Educating your CXOs

CIO John Wade was busy this past May, lining up his ducks for St. Luke’s Health System Inc.’s annual planning meeting. For the second year in a row, the senior-level executives at the health care facility in Kansas City, Mo., would be gathering for a half day to set business goals for the coming year and determine how those agreed-upon objectives would realign technology priorities.

Wade would be attending less as a strategist, however, than as an educator. “I need to give the management team some appreciation for what can and can’t be done with technology today,” he says.

Wade’s reality checks would include telling his colleagues what’s possible with radio frequency identification and whether voice recognition technology is affordable. “The idea of physicians walking down a hallway and having their conversation instantly transformed into a medical record — that ain’t going to happen anytime soon,” he says. Wade even invited an outside consultant to help him with his presentation.

CIOs have always played a role in educating nontechnical managers. But today, with tighter budgets, tougher questions, a demand for guaranteed return on investment and CXOs who know enough about technology to be dangerous, smart CIOs are turning the tables by creating stronger, more knowledgeable advocates out of potentially distrustful adversaries.

The teaching role includes everything from advising CXOs on a new technology for strategic advantage and explaining why an older infrastructure needs a refresh to adding technology realities to a business discussion.

And educating CXOs is essential, given a recent trend observed by John Lutz, vice-president of on-demand sales at IBM Corp. More CXOs are sitting alongside CIOs at customer briefings, he says. “They’re just different kinds of cats than the previous generation — not as intimidated by technology,” Lutz says.

Nerdville it’s not

But don’t start passing out the pocket protectors. Senior executives still don’t want to hear about the relative merits of .Net versus J2EE or even tablets versus handhelds. “It’s not a technology conversation; it’s a solution conversation,” says Nigel Hughes, head of business consulting at Compass Management Consultancy in Chicago.

If you want to introduce Web services into your company, for instance, it would be better to talk about how integrating general ledger and accounts payable systems will result in an invoice-processing-free environment than to discuss SOAP or XML. “That’s what the CEO needs to know,” Hughes says.

Or, as Wade puts it, “If I’m an executive, what are the things I need to know, without becoming a propeller head, to better run my business?” That information results in a better appreciation of what IT is up against, in terms of both technology and funding levels. “You want the management team in lock step rather than letting the IT guy explain away the budget when people start to grouse,” Wade says.

A crucial part of the CIO’s job is understanding what CXOs need to know and the best way to teach them. And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, says Rob Tabb, CIO at Ecolab Inc., a US$3 billion-plus developer of cleaning and repair products in St. Paul, Minn.

When Tabb wants to help C-level execs understand, for example, how mobile technology could improve productivity and customer service, as well as the technology’s costs, capabilities and deployment challenges, he uses both formal and informal communications. The informal venues are at least as important as the formal ones.

In addition to business advisory board and senior management council meetings, Tabb looks for opportunities at business lunches and Tuesday morning coffees held for senior executives. “CIOs have to be extremely sensitive about what all the opportunities are,” he says.

Tabb finds most CXOs want to go one level deeper than the one at which they operate day to day. For instance, how stable is the technology? How easy is it to use? What is its expected life span, and will there be cost escalations over time?

One-on-one conversations at the coffees are particularly effective for freely exploring potentially threatening subjects, Tabb says. “You have to think of it as a campaign,” he explains. “You have an end state you’re trying to get to, and you think, ‘How am I going to educate this group of executives to get them to a common point of understanding over time?’ ”

That’s why Tabb always has a list in his head of people to contact and issues to discuss, whether over coffee or lunch or at a meeting. “As a CIO, I always have an agenda. You’re crazy if you don’t,” he says.

Informal conversations are also a good opportunity for C-level executives to ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t. “You can’t teach the CEO in a way that would be embarrassing,” says Doug Neal, a research fellow at Computer Sciences Corp.’s Research and Advisory Services in El Segundo, Calif. “You can also take their personal assistant aside and make sure they know more than the boss does so they can answer some of the CEO’s questions.”

It’s not easy being IT

Sometimes the most important thing to teach is not technology but the complexities of managing technology projects. “Senior executives don’t have a gut feeling for how hard this is,” says Jeff Wiseman, vice-president and officer for technology and informatics at Locus Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Blue Bell, Pa. “When you ask them for (US)$3 million for a project, they have no context for saying, ‘That’s reasonable; let’s do it.’ ”

Rob Austin, a fellow at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass., suggests the visual approach of writing down all your current IT projects on sticky notes and posting them on a conference room wall. When a customer comes up with an urgent problem, you add it to the wall but also remove one of the sticky notes. “It’s a painfully obvious way of showing them that the project you were working on isn’t going to get done,” he says.

Keep it real

Sometimes the best way to get the attention of C-level executives is to take them off-site. Getting away can have a mind-broadening effect with hands-on appeal. When Wade wanted to educate the chief medical officer at St. Luke’s on remote heart-monitoring technology several years ago, he took him to a pilot site to see the technology at work. “It got him to the point where he said, ‘This is real,’ ” Wade says.

Another good reality check is to bring end users into the picture. Ben Harris, deputy secretary of operations and technology at the Florida Department of Children and Families, recently wanted to use Web services to integrate data from disparate mainframe systems. A demo showed the CEO how much value would be gained from adopting Web services, but the testimony of end users sealed the deal, Harris says. “Do the high-level education on the technology side, but make the end user sell it,” he says.

In the end, says Bart Perkins, managing partner at Leverage Partners Inc. in Louisville, Ky., and a Computerworld columnist, IT isn’t a spectator sport, and the best participants are educated. “There are those who say, ‘You fix it; call me when it’s done,’ and those guys end up being unhappy with the results,” he says. “You have to be part of the team that’s doing IT, because it’s changing the business.”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Grand Rapids, Mich. You can contact her at [email protected].

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