by Brendan McGowan

Communication between IT and non-IT workers in a state of crisis

May 18, 201514 mins
CIOIT LeadershipIT Skills

Results from the CIO Executive Councilu2019s u2018Power of Effective IT Communicationu2019 benchmark survey indicate that IT teams lack the talent to communicate. This results in a state of crisis between IT and non-IT employees, which could prove disastrous in this era of unparalleled digital disruption.

it communication trouble thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

Communication between IT and non-IT employees is in a state of crisis — across job titles, across verticals, across regions. Four out of five IT leaders claim that building trust and credibility is highly important. However, only four out of one hundred believe that they are highly effective in communicating with their non-IT colleagues.

Half of IT leaders believe that this disparity is due, in part, to a lack of communication talent on the IT team. And this deficiency could not reveal itself at a more inopportune time: an era of unparalleled digital disruption, hallmarked by globalization and extreme market volatility. By 2020, 75 percent of the Fortune 500 will be comprised of names we have not heard of yet, according to Patrick Forth, Senior Partner and Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) [1]. The companies that thrive will be the following:

  1. Customer-focused
  2. Agile and responsive to market conditions
  3. Efficient and innovative technology champions

Effective communication will continue to be the common thread, the business-enabling quality that helps guarantee all of the others.

The stakes could not be higher in a digitally disrupted world. The research in this second-annual report is based on the 2015 Power of Effective IT Communication Survey conducted by the CIO Executive Council.   Drawing upon responses from 205 global IT leaders, the report provides an in-depth, data-driven look at the state of IT communication today — with an emphasis on specific goals, actions, and results across industries.  By benchmarking themselves, IT leaders will be empowered as they take action.

If an IT project stalls, and no one’s listening, does it make a sound?

There is no ideal end state when it comes to IT communication. There is no perfection in the art. Like successful financial investing, there are only iterative returns with the potential for appreciation over time.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that the absence of effective communication between IT and non-IT employees leads to abject business outcomes, a lack of trust, and a corroded vision. A CEC survey revealed, for example, that 45 percent of IT leaders are at least somewhat dissatisfied with their C-suite’s leadership performance when it comes to digital business strategy and digitally enabled innovation and transformation.[2] The disparity between IT leaders’ aspirations to be more strategic and their actual performance is rooted in communication. And this lack of communication skills represents a vicious cycle, impacting acquisition and retention of top IT talent in an era in which many prospective employees act as free agents.

Just 3 percent of IT leaders in this latest survey view themselves as business game changers — drivers of the enterprise’s competitive future (see Figure 1). This compares with an 8 percent total in the CEC’s 2014 study. Eleven percent consider themselves to be business peers, or IT leaders who help develop business strategy, which also marks a decline from last year’s results. The majority of the executives polled (63 percent) fall in the competent middle tier of IT partners and service providers, who are generally trusted as collaborators or delivery agents.

Finally, one out of four (23 percent) of IT leaders self-identify as being part of cost centers, leaving them and their colleagues at risk of exclusion from business decisions involving IT.

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Figure 1: One-quarter of IT shops are cost centers; two-thirds are collaborators. (Click for a larger image.)


The aspirations of IT leaders are high. Most want to overcome the gaps. Foremost on their minds is building trust and credibility; four out of five (80 percent) IT leaders register this as having the highest possible importance (see Figure 2). Two-thirds (67 percent) of those surveyed place the same critical value on making sure that IT understands business needs. Roughly the same percentage (66 percent) view IT-business partnering and collaboration as a topline goal.

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Figure 2:Trust, clarity and collaboration are top priorities. (Click for a larger image.)


IT leaders are also putting in the time to build trust and improve IT’s messaging and branding. One in ten (11 percent) spend the equivalent of at least three full eight-hour workdays per month on dedicated communication activities, both inside and outside of the organization (see Figure 3). Two out of five (41 percent) spend the equivalent of at least one workday.

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Figure 3: Two out of five IT leaders spend at least a business day on communication. (Click for a larger image.)


Additionally, this time investment has historically trended upward. Forty-five percent of IT leaders report spending more time today on communication activities than they have in the past twelve to eighteen months — down ten points from 2014, but still representing roughly half of IT leaders (see Figure 4). Two out of five (41 percent) also say that they are keeping an even keel, with no significant changes in the amount of time they invest.

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Figure 4: Nearly half of IT leaders are investing more time into communication. (Click for a larger image.)


Despite these good intentions, however, IT leaders have a poor self-assessment when it comes to rating their IT organization’s current effectiveness in achieving the goals identified in Figure 2. No more than 15 percent of IT leaders consider their IT organizations highly effective for any given goal (see Figure 5). Still, a majority of IT leaders claimed some measure of effectiveness in key disciplines such as building trust and credibility (71 percent state they are either ‘highly effective’ or ‘effective’); increasing IT-business partnering and collaboration (64 percent); and attracting internal and external talent to the IT organization (62 percent).

The most challenging goal for IT leaders was building IT’s brand as an innovator for the business. Three out of five IT leaders (59 percent) consider themselves partially or entirely ineffective, up from 48 percent in 2014. The overall picture is one of modest successes, but no big wins. Only 60 percent of IT leaders counted themselves effective, on average, in achieving any of the goals.

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Figure 5: IT Leaders Report Gains In Damage Control, Building Trust. (Click for a larger image.)


Barriers to building an effective communication process

Despite what may seem to be limited success in specific communication goals, what truly matters is how IT leaders perceive their relationship with non-IT employees. This general perception is larger than the sum of all ancillary communication goals. It is a reflection of how IT is valued — or not valued — in spite of increased time investment in communication and modest successes by IT leaders.

This overall picture is a bit starker than previous data might suggest. While we already know that four out of five IT leaders cite building trust and credibility as a top-priority goal, as noted earlier only 4 percent are actually highly satisfied with the effectiveness of IT’s internal communication with the business (see Figure 6). A full 44 percent expressed some measure of dissatisfaction.

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Figure 6: Four Percent of IT Leaders Highly Satisfied With Internal Communication. (Click for a larger image.)


When asked to gauge their own effectiveness at communicating outside of the business — by writing an article in a periodical to build awareness and attract talent, for example, or by hitting the IT event speaking circuit — the proportion of satisfied IT leaders drops sharply to two out of five (see Figure 7).

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Figure 7: Nearly Two-Thirds of IT Leaders Dissatisfied With External Communication. (Click for a larger image.)


When IT leaders were asked about the barriers that stood in the way of effective communication, their answers could be broadly organized into four categories: 1) a lack of resources; 2) a lack of knowledge; 3) a lack of talent; and 4) a lack of historical credibility.

Half of IT leaders believe that a lack of communication talent holds their teams back. This suggests that in many cases IT leaders view communication talent as something inherent, as opposed to a skill set to be developed. This belief can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy unless IT leaders take action.

And in spite of an upward trend in terms of time investment, half of IT leaders (48 percent) still think they aren’t spending enough time on communication. Significantly, two out of five (41 percent) believe that their business leadership doesn’t view IT communication in general as especially important — an absolutely critical factor to consider when thinking about how IT leaders view their non-IT peers and the potential for collaboration (see Figure 8).

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Figure 8: Barriers to Effective IT Communication Include Talent, Time. (Click for a larger image.)


Before looking for solutions to overcome or eliminate the barriers noted above, IT leaders must first realize there are no quick fixes. They must be ready to roll up their sleeves and embrace ambiguity. Most importantly, they must keep in mind a highly pragmatic approach that anticipates business change.

That said, there are common techniques that have proven successful over time. Ninety percent of IT leaders report success with addressing heads of business functions (see Figure 9). Success rates drop precipitously from there, with 65 percent of IT leaders finding some measure of success in addressing the board of directors on a regular basis — and 55 percent in appointing IT liaisons to business units.

For the second year in a row, using public social media trails the pack of reported communication techniques, with only 18 percent of IT leaders finding any measure of success.

Many of the communication techniques simply have not yet entered wide circulation. For example, 70 percent of IT leaders have not hired a communication director dedicated to IT. And 61 percent have not trained a corporate communications person to better understand IT’s needs, representing the same percentage as in 2014. As the case studies reveal, however, there is much potential value in testing the untried and exploring this strategic path.

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Figure 9: Face-to-face Interactions Lead the List of Successful Communication Techniques. (Click for a larger image.)

Conclusion: The crisis in IT is surmountable, with the right mindset

The crisis in IT communication is a reflection of how quickly things have changed in IT departments worldwide. A mere thirty years ago, the term ‘CIO’ was not in general circulation, and IT departments were relegated to handling back-office implementations.[3] In the relatively brief span of three decades, CIOs and other IT leaders have been tasked with co-developing front-office, customer-facing innovations that drive the bottom line — all while marketing IT’s brand internally. Marketers within the enterprise have not had to learn code, but coding IT leaders have had to learn marketing, and fast.

It is no surprise that 91 percent of CIOs contend that the CIO role is becoming ‘more challenging,’ and 85 percent claim that the role is becoming ‘more important to the business.’[4] The price of technological progress is ambiguity and disruption, and IT leaders of any stripe can scarce afford to tread water.

The tragedy of the crisis in IT communication is that IT leaders realize acutely that it exists — but, by their own admission, they have been generally ineffective at driving new conversations with their non-IT peers. It is sadly ironic that the IT professionals tasked with implementing far-reaching, innovative technologies have, to a large degree, proven themselves to be so reactive within the currents of business change.

As we have seen, over half of IT leaders deem themselves as being part of cost center or a service provider — and only 4 percent are highly satisfied with the effectiveness of their internal communication. The risks of these sorts of order-taker relationships are numerous and undeniable: They include a loss of credibility, respect, and successful engagement with colleagues, as well as personal career derailment.

Fortunately, this year’s “Power of Effective IT Communication” Survey demonstrates clearly that IT leaders have a laser focus on being clear and effective partners to their non-IT peers. Further, they are investing more time than ever into finding real solutions.

Ultimately, IT leaders must become steely-eyed, marrying these good intentions with effective action. Specifically, their success hinges upon a single word: relevance. Relevant IT leaders are less likely to be brushed aside, overlooked, or — to be blunt — shown the door. They protect their teams and, by extension, themselves by being business-driven technology experts.

Relevance means action, and action means mental toughness. IT leaders need to be ready to make communication a discipline, not just a buzzword. To do that, they need to focus on these key areas every single day:

  • Recognize your central mission. As Kim Barrier, VP and CIO at Bio-Rad Laboratories, says, “I think it is important to travel a lot, to get out to meet with business leaders in their location; to understand what we do, what we manufacture, what are the challenges, to see how colleagues are living it.” An isolated IT leader is an irrelevant IT leader. It is essential that IT leaders gain a true sense of perspective and mission by connecting not only with their colleagues, but with the end customers they ultimately serve.
  • Identify your stakeholders. Stakeholders change frequently. In the midst of transformation, high-level stakeholders may depart; internal stakeholders vary considerably from project to project. Every decision that is made during a project and, by extension, every communication decision that is made, must revolve around the specific needs of these stakeholders. As CEC Director of Leadership Development Rari Hilditch says, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
  • Don’t align — converge. Far too much is made of “business alignment.” Vendors, consultants and analysts can align with a business in their own unique ways, and to very productive ends. But internal IT staff must do much more to remain relevant. They must converge with the business itself. As Kerrie Hoffman, VP of IT Building Efficiency at Johnson Controls, puts it, IT is the business and needs to start acting like it. Jason O’Sullivan, VP of Business Technology at, shared that his company even rearranged teams and floor plans to achieve convergence across projects.
  • Embrace transparency. This refers to eliminating all sorts of obfuscation, which in IT is often unintentional. It especially refers to getting rid of jargon. Patrick Graziano, Director, Information Technology Marketing & Communications at Merck, says that a lot of his job hinges on translating technology speak, and features, into business-relevant value. IT leaders should try to simplify their speech and dispense with acronyms.Transparency also refers, of course, to clear and readily available status updates. Suresh Kumar, CIO at BNY Mellon, developed a “heat map” with his team showcasing the status and impact of individual projects to his peers.
  • Use metrics to drive the conversation. Metrics are an easy sell for IT leaders. The challenge is finding the right metrics to present to non-IT colleagues, in the right way and at the right time. Tim Platt, VP, Information Systems/Information Security (CIO), Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing, has done just that with a custom scorecard that the IT department uses in partnership with colleagues on prospective projects.
  • Outsource IT communication talent — if needed. Only 30% of IT leaders have hired a communication director dedicated to IT, yet 50% claim that a lack of communication talent is holding them back. If an implementation can be outsourced, then surely it would be wise to consider the possibility of outsourcing IT communication as well. Kate Evans-Correia, Associate Director, NA IS Communications at Sanofi, makes the case for real change across the IT industry —connecting directly with pure-play communication experts to express the nuances that IT leaders do not have the time nor, possibly, the wherewithal to capture on their own. If millions can be poured into an implementation, then there is ample justification to consider at least one additional headcount to tell the story.

In the book Leading Digital, authors George Westerman, Didier Bonnet, and Andrew McAfee use the term ‘Digital Masters’ to describe “firms that excel at both digital and leadership capabilities.”[5] Digital Masters, the authors contend, “understand that digital transformation requires the concerted effort of the entire organization to get there.”[6]

This vital juncture between digital and leadership abilities is where IT leaders must focus their efforts— and in this disruptive landscape, there is no time to lose. Effective communication narrows the gap between ideation and execution. It cements strategy and saves jobs. And, in the final analysis, it helps empower IT and non-IT leaders alike to embrace the future, in a world where tomorrow’s winners are just a breakthrough away.


[1] Patrick Forth, “Technology disruption meets the change monster…who wins?” October 2014.

[2] Michael Fitzgerald. “The Digital C-Suite,” MIT Sloan Management Review, May 27, 2014.

[3] Byron Connolly, “How the CIO came to be: The history of chief information officers,” CIO Australia, Jan. 24, 2013 (

[4] CIO Magazine Staff, “2015 State of the CIO,” CIO, Jan. 5, 2015 (

[5] George Westerman, Didier Bonnet, and Andrew McAfee. Leading Digital: Turning Technology Into Business Transformation. (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2014).

[6] Ibid.