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Communication between IT and non-IT employees is in a state of crisis, according to the CIO Executive Council's latest survey.

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This articles is excerpted from results of the CIO Executive Council's 2015 Power of Effective IT Communication Benchmark Survey. 

Communication between IT and non-IT employees is in a state of crisis — across job titles, across verticals, across regions. Four out of five IT leaders claim that building trust and credibility is highly important. However, only four out of one hundred believe that they are highly effective in communicating with their non-IT colleagues.

Half of IT leaders believe that this disparity is due, in part, to a lack of communication talent on the IT team. And this deficiency could not reveal itself at a more inopportune time: an era of unparalleled digital disruption, hallmarked by globalization and extreme market volatility.

The companies that thrive will be:

  1. Customer-focused
  2. Agile and responsive to market conditions
  3. Efficient and innovative technology champions

Effective communication will continue to be the common thread, the business-enabling quality that helps guarantee all of the others. The stakes could not be higher in a digitally disrupted world, as demonstrated by this year’s Power of Effective IT Communication Survey of 205 global IT leaders.

Communication Gap Created by Rapid Change for CIOs

The crisis in IT communication is a reflection of how quickly things have changed in IT departments worldwide. A mere thirty years ago, the term ‘CIO’ was not in general circulation, and IT departments were relegated to handling back-office implementations. 

In the relatively brief span of three decades, CIOs and other IT leaders have been tasked with co-developing front-office, customer-facing innovations that drive the bottom line — all while marketing IT’s brand internally. Marketers within the enterprise have not had to learn code, but coding IT leaders have had to learn marketing, and fast. The price of technological progress is ambiguity and disruption, and IT leaders of any stripe can scarce afford to tread water.

The tragedy of the crisis in IT communication is that IT leaders realize acutely that it exists — but, by their own admission, they have been generally ineffective at driving new conversations with their non-IT peers. It is sadly ironic that the IT professionals tasked with implementing far-reaching, innovative technologies have, to a large degree, proven themselves to be so reactive within the currents of business change.

Over half of IT leaders deem themselves part of cost center or a service provider, and only 4% are highly satisfied with the effectiveness of their internal communication. The risks of these sorts of order-taker relationships are numerous and undeniable: They include a loss of credibility, respect, and successful engagement with colleagues, as well as personal career derailment.

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The IT Communication Crisis Is Surmountable

Fortunately, this year’s Power of Effective IT Communication Survey demonstrates clearly that IT leaders have a laser focus on being clear and effective partners to their non-IT peers. Further, they are investing more time than ever into finding real solutions.

Ultimately, IT leaders must become steely-eyed, marrying these good intentions with effective action. Specifically, their success hinges upon a single word: relevance. Relevant IT leaders are less likely to be brushed aside, overlooked, or — to be blunt — shown the door. They protect their teams and, by extension, themselves by being business-driven technology experts.

Click here to request, free of charge, the full version of the CEC's
Power of Effective IT Communications Benchmark Survey,
with case studies.

Relevance means action, and action means mental toughness. IT leaders need to be ready to make communication a discipline, not just a buzzword. To do that, they need to focus on these key areas every single day:

  • Recognize your central mission. As Kim Barrier, VP and CIO at Bio-Rad Laboratories, says, “I think it is important to travel a lot, to get out to meet with business leaders in their location; to understand what we do, what we manufacture, what are the challenges, to see how colleagues are living it.” An isolated IT leader is an irrelevant IT leader. It is essential that IT leaders gain a true sense of perspective and mission by connecting not only with their colleagues, but with the end customers they ultimately serve.
  • Identify your stakeholders. Stakeholders change frequently. In the midst of transformation, high-level stakeholders may depart; internal stakeholders vary considerably from project to project. Every decision that is made during a project and, by extension, every communication decision that is made, must revolve around the specific needs of these stakeholders. As CEC Director of Leadership Development Rari Hilditch says, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
  • Don’t align — converge. Far too much is made of “business alignment.” Vendors, consultants and analysts can align with a business in their own unique ways, and to very productive ends. But internal IT staff must do much more to remain relevant. They must converge with the business itself. As Kerrie Hoffman, VP of IT Building Efficiency at Johnson Controls, puts it, IT is the business and needs to start acting like it. Jason O’Sullivan, VP of Business Technology at Cars.com, shared that his company even rearranged teams and floor plans to achieve convergence across projects.
  • Embrace transparency. This refers to eliminating all sorts of obfuscation, which in IT is often unintentional. It especially refers to getting rid of jargon. Patrick Graziano, Director, Information Technology Marketing & Communications at Merck, says that a lot of his job hinges on translating technology speak, and features, into business-relevant value. IT leaders should try to simplify their speech and dispense with acronyms.

    Transparency also refers, of course, to clear and readily available status updates. Suresh Kumar, CIO at BNY Mellon, developed a “heat map” with his team showcasing the status and impact of individual projects to his peers.
  • Use metrics to drive the conversation. Metrics are an easy sell for IT leaders. The challenge is finding the right metrics to present to non-IT colleagues, in the right way and at the right time. Tim Platt, VP, Information Systems/Information Security (CIO), Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing, has done just that with a custom scorecard that the IT department uses in partnership with colleagues on prospective projects.
  • Outsource IT communication talent — if needed. Only 30% of IT leaders have hired a communication director dedicated to IT, yet 50% claim that a lack of communication talent is holding them back. If an implementation can be outsourced, then surely it would be wise to consider the possibility of outsourcing IT communication as well. Kate Evans-Correia, Associate Director, NA IS Communications at Sanofi, makes the case for real change across the IT industry — connecting directly with pure-play communication experts to express the nuances that IT leaders do not have the time nor, possibly, the wherewithal to capture on their own. If millions can be poured into an implementation, then there is ample justification to consider at least one additional headcount to tell the story.

This juncture between digital and leadership abilities is where IT leaders must focus their efforts — and in this disruptive landscape, there is no time to lose. Effective communication narrows the gap between ideation and execution. It cements strategy and saves jobs. And, in the final analysis, it helps empower IT and non-IT leaders alike to embrace the future, in a world where tomorrow’s winners are just a breakthrough away. 

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