Not Just “Geeks”: Get a Better Understanding of Your Tech Folks

As a session at ASAE's 2014 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference highlighted, for all the skills your IT department has, your best tool for leveraging their know-how may be to build a good working relationship with them. Then, when you want to fire up a big project, they'll be ready to help.

It was an unassuming late-conference session with zero slides and a half-full room, but the people who stuck around to talk technology and marketing got their money’s worth last week.

Bostrom’s Barton Tretheway, CAE, led a panel of two tech experts—Thad Lurie, CIP, CAE, chief operating officer of EDUCAUSE, and Renato Sogueco, CIO at the Society of American Florists—in front of a modest crowd at ASAE’s 2014 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference (MMCC). The session was refreshing for its sheer lack of formality (it was essentially an hour-long Q&A session), as well as the feeling that (as Lurie put it multiple times) you were getting the “straight dope” on where the tech guys were coming from.

Despite the title of the session, “Ask the IT Guys.2: Technology Answers for Marketing Pros,” most of the best answers and insights that arose from the session were related to interdepartmental communication issues.

In other words, many of the marketing and membership pros in the room appeared to be looking to better understand their IT coworkers and what role they play in their organization.

Although in some ways it veered off the goals the title laid out, it was perhaps the most interesting session I attended last week. Here’s why.

Communication’s Role in Tech

Tech is becoming an ever greater piece of the overall business pie.

That shift was highlighted by a buzzy 2012 Gartner study that suggested chief marketing officers would spend more than chief information officers on technology by 2017, a stat quoted by Lurie. And many of the topics covered at the conference—content marketing, social media, data analysis, responsive design, personalization—are just a step away from some sort of background technology need.

Sure, there was some talk of cloud computing vs. server racks, how cost comes into play with a big tech change, and whether it’s better to go with off-the-shelf software or the more heavily customized stuff (in most cases, off-the-shelf is better). And one audience member asked a particularly tough, technical question:

But the conversation frequently focused on office-dynamics questions, such as when it makes sense for the IT department to get involved on an issue (the earlier, the better), or why it’s important to create a dialogue with the IT staff beyond when an emergency arises, or where a “business case” is essential for any tech project.

Even in the case of the CRM question, the conversation was something more akin to selling the point to the board, appreciating that a lengthy process lay ahead.

Revenge of the “Nerds”

Perhaps the most cutting point came not from Lurie or Sogueco but from an audience member who, noting the occasional use of words like “geek” or “nerd” in the session, suggested we need to do a better job of understanding IT pros and their roles within an organization—and that the use of such terms might be part of the problem.

“The IT guy is not scary. He or she is not an alien,” said Howie Berman, the director of membership and administration at American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

It’s an important point that drew a lot of Twitter chatter after the fact, because it underlines the need not to stereotype or narrow down a person’s skills into a specific silo. And that’s especially critical now because IT staffers hold increasing sway in an organization.

It cuts to something Delcor Senior Technology Consultant Tobin Conley highlighted in a series of recent blog posts. Short version: If we don’t have an innate understanding of what everyone is doing for an organization, we risk departments going off in different directions and working against the organization’s needs. In other words, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.

“All too often, departments acting independently contribute to an uncoordinated approach to IT and squander funding available for technology initiatives—funding that may already be sparse,” Conley writes. “Whether the funding for such projects comes out of a departmental or central budget, it ultimately all comes out of the organization’s coffers, and thus, if applied recklessly, can lead to little or no return on the association’s technology investment.”

With technology becoming an ever more essential part of our infrastructure, the associations that understand the need to close these communication gaps and get everyone working together are most likely to succeed.

The MMCC session, whether it was trying to or not, made a pretty good argument that the IT department is the glue holding together the rest of the association’s long-term plans—a role that should be appreciated more.

It’ll be interesting to see whether it sticks.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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