by Sari Kalin

Tools and Tactics for Communicating IT’s Value to the Business

Aug 01, 20065 mins
IT Leadership

Most CIOs know that educating the business about IT is a key part of their job, but many struggle to find the right tools and tactics. Should they publish a monthly e-mail newsletter or will that just clutter already-bulging inboxes? Should they build support for IT projects one VP at a time or should they draw business peers into a formal cross-company dialogue?

When we asked members of the CIO Executive Council for their advice, it quickly became clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Sometimes, CIOs say, it’s best to simply walk into the VP’s office for a quick chat. Other times, a professionally produced report or presentation can bring the IT message to life and make it easier to deliver across the company.

“I’ve been in this business going on nine years, and there’s no way you’re going to be successful with one form of communication,” says Scott Kressner, VP and CIO of Rush Enterprises, a Peterbilt truck dealer. “You’ve got to pick the right one for the right situation.”

Here are some tips from Council members on the most effective tools for educating the business about IT.

1] Formalize the forum.

IT Steering Committee, Executive Board of Customers, Information Resources Users Group—whatever you call it, CIO Executive Council members say that a formal IT advisory body is one of the most effective means for educating business peers about IT. Of course, CIOs use these advisory boards for feedback on (or, in some cases, approval of) planned projects. But advisory boards also offer CIOs a forum for educating business peers about IT’s capabilities and strategic value. For example, the VP of finance may not be up on how a new sales-force automation initiative is making the sales team more efficient, or the VP of HR may not understand why his website upgrade may need to take a backseat to a critical supply chain management initiative. The advisory board is where this communication can take place.

For Mark Zielazinski, former CIO at El Camino Hospital, an Information Systems Steering Committee has given him a forum to educate executives about the importance of steady spending on IT infrastructure. As a result, he’s had consistent IT capital spending levels for the past three years, a welcome change from the peaks and valleys of the past. “We made them understand what sustained funding is, and the importance of keeping it smooth,” he says.

Several CIOs also use advisory board meetings to educate their business peers about emerging technology trends. For example, at Northrop Grumman Newport News, Leni Kaufman recently briefed her IT steering committee about the benefits of identity management, even though she had no immediate plans to propose a project. “We try to describe things even if they won’t start for six to nine months,” says Kaufman, VP and CIO of Northrop Grumman Newport News. “By doing this, we increase the

IT-savvy of the business,” she says.

At Marriott, members of the Information Resources Users Group sometimes have questions about technology buzz. “They bring up things like, ‘We hear about voice over IP. What is it?’” says Diane Davidson, Marriott’s VP of information resources business planning. “This is a good forum in which to explain it.”

2] Publish, but be willing to perish.

IT-specific publications can play a pivotal role in CIOs’ business education efforts, and it’s not uncommon for CIOs to produce annual reports and quarterly or monthly newsletters. But publications have to be tailored to the company culture.

At Smurfit-Stone Container, for example, the IT annual report is called the “Customer Report,” to emphasize IT’s accountability, says CIO Jim Burdiss. Initially, Burdiss had 50 hard copies of the report professionally printed; the report was also posted online. But the sophisticated presentation sparked criticism from the business side regarding the time and the money invested in it. Now the report is posted online only.

“You’ve got to be careful that what you’re doing isn’t too slick,” Burdiss says. “There’s a point of over-marketing and you’ve got to be sensitive to that.”

At El Camino Hospital, Zielazinski pulled the plug on his monthly e-mailed IT newsletter after a six-month run. People were not opening it. The problem was information overload. The 2,100-employee hospital has 90 departments, and many have their own newsletters. So now Zielazinski’s group contributes to other department newsletters.

3] Make it easy to be a missionary.

While business education is the CIO’s job, the right communication tools will help other frontline IT leaders deliver the same message, thereby broadening its reach. Marriott has developed a snazzy seven-minute PowerPoint presentation called “Technology Now” that highlights the company’s IT direction and the ways it provides value to the business.

Created on a $15,000 budget, the PowerPoint has a voice-over and plays by itself. It began its life when Executive VP and CIO Carl Wilson presented it to Marriott’s board of directors in November 2005; subsequently, senior IT leaders have shown it to their business partners, and IT leaders in the field have offered it to owners and franchisees.

Marriott’s information resources communications department has a formal plan and a tracking document to ensure the presentation is shown at all levels of the company. Marriott also has translated the presentation into Spanish, Chinese and German. “This is a tool for people to use to create a broader communication opportunity with their peers,” Davidson says. “People can then tailor the message afterward to the particular group they’re talking to.”