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

Results from the CIO Executive Council’s ‘Power of Effective IT Communication’ 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.

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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 Cars.com, 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.

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[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 (http://www.cio.com.au/article/451627/how_cio_came_history_chief_information_officers/).

[4] CIO Magazine Staff, “2015 State of the CIO,” CIO, Jan. 5, 2015 (http://www.cio.com/article/2862760/cio-role/2015-state-of-the-cio.html#slide4)

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

[6] Ibid.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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