In today’s healthcare IT shops—and particularly in those shops with a spaghetti bowl of boutique applications, systems and external linkages—there is a constant challenge in keeping staff enthused and invested in departmental success.

There is anxiety within IT staffs. In many if not most IT shops, priorities change and projects tend to advance or retreat in accordance with near-term business and stakeholder demands. Staff members often feel isolated within their own project and product responsibilities, and fail to perceive a unifying enterprise IT strategy.

At its worst, there is a prevailing “hamster wheel” pessimism where no process exists to drive innovation or implement staff suggestions to collaborate, to streamline operations or introduce new products. That sense of detachment serves as a brake on productivity and collective progress in defining, developing and deploying tools and services.

This isn’t just a culture problem—it’s a lost opportunity. The IT staff is a gold mine of insights into department strengths, weaknesses and opportunities to optimize operations, to introduce resource efficiencies, to promoting staff collaboration. The staff can serve as the wellspring of new product ideas—ideas that are pressure-tested against existing resource capacity, expertise and market opportunity.

Throughout the enterprise IT department, from project managers to coders, staff are brimming with ideas to dismantle project silos, leverage collective knowledge and experience, operate more efficiently and effectively. But to extract the greatest value of the staff as change agents, there must be a commitment by management to communication and inclusion, and to a bias towards innovation.

IT managers should make staff engagement a priority, for several reasons. First, they have in their staff an inventory of talent and critical thinking that can contribute to a reasoned and informed resource allocation strategy. Second, staff can be stimulated into action by a clear understanding of the corporate vision and product roadmap. Further, they can be inspired by a sense of inclusion, of shared successes, and by a personal investment in the enterprise.

There are three areas in which IT managers can effectively engage staff to achieve theses ends. Those areas are departmental strategic planning, operations and culture.

Strategic planning. Typically, a top-down process, strategic planning at the department level brings clarity and direction to department activity. It bridges the gap between the broad ambition of the enterprise and the practical accountabilities that fall due to IT. It activates staff to prioritize effectively, to collaborate across projects and to visualize a personal connection to departmental success. With staff engagement as the frame of reference, the critical elements of a department strategic plan include a clear vision and detailed department strategy; a roadmap with goals, benchmarks and accountability; staff allocation and training; and provisions for innovation and contingencies.

Operations and staff productivity. IT staff often staff feel that much development effort yields no value because projects are not completed because of project reprioritization, a lack of staff training and insufficient bandwidth. There is an opportunity to introduce an overarching IT project manager to better manage projects, allocate and coordinate staff. Designate an IT project “Czar” to assume responsibility for overall management of projects—staff coordination and collaboration, skills training, progress reporting, benchmarks, deployment.

Culture. Staff engagement starts at the top and radiates downward. Staff need to be inspired, valued, motivated and re-invested in the enterprise. This can best be accomplished through effective staff communication, recognition and team building. There should be an open door policy throughout the company. From senior management, convene monthly or quarterly team meetings to discuss company news. Mid-level managers (or project owners) should hold frequent meetings with staff to discuss issues, redirect efforts as necessary and invite participation from staff. Whether weekly or monthly, these “check-in” meetings enable managers to accurately track deadlines and pass on reminders and suggestions. When a problem arises, it can be addressed by the team in a timely manner.

The staff can be invested in the department through tactics like ideation and team building events, through rewards and recognition. Ideation provides a forum to share ideas, explore new product opportunities, and get the staff involved in shaping the department roadmap. Group events like team building lead to shared experiences, whether formal or informal, and these can help staff members relate to each other more comfortably. Rewards and recognition celebrate achievements and individual contributions. Collective rewards can be financial, social, or motivational. Recognition can be simple and personal—birthday greetings, a day off for a job well done, callout in an employee email or newsletter, a new assignment.

There are, of course, other simple engagement tactics—team lunches, a department newsletter, a weekly email update. Regardless of the tactics, the goal is the same—to energize and invest the staff; to renew their loyalty and commitment to the collective success of the department; and to instill throughout the IT team a spirit of professional value and personal worth.

Rick Krohn can be reached at rkrohn@healthsen.com or through his website, available here.

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