IT and the business: sharing a common language

Today’s CIOs are moving IT away from its traditional back office role, towards becoming a central part of the business. But to integrate IT departments into the organisation requires a fundamental change in the culture of the organisation.

To do this strong communications skills are needed to ensure clear communication between IT and the business. The CIOs present at the recent Claridges event organised by CIO magazine and business service management application provider BMC Software explained that IT is now leading innovative business ideas and that developing a common language is required.

Richard Steel, CIO, Newham Council, east London
Richard Steel is CIO of London local authority Newham. The east end borough will be in the spotlight for the next four years as it is involved in the London Olympics in 2012.

“We have got to the point where IT is finally as reliable as the electric light, but I don’t think the infrastructure that we have put in place is really exploited as well as it could be. In most organisations there is a great deal more that can be done with shared services. To assist that, a lot has to be done with data accuracy and an understanding of the benefits of that IT can deliver,” he said of the joint responsibilities that IT and business members share. “That is where jobs like mine come in and it is our job to ensure buy-in from throughout the organisation.

“Change is the constant that we now have and I don’t think anyone in IT management can tell you what is going to be the flavour of the day in five, 10 or 14 years time. As a result, a strategy is constantly changing and we have to adapt,” he said of how IT has changed the workplace and its workers. “What drives a business forward is competition and everybody has to keep up with innovations or be left behind. Therefore jobs are changing, roles are being invented; others are being dropped or changed. In some ways it is more than change; it is churn.”

Communicating the benefits of IT, faced with a workforce that is constantly having to change, is one of the challenges facing a CIO. Steel said it’s a challenge when dealing both with the workforce, and senior levels. “You do still get some executives who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour, which is a real problem for IT. What must be made clear is that the ‘I’ in IT is for information; information is a requirement that no organisation can prosper without and it has to be managed effectively.” The managing information effectively requires different messages to different age groups, according to Steel, “Younger people are brought up on IT and take to technology like ducks to water, that doesn’t mean they see the application in a business sense, which has to be articulated to them.

“Equally, some jump in at the business level without understanding the IT basics, to use IT effectively you have to understand the IT basics.”

Steel believes that poor communication is not purely the reserve of the IT department. “Individual services within a business have a good understanding of the department’s goals and what they can achieve, but what they don’t understand is what other departments can offer to really add value to that service. There is too much compartmenatilism.”

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To create a common language, Steel advises, “Don’t talk in acronyms. I am constantly annoyed by people who use them and it is not just in IT.”

David Henderson, IT director, Northcliffe Media David Henderson heads up the IT for one of Britain’s largest local newspaper groups, providing not only IT services to the business processes of a major publishing group, but also developing the rapidly changing face of local news as it moves away from printed newspapers and towards online delivery.

For Henderson the speed of change that IT has enabled, coupled with an industry that harbours many “old fashioned attitudes” means the CIO’s ability to communicate, as well as the communication skills of the IT department are constantly being challenged. In particular, the local media has seen its business change from one of a single product to many products, coupled to a 24 hour a day, seven day a week operation from once daily or weekly.

“IT people have a communications challenge, we don’t help ourselves with too much use of jargon and acronyms. We see our role as being technically focused, rather than commercially focused, so there some education needed.” Henderson advocates IT people using business language and gives the example of data recovery. “It needs to be talked about as service recovery and what business impact it will have.” He also highlights how to get an understanding of what is expected from each line manager. “I ask my business managers what is their measure of success from IT. The measure is different from each, for some it is about quality, for some it is speed; for others it’s about cost. Each stake holder has needs and it is about making sure that this is understood.”

Nic Bellenberg, IT director, Hachette Filipacchi UK Like Henderson at Northcliffe, Nic Bellenberg is overseeing IT in a media company that is reacting to changing market needs, and in the case of Hachette Filipacchi, growing rapidly. The company is well known for its glossy women’s magazines Elle and Red.
Bellenberg agrees with many of the sentiments expressed by his peer at Northcliffe. “On both sides, the business and IT, it is an issue of understanding what IT is doing and what it can be asked for.” Poor communications, not just from IT, exacerbates the situation.
“IT people are often not good at communicating to the business, and business people are also not good at communicating with IT. They are involved in their world of chasing profit and they do not always take the time to explain what they need.

“It is about levelling the playing field and making sure everyone is talking about common issues, which is about the business and how they move it forwards, rather than getting hung up on particular elements of IT, technology or systems.”

Bellenberg believes the forces of change are also about timing, with some parts of the organisation remaining the same for long periods of time, while others are dramatically different from just 12 months ago. “Sharing the same goals and making sure it is clear to everyone that we are all on the same side,” he advises for avoiding problems. “There must be conversations, because it takes two to communicate and it takes two to turn their backs on an opportunity.”