Tips for cross-departmental communication

Greetings. Employee Number 503.9c here today to talk to you all about a very special topic. “Why the anonymity?” you may be wondering. Well, as it turns out, our discussion today is centered on a group of people—a very powerful group of people—and I just don’t want to take any chances. Some folks have compared them to the Cosa Nostra. I, for one, find this to be completely offensive and in no way endorse comparisons between an Information Technology (IT) department and any sort of national or international underworld syndicate. All I’m saying here is that, maybe … just maybe they know some people who know some people who could disable your Exchange server with the flip of a switch. And it’d be a real shame if your external hard drive, you know … the one that has all of your critical back-up files on it … ended up at the bottom of the Hudson one night. A reeeeeal shame. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ … I’m just sayin’ …

So the question today is this: how does an information technology ignoramus such as me go about communicating with a group of IT experts that are responsible for making a business successful? After all, they literally do speak a different language than you and I; a language of zeros and ones. They deal in text so intense that it’s called “hypertext.” These people know codes for crying out loud! Given all of this, a language barrier is bound to exist! If you happen to work for an organization in which there is no cross-departmental miscommunication, well done! However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t ever have to work with a client’s IT team, and, in that case, you might not be so lucky. Therefore, I submit to you three simple tips to remember when you’re communicating with the *Don of any IT department.

1. Don’t go it alone! For major issues that require non-IT employees to meet on a regular basis with an IT team, I have found it very useful to bring a listening partner along … a consigliere, if you will. This partner’s main purposes are to help you capture all of the details that are discussed during meetings, to be a sounding board for ideas that either party may submit during the discussion, and to generally offer up some outside perspective from someone who isn’t directly involved with or affected by the project or issue at hand. Of course, it helps if this advisor has some IT knowledge and is familiar with the project or issue that is being discussed, but that’s not critical.

I’ve made it a standard practice to debrief with my partner immediately following any meetings that we both attend. I found that the sooner we debrief after the meeting, the more effective we are in comparing notes, filling in any gaps, and agreeing on the proper course of action. This might sound like overkill to some, but I promise that it’s far preferable to being left scratching one’s head (or pulling one’s hair out) all alone because of a misunderstanding or overlooked detail!

2. That whole “language barrier” thing. No, I wasn’t joking when I mentioned the different languages IT folks speak compared to us non-IT folks. And depending on what it is you do, your own professional lingo might be just as confusing to an IT team member as theirs is to you. So remember that when you are tempted to start throwing out abbreviations, acronyms, and other terms that might be familiar to you and your co-workers—but nobody else. Additionally, don’t assume that just because they’re technical experts, IT team members understand the inner workings of a particular piece of software or program that you may be familiar with. “IT expert” does not mean “all-knowing computer software guru.”

On the flipside, if you find that the conversation is getting dominated by IT-speak and you’re becoming confused, don’t be afraid to speak up immediately to ask for clarification before things get out of hand. I cannot emphasize this point enough: stop and ask for clarification. A good way to help avoid these language pitfalls in the first place is to explain your level of IT expertise early on in the discussion to help avoid any assumptions that might ultimately lead to a major communication breakdown. Another piece of advice: you may happen to hear the IT folks begin to speak secret codes in hushed tones, perhaps something along the lines of this:

IT Employee #1: “conversation.onEngage = function  () {
if((IT_Employee == true)){

 IT Employee #2: “conversation.onEngage = function  () {
if((NON-IT_Employee == true)){

If you hear this, chances are good that your conversation is not going to be very successful. I suggest packing it up for the day and trying again tomorrow.

3. IT people feel feelings too. That’s right! Most IT folks that I’ve had the pleasure of working with are sentient, emotionally mature non-cyborgs. And even when things go awry, projects grind to a halt, and communications break down, we’re all on the same team here, so let’s not lose sight of that. You can be certain that whenever communications break down, your IT counterparts become equally frustrated as you. As is the case in any business communications scenario, finger-pointing, “passing the buck,” and all the other techniques we use to help deflect responsibility will only serve as barriers to getting the job done. To help manage some of the frustrations that might stem from heated IT versus non-IT debates, perhaps a refresher in communication skills or conflict management are order.

Another word of warning. Notice I said “most.” If your IT counterparts show any signs of joining together to form a single, megalithic über-geek (kind of like this) … you are in extreme danger. Remove yourself from the situation immediately.

In all seriousness, I have the utmost respect for the information technology experts I’ve had the pleasure of working with throughout my career. There’s no denying that we exist on a different metaphysical plane, but they’re great at what they do and we desperately need them. Case in point: think coal-fired iPads. ‘Nuff said. And in today’s day and age, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of their role in making virtually any business operate properly. In addition to the tips listed above, general common sense and common courtesy are really all that one needs to help overcome any “language barrier” obstacles that might exist between departments.

*Please note that, while we use Information Technology as an example, the tips we discuss are universally applicable to cross-departmental communication.

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