Communicating IT value


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If information technology (IT) has to serve business, IT must talk the language of business.

A no-brainer? Perhaps – but according to one Canadian expert, many IT managers are unschooled in the art of biz talk (defined here as using business concepts and lingo to communicate IT value).

“That’s why I can’t say enough about the need to invest in communications,” says Savino DiPasquale, vice-president of IT and CIO at GlaxoSmithKline Inc. (GSK) in Mississauga, Ont. DiPasquale was speaking at CIO 100 Assembly, an interactive think-tank retreat for the country’s foremost IT executives held recently at Niagara Falls, Ont.

For the GSK executive – when it comes to “effective communications” – it’s often a matter of “been there, done that.” As CIO of GSK, he has spearheaded critical communications projects – large and small – and knows where the pitfalls and opportunities are.

Facts vs. impact

One of the biggest yet commonest communication mistakes IT professionals make, he says, is being too focused on facts.

IT managers, he said, don’t score when they brag about “facts”: what their department has done, the list of successful projects they’ve launched and so on. Instead, IT makes a real impression when it uses the language of impact. “It’s important to change the lingo from: What is it we’re accomplishing?’ to ‘What is the impact of what we’re accomplishing?‘”

Other professions understand this, he said. “The manufacturing guy doesn’t stride into a meeting saying: ‘we have 32 production lines, and 60 per cent of them are down, but the remining 40 per cent are available.’ A medical spokesperson doesn’t run through the litany of clinical trials she’s accomplished. But IT folk tend to boast about what they’ve done – ‘we’ve put in a new e-mail system, rolled out a new technology.’ Who cares, that’s your job.”

He said for IT departments to switch from fact- to impact-based communication, one pre-requisite is a dedicated communications team or person.

He rued that most IT departments don’t do their own communications, but rely on the business side to do it for them. “It’s surprising how many CIOs don’t have a communications team, but use corporate [resources], and only say something when corporate tells them it’s okay.”

DiPasquale himself has a dedicated communications person, who also sits on his management team. “This person writes and reviews everything that we put out to ensure it fits in with our themeing (sic). He ensures our [IT] initiatives and successes are expressed in business terms.”

The “facts” trap, said the GSK exec, needs to be avoided in employee performance reviews as well. “Usually in reviews, people tend to talk about what they’ve done. Who cares? In performance reviews too, it’s important to speak the language of impact.”

That’s a principle DiPasquale adopts when discussing his own department’s performance plans with the CEO. “I don’t list of all the things we accomplished (we set up that data centre, we did disaster recovery etc). I don’t even mention those things. Instead I focus on the impact of all this to the CEOs agenda, because his performance plan is my performance plan.”

CEO hot buttons

Di Pasquale said senior IT execs should get to know the CEOs hot buttons.

“Usually CEOs are very vocal and concise about those issues. Is the hot button ‘profitability’ or the fact that [processes] are just too complex? Get to know that.”

One of the first requirements for aligning technology with business is for IT leaders to understand their company’s core strategies. DiPasquale had described these priorities in some detail during the CIO Insider Survey conducted last year by CIO Canada. They include:

• Operational excellence – “You’ve got to be good at what you do. No VP is going to talk to you about innovation if you can’t keep the laptops up and you can’t answer their problems. You’ve got to be good from a cost perspective, from a service-level perspective; you’ve got to be at best-practice level.”

• Employee engagement – “This is the prime motivator in our company. For five consecutive years, we have been ranked as one of the best places to work (by Unlimited magazine). And that just doesn’t happen by magic. It is a strategic priority.”

• Grow your people – “Do you have the right talent across the organization? You’ve got to have the best people leveraging that technology.”

• Focus on innovation – “You’ve got to create some skunk works. You’ve got to start to take technologies and embrace them together. But you can’t just start firing them at the business; you have to start building a portfolio. Take a page out of the Marketing folks’ book.”

Four magic words

At the CIO 100 conference, DiPasquale described how he and his team took a slew of disparate global corporate initiatives and created a single theme to promote them company wide – a kind of magic mantra: ‘Working smarter at GSK.’

He said GSK’s Canadian office took the lead in creating the messaging for these projects launched in 176 countries. Key initiatives in an 18-month time span included:

• Refreshing of laptops, tablet PCs and computers for the field force;

• Roll out of a new e-mail system;

• Launch of new collaboration tools worldwide (specifically employee ‘text messaging,’ which has taken off at GSK, and is expected to replace e-mail in that company).

• Promotion of electronic meetings replacing face-to-face – increasing the proportion of e-learning programs for the sales force from 10 per cent to 90 per cent plus;

“There were 10 such projects,” he reminisced, “so typically we would have launched 10 messages. However, that would work out to a message a month, and it would just be noise. We needed a better way.”

He said the IT think tank first identified the common element in all these projects. “We asked ourselves: when we consider all these tools, the collaboration initiative, our [quest for] operational excellence, our e-learning project, along with the focus on our employees – what is it we are really trying to accomplish? We came up with the answer: ‘working smarter at GSK.’ These four words captured it all. We made that our theme.”

He said this motif expressed a cross-functional goal between the IT and business sides of his company. Both sides don’t want people working harder. “We want software and technology to do the heavy lifting, while people work smarter; so our employees can free up time to focus on what’s important to the business and to their lives.”

The theme, DiPasquale said, resonated with everyone. “It resonated with GSK employees because it was a value proposition to them. And it resonated with our exec team because it had a direct impact on the Canadian action plan that drove alignment.”

That theme, he said, was continued in every major project or initiative the company launched – much like a campaign. “It was like our calling card.”

With files from John Pickett

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