Business is business and IT is IT and never the twain shall meet. At least that’s the way it too often seems when a CIO attempts to show business management how a technology initiative can lead to tangible benefits.
Helping enterprise business leaders, C-suite colleagues, and boards understand the value inherent in complex new technologies is a challenge most CIOs face from time to time. Instead of focusing on the tech, IT leaders must clearly articulate the business value generated by technology solutions, says Jagjeet Gill, a principal with business advisory firm Deloitte Consulting.
“A CIO … needs to collaborate with other functional leaders in departments such as sales, finance, and operations to help other CXOs and the board understand how different tech solutions help drive growth and competitive differentiations, address emerging risks, and improve operational performance,” he says.
According to Gill, recent research indicates that tech-savvy enterprise boards perform better than their less knowledgeable counterparts. He notes that on average, enterprises with tech-knowledgeable individuals on their boards experience 5% greater revenue growth over three years, and 8% better stock performance year over year.
Becoming an effective business communicator requires knowledge, commitment, patience, and a significant amount of practice. Here are seven tips to help you get started.
1. Talk like a business leader
Speaking the language of business and having a deep understanding of enterprise needs will drive credibility and, by extension, trust, says Mike Tweedie, research lead in the CIO practice at Info-Tech Research Group. When business leaders begin viewing technology chiefs as true partners, they are more likely to engage, be open to change, and trust that promised outcomes will be realized, he explains.
The days when upper management viewed IT as a cost center are long gone. “Today, technology must be perceived as a business partner and an innovation agent,” Tweedie says. “IT leaders are expected to be able to seamlessly work across silos and be the enabler for all lines of business, actively accelerating unprecedented user and customer experiences.”
A CIO should be less of an educator and more of a guide, Tweedie notes. “Understanding the needs of the business — how the widget is made, how it generates value, expected outcomes — is where this relationship flourishes.”
2. Network with your peers
Carter Busse, CIO at intelligent automation platform provider Workato, stresses the importance of networking with management peers. Each interaction provides an opportunity to ask questions, listen, and share information and insights. “We lack a water cooler in this remote world, but setting up biweekly meetings with my peers helps me understand their priorities and gives me an opportunity to communicate key knowledge,” Busse says. “These meetings also help build the trust that’s so crucial for success as a CIO.”
Knowledge communicated to management peers should align with the enterprise’s basic mission. “As CIOs, we need to share our knowledge of the business first, followed by how the technology initiatives our team is working on are aligned with the company mission,” Busse says. “It’s important to work on a shared level of understanding first to ensure that the message lands.”
3. Advise and collaborate
Work with key executives one-on-one to build the knowledge and confidence they will need to understand the enterprise’s current IT challenges and opportunities. “Then collaborate to develop an action plan,” advises Suneet Dua, products and technology chief growth officer at business advisory firm PwC.
Every enterprise leader has a different relationship to technology as well as a different level of IT knowledge. Creating personalized discussions, specific to both the enterprise and the leader’s role, will help develop a more tech-savvy C-suite, which can lead to improved support and adoption of proposed IT solutions.
Before initiating a technical discussion, it’s important to consider the recipient’s perspective. What are their department’s goals? What do they care about? How will the technology or issue fit into the larger business strategy?
Dua believes that it’s the CIO’s job to help enterprise leaders connect the dots between IT and their departments’ priorities in order to accomplish business goals better and more efficiently. “Providing business leaders with KPIs and expected outcomes will help substantiate the need for IT improvements and underscore expected benefits, which will help promote adoption,” he explains.
Any knowledge-sharing should highlight how IT creates value for the entire business. “For example, a discussion on automation should underscore how it reduces mundane work, allowing employees to work on other tasks and improve overall productivity,” Dua says. “Leaders should always understand the ‘why’ behind a certain technology decision or proposal, since that deeper knowledge can both spur excitement, and ultimately, gain more rapid adoption.”
4. Support the current business strategy
Knowledge shared with enterprise leaders should include how technology is enabling business strategy to drive outcomes in areas such as revenue growth, margin improvements, and customer experience. “Explain how proactive budget planning can help prevent business risks in the areas of scalability, reliability, and performance,” Deloitte’s Gill advises.
A CIO’s explanations of tech solutions should include case examples of how features and functionalities enable business processes, as well as outline business operational KPIs that can be improved by IT solutions, Gill says.
5. Encourage curiosity and embrace influence
Since technology plays such a critical role in today’s enterprise, CIOs should actively encourage executives to be open to acquiring IT knowledge. “As it stands now, many enterprise leaders aren’t truly committed to understanding the CIO’s perspective or technology-focused topics,” says Helena Nimmo, CIO at software development company Endava.
CIOs start at a disadvantage when discussing technical issues with enterprise leaders, given the fact that IT is, for many business chiefs, a strange and foreign territory. When a CFO, for example, discusses “transfer pricing” during a meeting, most executives might not know all of the topic’s technical nuances, but most have a general idea of what it means and how it affects the enterprise.
“Too often, that same level of understanding is not demonstrated when CIOs toss out technology terms like ‘agile’ or ‘on-premise,’” Nimmo says. “CIOs must seize any and all opportunities to explain the context and outputs of technology, since technology is both a requirement and enabler of overall business functions.”
Whenever a key executive appears reluctant to dig into technology topics, or pushes back on complex issues, Nimmo suggests recruiting key IT team members to pitch in and advocate for their leader’s guidance. Such individuals can play a trusted influencer role with the tech-challenged executive, helping the leader become more comfortable with key IT issues, she notes.
6. Focus on business impact
CIOs describing a proposed initiative should focus on the project’s ultimate business impact as much as, or more than, on the technology itself. “Explaining a technology’s benefit, as well as how to use it, can help leaders understand the significance of the digital processes they are investing in,” says Chris Bedi, CDIO at cloud-based services provider ServiceNow.
Bedi stresses the importance of anchoring IT strategies and decision-making in terms of real-time outcomes. “Working with clear, achievable business goals in mind ensures that the desired outcomes are achieved,” he says.
7. Build your business knowledge
Just as enterprise leaders need to gain IT knowledge, CIOs should work to become more business savvy. “For a CIO to effectively communicate to and educate their colleagues, they must also possess a clear understanding of business priorities and how the business operates,” Gill says. “This understanding will help the CIO effectively advise board members and management on emerging technologies and trends in the marketplace.”
CIO/CXO education should be a two-way street. Work with key executives one-on-one to build the business knowledge and confidence necessary to understand current business needs and goals.