Thornton May

The unsung skill too many IT leaders shortchange

Jul 25, 20235 mins
IT LeadershipIT Skills

Too often IT leaders view digital initiatives as projects to complete rather than campaigns to conduct. And at the heart of any successful campaign is a communication strategy geared for results.

Young female employee sharing point of view with focused diverse teammates at brainstorming meeting. Group of international employees discussing project ideas, financial report, marketing strategy.
Credit: Shutterstock / fizkes

When it comes to harvesting full value from the rich set of technologies available to every organization, communications skills are probably not on every IT leader’s short list of essential capabilities. Technical skills, for sure. Integration? No doubt. But full spectrum communication skills — that is, oral, written, and digital/social — are almost as essential, if not more so, when it comes to conveying the value of IT’s work and ensuring adoption of it.

Just about every IT/digital leader I interview considers themselves an above-average communicator. Many think they are exceptional orators. But I am less certain this is the case. In fact, I am convinced much of the malaise the technology sector is currently experiencing is due to subpar communication skills.

It is time we stop paying lip service to communication skills in IT and systematically and energetically evaluate and remediate the quality of communication emanating from IT/digital organizations. What we say, and how/when we say it, says a lot about us — pun intended.

Measuring communication efficacy

It is perversely ironic that the discipline that makes measurement of just about everything possible — from caloric intake, to heartbeat, step count, location, blood sugar and quality of sleep — is perhaps the least and worst measured element of modern existence.

It is no surprise to CIO.comreaders that IT/digital efficacy is not optimally measured. It is perplexing and troubling that IT/digital communication — in most enterprises — is essentially unmeasured. Communication should not be an afterthought. Communication professionals suggest that before you start a project, you write the press release.

In many sectors communication strategies are considered and embraced. In Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks, Binghamton University State University of New York cultural anthropologist Douglas R. Holmes argues that “the public broadly must be recruited to collaborate with central banks in achieving the ends of monetary policy.” The way this happens is through acts of public narration. Public communications have become paramount in the Federal Reserve’s efforts to manage inflation and steer economies. Micro/macro-economic success depends on crafting behavior-shaping ‘monetary policy stories’ that capture hearts and minds.

The same is true in the IT arena. IT value creation is predicated on the behaviors of stakeholders. Stakeholder behavior is influenced and can be adjusted with “stories.” IT leaders must prospectively deliver curated and consumable information bundles aimed at persuading stakeholders that the portfolio of investments and sets of activities under consideration can and should be made actual. 

In academia there is a deep and highly evolved body of knowledge generally labelled “Communication Studies.” I think scholars in this field would find rich pickings if they turned their tool sets to analyze the state of communication in the IT ecosystem. In fact, monitoring IT/digital communication efficacy is worthy of board of director attention.

Knowing when to speak up

In the realm of communication there are inputs (i.e., the messages we receive) and outputs (i.e., the messages we generate). Both are deserving of much deeper scrutiny.

Regarding communication outputs, do you have any idea what your daily, monthly, quarterly, and/or yearly outgoing message volume is? It is never a bad idea to remember that the first line of the Miranda warning is, “You have the right to remain silent.” Make sure that you are communicating things worth saying. Be aware of the messages you and your organization are sending.

Dipping my toe lightly into these rich rivers of scholarship I discovered that there is micro-rhetorical analysis (i.e., the microscopic features of language) and macro-rhetorical analysis (i.e., the context in which communication happens). Most business books focus on micro-rhetorical quick fixes — for example, how to deliver presentations that are not cringe inducing. In his fascinating book The Sound of Leadership: Presidential Communication in the Modern Age, Roderick P. Hart conducts a macro-rhetorical analysis of 40 years (1945-1985) of presidential speeches.

Hart analyzed the basic decision to speak in the first place. Hart explained that “by choosing to utter words to another, a speaker makes several decisions — to speak to A and not to B; to speak now and not then or never; to speak here and not there; to speak about this matter and not about all other matters; to speak for this period of time, not longer or shorter.”

I came away from this realizing that there are a lot of decisions involved in communicating. Are IT leaders devoting enough energy to these decisions?

From “Why Communication Is Important,” an article from Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, Volume 29 (January 2000), I learned, “Humans are born with the ability to vocalize; but not with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that define communication competence. The ability to communicate effectively and appropriately is learned and, therefore, must be taught.”

Is communication competence measured in your organization? Is oral communication competence taught in your organization? H. James Dallas, the now retired and much beloved CIO at the Southern Company and COO at Medtronic, suggests that all executives take a communications class at least once a year.

When Cicero spoke, people wept. When Caesar spoke, men marched. Napoleon understood the value of managing the flow of information. Improving communication competency will make the CIOs difficult job a little more doable.

Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

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