Budding role of IT communications director helps IT deliver its message

As CIOs face rising competition, they are creating a new, dedicated IT communications role to help promote the IT brand and coordinate messaging.

Like any marketing/communications professional, Glaston Ford is a master juggler who can keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Editing corporate strategy decks, pulling together email campaigns, coordinating a social presence and posting blogs to the corporate portal — he might do any of those things and more in a day's work at Applied Materials.

Unlike his marketing peers, however, Ford isn't part of the CMO's staff. Rather, he reports directly to CIO Jay Kerley and is charged with building a brand for the Applied Materials IT organization, which is made up of 340 internal employees and 1,400 contractors. Ford's primary objective is to establish the IT department’s credibility among the company’s 14,000 global employees, and to raise its profile externally to aid in recruitment efforts.

Glaston Ford

Glaston Ford

"I am a champion, a standard bearer and an advocate for IT," says Ford, director of IT marketing at Applied Materials, a provider materials engineering systems for the semiconductor, flat panel display and solar photovoltaic industries. "We wanted to improve the image of the organization and boost the communications presence of the executive team. We had good things happening in IT that people just didn't know about."

Ford is part of an emerging coterie of communications specialists who define and position the IT brand, and craft related messaging. These positions, which usually have titles like director of IT communications, are more common at large organizations with thousands of employees spread across many constituencies. The people who fill them typically hail from the marketing or business ranks.

The role of a dedicated IT communications specialist is taking root for a number of reasons, according to Kristen Lamoreaux, president of Lamoreaux Search LLC, an IT-focused placement firm. The rise of social media has convinced many CIOs that they need digital-savvy experts to effectively leverage that forum for both internal and external communications, she explains. In addition, with the rise of easily deployed cloud-based services, IT is no longer the only outlet for business users to acquire technology, so there’s pressure to elevate the department’s profile in order to stave off shadow IT schemes.

"IT needs to demonstrate its value and the benefit of working within its parameters," Lamoreaux says. "Therefore, CIOs are recognizing that they need to step up their game in terms of communications."

Bridging business with IT

Applied Materials put the wheels in motion eight years ago when the CIO who preceded Kerley sought an IT program manager with a flair for communications. The search turned up several candidates who had strong program management expertise but lacked communications skills, so the team switched gears and ended up finding Ford, who had a more traditional communications background that included PR and high-tech communications with a little journalism sprinkled in.

At the time, the Applied Materials IT organization was in the midst of major transformation, and Ford was sold on playing a key role in developing a message that would introduce the new strategy to internal employees while nurturing the IT brand. Shortly after Kerley came on board, Ford says his job was elevated to a director level position reporting into the CIO, which gave the role even greater influence.

"It's much easier to be the voice of an organization if you have background, context and relationships," Ford says. "Many times when teams come to me for support, I have already been briefed on the project in staff meetings and can jump right in. Other times, I will have an insight or additional information the project or service owner may not have, thanks to my participation in the IT leadership team."

Patrick Graziano always felt like a bit of an odd duck in the world of IT, having spent his whole career in marketing for consumer and healthcare products. That changed about two years ago, when he became director of IT marketing and communications at pharmaceutical giant Merck -- a position in which he serves as the bridge between IT and the business.

"There's always been a gap between the way IT speaks and the way the rest of the business consumes. IT is very technical and tends to speak in its own language, which doesn't always translate well," says Graziano, explaining that his experience in marketing and communications helps bridge that gap. "People call me the translator -- I can go in and speak on both sides."

Patrick Graziano

Patrick Graziano

Graziano’s skills came into play late last year when Merck was rolling out a series of major changes to its communications platform and network over the course of five months. In the old days, IT would have sent out a notice after each change, and those notices would have gone heavy on the technical details without much explanation in plain English for why it was happening. That approach sparked a lot of user complaints.

In contrast, Graziano's strategy was to create a marketing campaign that spelled out the entire program before it launched. The effort included posters placed in common areas and digital signage that popped up on laptop screens. "It helped people realize why we were making changes," he explains. "IT organizations tend to talk about things they stand up or things they launch, but they don't always get to the value."

Thanks to the marketing effort, Graziano says there were fewer calls to the help desk during the transition, and Merck rolled out changes to 60,000 users in just three days. "We even got compliments on our messaging,” he recalls. “When does that happen when you roll out an IT program?"

A professional communications expert can also help the CIO tailor messages and strategies so that marketing campaigns resonate with different audiences, including people in various roles both inside of IT and throughout the organization. That's one of the primary roles for Patrick Cooley, senior manager of IT marketing and communications at EMC. "People are bombarded constantly with information, so the issue is how to cut through the noise," Cooley says. "In a company of 60,000 to 70,000 [employees], there are a lot of different people here and having a marketing background allows me to help IT better target people with the best communications vehicle."

Patrick Cooley

Patrick Cooley

Under Cooley's direction, EMC's IT group no longer peppers its user community with frequent emails about application outages or survey requests. Instead, it's micro-targeting its messages through vehicles like internal social communities and beta-testing certain services using social sharing for feedback. "We've dramatically reduced the kind of spam communications people have been bombarded with and [have] targeted messaging much more specifically," he explains. "We're definitely seeing results on a micro scale — it's the macro scale we continue to work on with IT branding and marketing."

At HCA, Kearstin Patterson leads a team of 12 graphic designers and communications professionals who are dedicated to creating and delivering strategic messaging for the information technology and services group. One of their most important functions is to get CIO Marty Paslick's message out to the more than 4,300 internal IT employees and the approximately 220,000 people who work across the Nashville-based healthcare company's vast network.

Patterson's team has helped Paslick orchestrate a weekly Monday message, which outlines the top IT priorities for the week, provides updates on projects and praises individual employees for outstanding work. There’s also a weekly podcast that’s designed to be motivational to help facilitate team-building and nurture the IT culture.

"IT impacts nearly everything that goes on in this organization, so it's important to keep the business side connected and engaged with the IT side," Patterson explains. "With this many employees and the variety of different communications mechanisms, this helps keep people informed and aware of the CIO's top priorities to focus on for the week."

Not your father's marcom

The emerging role of IT marketing and communications specialist heavily favors professionals with backgrounds in those disciplines over people who are more IT-oriented, but you can't necessarily count out techies if they have the right chops, according to Lamoreaux. Candidates need to have business experience, but an understanding of the requirements-gathering process and the ability to talk to IT people in technical terms are just as important. "It's not your typical marketing/PR person," she explains. "You want someone with some technical background who can speak the vernacular of the rest of the team."

If you think you’re up to the challenge, keep in mind that it’s a job that requires people who are prepared to deal with lots of change, are adept at juggling projects and, most importantly, are game for charting their own course. "There is no real blueprint for this," says Merck's Graziano. "With marketing, you don't have to start with a basic education on why you do certain things. Here, you're in a foreign territory where people don't understand marketing."

Jay Kerley

Jay Kerley

What's been gratifying for Ford is to see how the dedicated communications role has helped nurture an IT culture that places value on nontechnical skills. "Having a staff role dedicated to communications sends the message that communications is a valued skill set," he says. "We reached a tipping point as an organization about three years into my role. I noticed teams were coming up with much better communications plans — they were thinking of creative ways to engage users and producing high-quality draft materials on their own, with no direct involvement from me."

Those milestones are proof that a dedicated IT communications role is essential to a CIO's success, says Kerley, the Applied Materials CIO. "If I took a new role and they didn't have this role on staff, it would probably be the first or second hire I would source or bring into the company," he says. "There is so much change in this environment, and to keep all the stakeholders aligned and to do so in a professional manner is extremely important to the credibility of the CIO."

This story, "Budding role of IT communications director helps IT deliver its message " was originally published by Computerworld.

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