by Maryfran Johnson

CIOs: You Can Rescue Your Board

Nov 14, 20122 mins
Data Center

Members of the board of directors are dangerously undereducated about IT, says Maryfran Johnson. We have advice on how to fix that (in ways that will resonate with the directors and not scare them off).

CIO Helen Cousins took exactly the right approach when she stood in front of Lincoln Trust’s board of directors not long ago. Her mission was to educate the board about predictive analytics–a topic that can get gruesomely geeky in about the time it takes to cross your eyes.

Knowing that these days board members are especially concerned with the “lifetime value” of the financial firm’s customers, this veteran CIO wisely focused her discussion on something they actually cared about. She explained how predictive analytics could identify (and better serve) their most valuable customers.

“If they don’t know about technology,” Cousins points out in our cover story (“CIOs Say Corporate Directors Are Clueless About IT”), “they can’t imagine what I’m imagining.”

Notoriously clueless about IT, the average board of directors is dangerously undereducated about technology. In our exclusive survey of 250 IT leaders, we confirmed what everyone already suspected about the board’s allergic reactions to strategic IT discussions. With its risk-averse nature and stockholder focus, this venerable assemblage of business experts is more likely to stymie IT innovation than encourage it.

That obviously needs to change, and there’s reason to believe it could. A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found 60 percent of directors wanting to devote more time to IT issues in the coming year–up from only 36 percent last year. That is a huge opportunity for CIOs, who need to be giving their boards “a framework to discuss IT,” says Don Keller, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Center for Board Governance.

Evelyn Follit, a former CIO who’s served on the boards of six companies, recommends a divide-and-conquer strategy. Create a short briefing paper on an emerging IT trend, for example, and then hold private meetings with the more amenable members. Some directors may be hesitant to ask questions (and betray their weak spots) in front of the full board, she notes.

Our story delivers reality-tested, actionable advice on how CIOs can rescue their boards from a lack of IT understanding. Among our experienced sources are the CIOs of American Airlines, Darden Restaurants, Dun and Bradstreet, and Talisman Energy. Ultimately, this rescue mission is well worth your time, as a tech-savvy board can be a uniquely useful resource. “They keep you real,” says CIO Jim Noble of Talisman Energy. “They keep you connected with the marketplace.”