How to Educate Your Business Leaders About IT (Without Alienating Them)

CIOs are expected to know all about the business they serve. Business people don't need to know about IT. But what they don't know can hurt them.

Fri, May 04, 2007

CIO — It’s not enough for CIOs to be technology experts any­more; they have to know the business, too. If the CIO “doesn’t get it,” he or she can get the boot.

Yet that dual expectation doesn’t apply to businesspeople. They get a bye when it comes to understanding IT. Rare is the CEO who knows the difference between enterprise architecture and landscape architecture.

“Businesses are confused about technology,” says Karim R. Lakhani, an assistant professor in technology and operations management at Harvard Business School. He says that many businesspeople suffer from—and tolerate—IT ignorance in part because IT discussions have traditionally focused on the technology itself rather than on how the product of IT—information—affects business operations. “CIOs should reduce the emphasis of the ‘T’ side and push the ‘I’ side,” he adds. It’s a forgotten part of the business in most organizations. The CIO has to step up—nobody else is thinking about it.”

That might explain why only 29 percent of CEOs think their CIOs are proactive leaders in the business, though 59 percent are satisfied with the CIO’s per­formance, according to a survey by consultancy Forrester. “This is not a good sign for CIOs,” says Laurie Orlov, the Forrester analyst who produced that survey. “CEOs have low expectations, and IT is enabling those expectations.”

CIOs need to educate their business counterparts about technology, but that is easier said than done. For example, last year Orlov produced a series of reports on how CIOs can educate their business counterparts. She says CIOs expressed strong interest in the topic, and she pro­posed running seminars for business executives. A CIO at a com­pany she wouldn’t disclose hired her to come down and talk to senior management about her ideas.

When the CEO got wind of the plan, he canceled the meeting.

“He actually said it was a bad use of executive time,” she says, noting that the same thing had happened with at least one other CIO. “This is a political nightmare for CIOs,” she adds.

CIO columnist Susan Cramm explains how to market IT to business people in "IT Marketing Smarts." You can also visit this website at Forrester Research for two reports on educating businesspeople about IT. (Note: registration is required.) 

Education Equals Value
Thankfully, it’s becoming easier to show real, demonstrable value from imparting more IT literacy to businesspeople. Assuming that a company where IT and the business are aligned is also a company where the business side is more knowledgeable about IT and its strategic potential, the data is compelling. For starters, 45 percent of CIOs in aligned organizations expect they’ll create competitive advantages for their business in 2007, versus 30 percent of CIOs at unaligned organizations, according to the 2007 “State of the CIO” survey. Aligned CIOs say they spend only 21 percent of their time proving IT’s value, versus 37 percent for unaligned CIOs. (And there’s a nice personal benefit for aligned CIOs: They make about $50,000 a year more.)

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