The idea of the CIO as a weak communicator only able to talk tech and not the language of business is thankfully being eroded. It's a stereotypical view of the technology professional that is increasingly out of step with reality. After all, today's CIO has to interact with a multitude of different stakeholders and if they can't communicate and make themselves understood, they aren't going to achieve very much of anything.
The modern-day CIO's predicament is summed up succinctly by Simon McCalla, CTO of internet registry company Nominet: "To be successful in today's business world, senior IT leaders need to be business-people first and foremost with a technology specialism second. Technology is no longer the preserve of the technology team, but is widely used, understood and embraced across modern businesses. The modern CIO needs to understand and be fluent in all areas of the business. They should be seen as a business partner and not simply a technology provider."
Ronald Duncan, CIO of cloudBuy, goes even further. "Yes, good CIOs can talk the language of business and quickly and easily understand business problems and how to deliver solutions to these. And yes, I have spoken with a lot of CIOs and they have a great understanding of their business and how to help it deliver its goals," he says. "But the very best CIOs go beyond this and provide input into how to do the key things like increase sales, reduce costs, improve operating efficiency, improve time to market and provide better quality products and services."
Unfortunately, as Duncan admits, all too often the worst are driven by fear of failure and block any change on the basis it might go wrong, often by talking meaningless tech gibberish as a way of blocking change. "This needs to change so that all CIOs support the business and improve the business view of our profession," he says.
So how can CIOs ensure better communication for engaging with staff, building consensus, negotiating, engaging stakeholders – both in and outside the business – and making those all-important business cases for pushing their respective organisations forward?
"There are many ways in which CIOs can become literate in these skills and many CIOs already count these amongst their core competencies," says McCalla. "They can, however, be developed further. I have found that the Institute of Directors' Chartered Director programme offers a broad range of skills and techniques and allows for great networking opportunities with members of the C-suite from other businesses. This swapping of war stories and interaction is vital when developing a strong cross-business skillset."
Scott Crowder, CIO at BMC, gives his personal take on tackling negotiations and building consensus. "Negotiations are always fun, whether dealing with vendors or setting realistic deadlines for major initiatives internally," he says. "At BMC we have a Vendor Management Office that works very closely with our suppliers to make it a win-win for both sides. The CIO is typically held in reserve for getting tough negotiations over the line. As I say, it's a win-win everyone is seeking and being able to communicate that respectfully to your key partners and suppliers is very important."
Crowder admits that communicating and building consensus is always a bit challenging when dealing with multiple business units and factions within your enterprise. "CIOs always strive to get to consensus with their various constituents, but unenviably there are conflicting priorities across the functional areas across the business," he says. "The CIO must take all of the feedback and priorities and balance that across the always-limited resource pools of capital, operating expense, and human resources. They then need to give recommendations based upon these variables."
What is crucial is that CIOs should have the ability to communicate both upwards to the board and also across the organisation to staff on issues like change or major deployments. Technology projects often bring significant organisational, procedural and people change to businesses, says McCalla. "Ask any CIO who has been through an ERP implementation what their major challenge was and I suspect that 99% will say that the people and mindset changes required far outweighed any technology challenge. With this in mind, a CIO needs to be able to communicate and work closely at all levels of a business to understand the impact of technology change to individuals and teams, working with them to help them embrace the changes that come with any technology shift."
And then there's the communication with those outside the business. As an engaged and business-focused CIO, it's all too easy to spend a significant amount of your time working intimately within your own business, which can lead to a particular style and approach to communication that might suit the culture of the business, but could be inappropriate for outside. "It is vital to get out and network with peers and others outside both your own business and sector to see how others are successfully transforming their businesses through technology change," says McCalla. "In most cases, the discussion will be around how they managed to influence, persuade and gather momentum in order to effect technology change in a business. Rarely do I find other CIOs talking about specific technologies!"
So by all means think 'tech', but make sure you're talking 'business'. That way you'll maximise your chances of communicating with all your stakeholders. And, finally, while you're busy communicating, make you're hearing what all your staff and stakeholders are saying to you. As McCalla concludes, "the most important thing for a CIO to grasp is that listening is as important as telling!"
Top tips for CIOs on communication
• Communication is not a one off exercise. Consistently communicate to suppliers, staff, peers and superiors if you want them to join you on your journey.
• If possible take time each day to 'walk the floor' and speak to your staff directly rather than always through line managers.
• Remember when addressing the board that everyone likes information presented to them in different ways. Some people like words, others like facts and figures, some like pictures. So refine what and how you present based on the characteristics of your board members.
• People follow leaders, so be aware of your non-verbal communication. Body language is also a form of communication and giving out the right positive signals to your people when in meetings etc is very important.
• Communicate success and celebrate it!
• When you are wrong admit it. You will find that this will in-turn develop trust and openness in your working relationships.
• Be clear and concise on what your expectations are when dealing with suppliers.
Source: Phil Young, former CIO, now a specialist consultant