by Beth Stackpole

How CIOs can create the voice of IT

Jul 13, 2015
Business IT AlignmentCIOIT Leadership

Even the most business astute CIO could use a little help on the communications front. That's why more CIOs are hiring dedicated IT communications specialists to help build and nurture the IT brand.

voice of it
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EMC recently experienced a minor internal data center outage that could have been a major problem. The episode, a result of a lightning strike, would typically send users pointing fingers at IT, which while quick to solve problems, was not always adept at communicating its plan.

This time around was a totally different story. Under direction from Patrick Cooley, senior manager, IT marketing and communications, the CIO’s office sent out an email that explained what occurred along with details on how things would change to avoid similar circumstances going forward.

“We were able to communicate what was happening, why the disaster recovery plan didn’t work, and what the impact was to the business,” says Vic Bhagat, EMC’s CIO. “But we also communicated how we would use this event as a learning experience. I wouldn’t have thought of that from an IT perspective. I would have been more defensive.”

Avoiding a failure to communicate

Bhagat, along with a small, but growing number of CIOs, is recognizing the value that a dedicated communications specialist can bring to building and nurturing the IT brand. According to the 2015 Power of Effective IT Communication Survey fielded by the CIO Executive Council (CEC), four out of five IT leaders ranked building trust and credibility as top-priority goals, but only 4 percent were actually highly satisfied with IT’s ability to effectively communicate with both internal and external stakeholders. Nearly 59 percent of those surveyed felt they were partially or entirely ineffective at building IT’s brand as an innovator for the business and half said the lack of communications talent on the IT team was the critical barrier.

[Related: Communication between IT and non-IT workers in a state of crisis ]

While the survey showed only 30 percent of CIOs currently investing in dedicated IT communications hires, staffing experts say the scenario to change as stiff competition from external cloud providers and outside parties puts pressure on CIOs to alter the conversation and speak in terms the business understands.

“Smart CIOs are aware that just like the cell phone space, their world has become commoditized,” says Kristen Lamoreaux, president of Lamoreaux Search LLC, an information technology-focused placement firm. “Every one of their business leaders has options. They no longer have to go to IT for computer services — they can go to Amazon and order what they want in three clicks. Therefore, IT needs to demonstrate its value … and CIOs are recognizing they need to step up their game in terms of communications.”

Changing the Conversation

Helping EMC’s IT organization effectively communicate its value has been Cooley’s primary responsibility for more than four-and-a-half years. As part of his role, Cooley creates audience appropriate communications for the different user constituencies, promotes the IT brand to both internal business users and external customers, and makes sure that Bhagat is communicating in a way that points up IT’s value as a pathway to opportunity, not simply as a technical solution in search of a problem.

“As I start building out the elastic nature of IT, I need someone to help communicate and change the conversation I have with business and put things in business-enablement terms—not technical terms,” Bhagat explains. “We can’t say, `we built an AWS capability, use ours,’ we have to communicate to the business that we can provide a better connection in a secure way. I could build the best system out there, but if I’m unable to communicate the value to the business, it doesn’t matter what I bring to the table — they’ll go elsewhere.”

Not only does a dedicated communications person help change the nature of IT communications, they are also instrumental in changing the tenor of how information is delivered and ultimately received. For example, instead of blanketing users with IT-related emails, Cooley says he’s worked hard to target users and refine messaging to fit with specific audiences. “People are constantly being bombarded with too much email that’s too intrusive and too jargony,” Cooley says. “I can help look for ways to better leverage social media and target people with the best [communications] vehicle.”

Applied Materials CIO Jay Kerley says he’s fully committed to staffing a dedicated IT communications specialist because it’s not always easy for his staff — or himself, for that matter — to communicate complex topics effectively to the business, he says. Moreover, like many CIOs, Kerley has to communicate with different stakeholders — internal management, business users, the internal IT community, and external parties—and it’s not in his comfort zone to tailor messaging accordingly.

“A professional communications role has the background and understanding to recognize all the stakeholders and be able to look at them through different sets of eyes,” he explains. “The truth is what’s important to me is not important to 90 percent of the rest of the population.”

Consider a situation two years ago when Applied Materials was in the midst of transforming its IT organization to be more cost competitive. Working with Glaston Ford, his director, IT marketing, the pair was able to hammer out a corporate strategy presentation that explained the rationale and scope of impact in a way that made sense to the rest of the IT organization and the broader business, Kerley says. “The optimization strategy was going to touch and change almost every aspect of the business,” he says. “Being able to paint that picture quickly have it resonate was critical and that’s where a professional came into play.”

With over 4,300 IT employees, HCA Information Technology and Services (IT&S) relies on a dedicated communications professional to help keep its staff informed and to keep employees connected to the role its technology provides in the lives of patients, according to Marty Paslick, the company’s senior vice president and CIO. Paslick works with Kearstin Patterson, the company’s assistant vice president of communications and design, to deliver a regular Monday message and weekly podcast that keeps all IT&S employees apprised of key projects and priorities, promotes exchange of personal stories and industry perspectives, and focuses the organization on the company’s mission to deliver quality health care.

“These efforts have helped to engender oneness and a singleness of purpose while preventing silos within a geographically diverse organization,” Paslick explains. “While amazing stories of technology improving healthcare have always existed in our organization, sharing these stories as well as regular updates and engaging employees has been key to our ability to effectively support HCA’s efforts to continually deliver better patient outcomes.”

Finding the talent to communicate IT

While there are IT-grown professionals who meet the qualifications for the role, most CIOs have opted to go with candidates with a professional communications background simply because they have more in-depth training. “I’m a firm believer in certification of specific roles and competencies within the organization so when we went to secure a communications role, we didn’t want someone from IT who could write with the right grammar or use spell check, we wanted someone with the proper professional background,” Kerley says. “They needed to understand what it means to work with external and internal communications, how to partner in a matrix way with the corporate team, and how to drive consistent messaging.”

A strong communications background is essential for the role, but it also requires someone who is steeped in the particular industry and has a keen understanding and interest in embracing new technology, notes HCA’s Patterson. “We have 700 projects in our IT portfolio—550 of them approved projects,” she says. “That’s a lot of projects you have to learn about to be a good communicator in this position.”

Kerley says giving the dedicated communications professional a seat at the IT management table is central to that learning process which is why Ford’s position is a director level and reports directly into the CIO. “If someone is chartered with building a brand image and communicating and creating linkages between our strategy and what it means to stakeholders then they have to have a seat at the table and access to the management team to understand those strategies,” Kerley says. “Without that access, it would make the role much more difficult and our ability to leverage it much more difficult.”

Making the investment in a dedicated professional also ensures IT gets the communications support it needs when it needs it — a scenario that isn’t always possible when using shared corporate resources, Bhagat says. “If EMC is doing an analyst meeting and I’m getting ready to launch something, where do you think corporate PR’s focus will be?,” he asks.

That dedicated focus to IT’s needs certainly came in handy after EMC’s recent internal data center outage, Bhagat says. “I can communicate at an executive level and have those conversations about how IT can drive cost out or promote business acceleration,” he explains. “Yet when it comes to having relevant conversations with each of my customer groups, I prefer to have someone who has my back.”