Picture this: A technical architect and his partner have been invited to a social function. The architect, regarding this as a waste of time, reluctantly gets himself ready. He resents the fact that he has to attend this work function, given his discomfort with social gatherings. His partner enters the room in her new dress.
She does a twirl. “How do I look?” she playfully asks.
The architect pauses, clearly ruminating on the question. “Well when you consider all the models and supermodels in the world, I would rate you six out of ten.” He struggles to understand why she appears to be so offended when he has given her question such deep and honest thought.
Clearly being correct is not always directly correlated with good communications.
This is an extreme example of course. But I think it reflects the reality that IT functions are generally not good at communications, which is ironic given that it is our role to deliver and support the organisation’s collaborative infrastructure.
But given that the stated cause of many IT project failures is poor communications, I believe that this is a topic that CIOs need to prioritise if they are in any way interested in enhancing their value proposition.
I recently chaired a dinner for the British Computer Society and the conversation topic focused on enhancing the strategic relevance of the CIO. One of the CIOs present was also the Chief Technology Officer. I was concerned that the conversation might grate with him because in essence the underlying tenet of my argument was that CIOs will be considered as IT managers if part of their branding (by role definition, by focus or by accident) embraces technology.
Not only did he put me right on this, he did so in a manner that was veering on the therapeutic. Like many of us in years gone by he was a Gantt chart waving task oriented, cold technology manager. His people were assets to be used to get the job done. Eventually he realised that there was a correlation between staff engagement and successful outcomes.
Consequently he become people-oriented and saw interpersonal communications (aka EQ) as the primary skill of the CIO. As an aside, to circumvent the issue I had flagged at the dinner, he appointed a service delivery manager, so that if any of the other CxOs had a laptop issue, they would know to approach the manager and not him.
Communications are the energy that feeds relationships. Given that CIOs are in the service business they should be striving to grow relationships. This means investing time and energy in developing your communications skills and those of your staff.
Areas where the quality of the communications is critical include:
• Service desk interactions.
• Specification production for systems / business analysis.
• Agile sessions.
• General user communications.
An unclear functional specification or an unsympathetic tone when dealing with an issue that is important to the user despite its technical triviality erodes the IT function’s brand.
If the perception of your personal brand, which is very likely correlated to the brand of your IT function, is sub-optimal then you have a communications problem. Poor communications provide the foundations for poor relationships. And no amount of hard work will compensate for poor strategic relationships when it comes to your career progression.
Again you are to a large extent the sum of the brands of your staff. Thus you need to address the communications skills of your staff as a priority. Firstly address the issue at the source. Work with your in-house recruiters to filter out low EQ people entering your workforce. Contractors tend to understand the importance of this and as such take more care in this respect.
For your existing staff you may need to put in place development plans for your poor communicators. Those who do not appreciate this personal development opportunity should be shown the door. You may be tempted to just move them away from the users, but poor communicators simply place an unnecessary strain on your IT function’s esprit de corps.
An important element of communicating skills is influencing skills. Giving your people the capability to negotiate ‘settlements’ with the users will make your organisation more agile and deepen the relationships with the users.
As a business leader you too need to exhibit excellent communication skills. Again this must extend beyond task-based fact-related interactions. I meet CFOs who tell me that their only interaction with their CIO is when they want something. And the request is usually pitched in the tone of a threat. For example if we do not buy X then Y will happen and Y is bad.
Threats of course sit on the communications spectrum. And they often generate the desired outcome. I am aware of CIOs who have significantly increased their influence by threatening to bring their organisation to a halt. Even the most techno-indifferent CxO will make the link between a non-functioning datacentre and a non-functioning organisation.
Such a manoeuvre will of course obliterate any trust-building and as a result the CIO and their IT function become the ‘enemy within’. Having to sleep with one eye open doesn’t make for a happy existence.
Communications in respect of the IT infrastructure is of course a key element of your value stack. I would strongly consider adding a further layer to the top of your stack that is also called communications. Giving this new layer significant attention will most likely increase your value perception exponentially, so even a moderate investment will yield a large return.