The Power of Metaphor

Malini Balakrishnan, CIO of Building Materials Holdings Corporation, shares two metaphors that help her to explain IT

malini balakrishnan bmc

Never underestimate the power of a good metaphor.

When two parties come from different backgrounds, they can struggle to share an understanding of something complex and abstract, like technology. CIOs, who bear the burden of educating a wide array of stakeholders on the cost, function, and business impact of technology, need to find a way to elucidate IT in a way that does not overwhelm, intimidate or heaven forfend, bore, their audience.

“As CIOs, we need to demystify IT,” says Malini Balakrishnan, CIO of Building Materials Holdings Corporation (BMC), a provider of building materials and construction services. “When current business executives were coming up through the ranks, technology was not as pervasive as it is today so they were able to achieve success without having an understanding of it. Today, the reality is much different. As CIO, you don’t want to preach to them, because that is a sure way to turn them off. You want to capture their interest by using analogies that they can identify with and that remind them of the challenges they face in their own business.”

When Balakrishnan joined BMC, she found that no one really knew what IT was supposed to do for the business. “Technology ranges from software to hardware to the cloud to security to identity management,” she says. “How do you explain to a wide range of people what IT is, what role the department plays, and how our work relates to them?”

IT as a House

Since BMC is in the professional building space, Balakrishnan decided to go with an analogy familiar to her executive peers. “I tell our executives, ‘Think of our technology stack as a house that we all live in - sales, marketing, operations, purchasing and IT. In a house, there is wiring, plumbing, HVAC and other infrastructure elements that you never see, but are nevertheless critical to the functioning of the house. In IT, those elements are networks, hardware, and the like. Without infrastructure, the house crumbles. IT is the same – our technology stack is only as good as the underlying infrastructure. So when I ask you for budget for a Single Sign-On System, think of it as investing in the security system of the house.’”

Next, Balakrishnan moves to the rooms of the house. “These, you can actually see,” she tells her audience. “Typically, you will have a kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. But perhaps you want a media room in your house, or a library. You can make these choices, if they support your lifestyle, and if you plan use those rooms enough to justify the expense. In the IT world, these are the transactional applications that you use to run your business, like ERP and HR systems. Just like the rooms in a house, each application has a specific function, and not all applications are created equal.”

Next are the wallpaper, paint, window treatments, furniture and art, the elements that make the rooms useful and allow its inhabitants to derive full enjoyment from them. “What I’m referring to here are meta-systems,” says Balakrishnan.  “Meta-systems include business intelligence and other decision support systems. These are the elements that raise the quality, enjoyment and usefulness of the room to another level. Four white walls won’t do much for you without the elements that make your room prettier and more functional. Having transactional applications with no meta-systems is like having an empty room.”

Now we move to the foyer and the parlor and the living room. “These are the first rooms your visitors see, so they should be clean, well-lighted and well-appointed all the time. These are our front-office systems including website, customer portal, and other e-commerce channels.”

Just as in a house, there is an order to these elements of the technology stack. An impressive foyer does not do a house any good if its foundations are weak or its plumbing is not to code. Similarly, the spending priorities in IT have to include infrastructure first, then transactional applications and then meta-systems, since every layer is dependent on the layers below it.

The IT organization, Balakrishnan explains, acts as the architect and general contractor for the house. “Of course, we also live in the house and maintain it once it is built, so we are a family member, too. We build the house in a way that supports the way you want to live,” she says. “As your general contractor, we have to remind you that there is a budget. You may want gold chandeliers in every room, but are they going to add as much value to the house as adding another bedroom?   It is up to you, the future occupant of the house, to tell us what you must have versus what you’d like to have, and we all need to make some tough decisions before we start building. IT will build the house for you, but you cannot absolve yourself of the responsibility to know what you want in it.”

IT as a Speeding Bus

BMC is currently in the middle of a major ERP project. “With any organization, ERP rollouts can be tough, but in the lumber industry, where we run on razor-thin margins, new technology investments make executives nervous,” says Balakrishnan. “Executives want to know: What is an ERP? Why do we need one?  How much do I need to invest?  How will this change what I do?”

To pre-empt the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that so often accompanies technology driven change, Balakrishnan brings out another metaphor.

“Think of our business as being on a fast-moving bus,” Balakrishnan tells her business partners.  “We emerged from the housing slump in 2010, and we are on an exciting journey to wonderful new destinations. We have great growth and great forward momentum, but the bus we are currently riding on is rickety and old and it will not get us to where we want to go.”

Balakrishnan explains that the company needs a new bus that is faster and more fuel efficient, one that has GPS, wi-fi and luxury seats.  “But we cannot pull over, stop the old bus, and all transfer in an orderly fashion to this beautiful new bus. We need to keep the business running,” she says. “So, we have to drive the old bus and simultaneously get the new bus ready. This means we will need to spend extra money, because will be paying for the old bus and the new bus at the same time.”

To drive her bus analogy home, Balakrishnan references the movie Speed, where a young Keanu Reeves has to keep a city bus going at 50 mph to prevent a bomb from exploding while transferring passengers to a safer bus. “We cannot slow our business down, so at some point, we are going to have to hop from one bus to the other,” she says. “To make the transfer, the new bus has to be fully tested and working; we don’t want to get on the new bus and then lose our forward momentum as a business.”

In the movie, some passengers were afraid to get on the new bus because the transfer, walking across a gangplank, was too scary. So they stayed where they were and blew up. “In our business, many of our employees are nervous about the transition,” says Balakrishnan. “But we have to conquer the fear of transferring to the new bus. Just like the movie, staying on the old bus is not an option.”

Whether it’s a house, a bus, a patient lying in an operating room, an iceberg, sports or a military exercise, metaphors are powerful communication devices. As IT becomes part and parcel of everything your company does, you might consider coming up with a metaphor that will resonate in your own culture.

About Malini Balakrishnan

Malini Balakrishnan is the CIO & Vice President, Process Optimization at BMC and joined the firm in August 2010. Previously, she served as the VP, IT for ORCO Construction Supply, the largest independent building materials distributor in the Western United States. As an experienced leader who thrives at the coming together of people, process and technology, Balakrishnan has previously led IT teams in an executive capacity in a variety of industries including technology, oil and gas and retail/distribution. Balakrishnan holds a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Computer Science and Technology from the College of Engineering, Anna University, India and a Masters of Business Administration from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.

About BMC

Based in Boise, Idaho, Building Materials and Construction Services (BMC) is a top provider of diversified building materials, trusses and components, doors and millwork, and targeted construction and installation services. Nearly 6,000 employees span 88 business units in 10 states and eight of the top 25 housing markets. A centralized internal structure and dedicated, experienced teams in local markets enable BMC to cover multiple locations throughout the nation, help professionals builders get results and provide value to its customers. HCN (formerly Home Channel News) named BMC as its Pro Dealer of the Year for 2012.

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