Seattle — Lisa Trubitt is not a technologist. She has degrees in English and criminal justice, and she says she is the kind of person who breaks computers. And yet she is playing a vital role in the IT office at the State University of New York at Albany. She is teaching them how to talk.
On Wednesday she took her message to a room full of people at the 2007 Educause conference. Ms. Trubitt, assistant to the CIO for policy and communications at Albany, and Mur Muchane, executive director of information-technology services at Davidson College, detailed the ways their institutions are trying to streamline, simplify, and clarify IT-department communications.
When talking with others on their campuses, IT departments at Davidson and Albany ran into common pitfalls. The messages are often highly technical and contain more information than the recipients can digest. Techies are big on acronyms, which others don’t understand. Messages often take a parental tone — don’t do this, you must do that — and they are sometimes contradictory. Techies also like to give people the back story — the whole tale of what it took to get, say, Windows Vista working on the campus.
“It was not exactly a way to win friends,” Mr. Muchane said.
Mr. Muchane now reviews messages that go out from his department. He runs them by people who come from nontechnical backgrounds — including his wife. Messages go out on a blog, a medium that is timely and reduces e-mail clutter. He hopes the blog will be more interactive in the future. To communicate with students, Davidson is experimenting with podcasts, cable television, and flat-panel monitors mounted in public areas.
Ms. Trubitt said Albany was still relying on simpler technologies, like e-mail, and not “cool toys” like flat-screen monitors. “But really the most important part of communication is the message,” she said.
She showed the crowd a message that about a dozen tech staff members had written to tell the campus about a glitch in Microsoft Exchange. It was technical, with a lot of back story. “The reason you don’t need to read this is because I didn’t need to read this to know that we were never going to send this out,” Ms Trubitt said. She cut the message in half and simplified it before sending it out.
“Ask yourself: What do people really need to know?” she said.
Both Ms. Trubitt and Mr. Muchane said the most important form of communication was face to face. “Ask people questions about how you’re doing,” Ms. Trubitt said. “I have to be honest with you: This is the part where you hear things you don’t want to hear.”
For more on technology and communication, listen to this episode of Tech Therapy. —Scott Carlson