CIO Masterclass: Lesson two - Making yourself understood

You may have a crucial grasp of a company's technology needs, but, says John Handby, if you fail to speak your colleagues'...

You may have a crucial grasp of a company's technology needs, but, says John Handby, if you fail to speak your colleagues' language, you won't get very far

Last month I wrote about the mission-critical Chief Information Officer and the pivotal role he/she occupies in today's companies. Nowhere is this more the case than in providing the technology leadership necessary to determine strategic directions.

For many business colleagues, IT is hardly at the top of the list of fascinating subjects. For some, it remains a black art, for others it is a confusing world of hype and conflicting claims. But in recent years, IT has made a spectacular climb on to the board agenda. Now, the task of the CIO is to help colleagues understand how to make the best use of this technology to build the business.

What I have found most critical in moving between companies and sectors is to understand what drives the business, the company environment in which any technology investment has to make sense, and the culture in which it must operate. The whole approach to managing IT, and certainly determining the right strategic direction, should be based on this. Technology has no value in itself and is a cost to the business. It must therefore deliver something of real relevance to the particular company to be seen as worthwhile.

Interestingly, most of the best success stories have not been based on the latest technology, but on an innovative business idea that builds on established systems. Examples of this are the original move by First Direct into telephone banking, the use of computer systems by the automotive industry to link together
The CIO is particularly qualified to adopt a wider role in determining strategic directions within the company
John Handby
companies within the value chain, and the drive by supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's to improve the efficiency of their operations through automation of store replenishment. In all these cases, the technology that powered these developments had been around for some time - the key was vision on the part of management teams about how it could be used.

The role of the CIO as strategic visionary is often a difficult one. He or she must act as a catalyst within the organisation, explaining
Most [companies] adopt a 'salami slicing' approach to strategic thinking with constant revisions over time. This is a real challenge for the CIO.
John Handby
and debating with colleagues in terms that have relevance to them. In many ways, the CIO is particularly qualified to adopt a wider role in determining strategic directions within the company, given the nature of the position - ensuring that he/she sees across the company, has both a long and short-term view, and generally takes a broad perspective. In these circumstances it is no wonder that CEOs are increasingly viewing the new breed of CIOs as a valuable resource for their company.

Communication is the key to success in persuading colleagues to consider technology-based strategies. The CIO is in a unique position to cut through the hype that surrounds IT and present the opportunities in business terms that switch on their colleagues, rather than technobabble that will switch them off.

I once had to 'sell' a massive investment in computer systems to a government minister (we are here talking about a programme worth £2bn in the early 1980s). The permanent secretary heading the department of state I worked in insisted on a full rehearsal of my presentation before I went near the minister. I thought I had removed all jargon from what I wanted to say, but he soon corrected me on that. I rewrote the presentation in terms that the minister would relate to more easily. Needless to say we got approval for the programme and I have never forgotten the lesson.

The toughest trick for the top management team of any company is being prepared to see where the business needs to be and to take sufficiently radical decisions to deliver the vision. Most adopt a "salami slicing" approach to strategic thinking instead, with constant revisions over time. This is a real challenge for the CIO who has to plan over the long term for rolling out major systems, clearing up legacy, determining sourcing policies etc. But nobody said it would be easy!

John Handby is a Director of CIO Connect, the UK forum for senior IT executives. He has previously held a succession of CIO positions for major organisations including Glaxo Welcome, National Power, the Post Office (now known as Consignia) and in central government.

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