the rest of product development is expected to do. If you are going to be perceived as contributing to your organization’s internal success, you need to know what colleagues and managers consider to be valuable innovations.

You can find the Schrage’s CIO Magazine article athttp://www.cio.com/archive/081506/schrage.html?action=print

 

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