Tell the truth effectively

Information technology leaders are often described as “ambassadors” for our profession. In the first part of the 17th century, the father of the British foreign service, Sir Henry Wotten, described the ambassadorial function this way: “An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

In these trust-sensitized times, are IT leaders lying for the sake of our discipline when, say, they promote expensive projects? Or are they simply poor communicators who don’t know their audience?

In association with the College of Business at Arizona State University, I examined the IT “messaging” ecosystem (i.e., message sender, messages being sent, executives receiving the messages and the actions taken because of the message) at 35 companies operating in 15 vertical markets. And while the results showed that IT executives are mostly telling the truth, they’re not telling it in the right way.

Communications — what we say, to whom we say it and how we say it — is a significant and potentially success-limiting blind spot for many IT organizations. Most IT shops don’t measure the effectiveness of their messages (for example, whether the message sent produced the desired behavior change).

Non-IT executives prefer human-to-human, experience-rich interactions over any other form of information exchange. But the data from the study revealed the following distribution of communication modes by IT leaders:

– E-mail 33 percent

– Meetings 33 percent

– Telephone 20 percent

– Face to face 10 percent

– Other 4 percent

IT professionals do not spend enough time involved in high-impact, person-to-person conversations.

Research indicates that humans are nine times more prone to broadcast ideas than to receive them. So, for your “broadcasts” to have any impact, you must know your audience. If you’re to have any luck inducing buy-in and behavior change, you must understand where your listeners’ heads are. Many IT message senders have no map of the mental beaches their messages will wash up on. IT leaders do not spend enough time crafting their messages for their audience.

In an overcommunicated world, sometimes the best messaging strategy is to say nothing. Recall President George W. Bush’s decision not to give a speech on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy but rather to spend nearly two hours at Ground Zero embracing fathers, sons, mothers and daughters who lost loved ones. He understood the important context of the moment.

Knowing to whom we are communicating is one component of IT messaging. Knowing why we communicate is another. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, coming upon the 14,000 Confederate defenders at Fort Donelson in February 1862, knew exactly to whom he was speaking and exactly what he wanted when he crafted this message: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

IT leaders may be articulate, but they can do a better job of communicating. Context-specific communication is best learned through role-playing exercises.

I look forward to the day when IT messages combine the hard-hitting journalism of Woodward and Bernstein, the social relevance and call to action of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the in-the-moment sensation of a Survivor episode. Then, perhaps, the corporate muggles (executives who aren’t wizards of technology, to borrow a term from Harry Potter) will look forward to hearing from us.

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