The CIO as chief communicator

Often, effective communication skills aren’t considered high priorities for CIOs. However, like any other major business unit in a company, the IT organization must effectively communicate on a regular basis with all of its constituents and customers.

Consider the case of a large North American food services company, where the communications function was very poor. Competing local IT groups rarely communicated with one another. And the little communication that took place with other constituencies was brief, often “IT-cryptic” and usually self-serving. Powerful IT managers intimidated their staffs, and any communication with those staffs was in the form of top-down directives, offering little chance for discussions about key issues.

Communication between IT leaders and the company’s executive business unit management was no better. Even when the IT organization had accomplished “great things” that it could brag about, IT leadership’s lack of understanding concerning the power of marketing and communications ensured that nobody in the company was taking the IT organization seriously.

Fortunately, company leadership appointed a new CIO who understood the power of communication, both within the organization and between the organization and its constituencies. In the IT organization, he undertook a series of steps to open lines of communication from IT leadership to staff, from IT staffers to leadership and among IT staff, so they could more effectively meet their users’ needs:

– He set up a series of open and candid “town hall” sessions across IT and with IT users and business-unit management teams.

– He established an open-door policy whereby anyone in the IT organization could communicate directly with him — face to face, over the telephone or via e-mail. Part of this policy was an open electronic forum (similar to a chat room) where individuals could — anonymously if they wished — pose questions to their colleagues or the CIO.

– He initiated a “no surprises” policy focused on encouraging people to communicate problems early and find solutions before the problems grew larger.

This CIO intuitively understood the power of marketing, even though he knew that he didn’t have all of the skills required to create and deliver effective marketing messages. He brought a professional marketing and communications person into the organization to help him and others throughout the IT organization become more effective communicators among themselves, with users and with corporate managers.

Communication doesn’t just happen. It requires confidence on the part of the organization’s leader, and it requires professional assistance to tailor the organization’s message for particular audiences.

The CIO must be comfortable sitting at the centre of three communications channels or funnels. From this vantage point, the CIO facilitates communication between techies and executives in one of the funnels, between users and providers in another of the funnels, and between those inside the company and those outside the company in the third funnel.

To some extent, the CIO serves as the translator of IT information — sort of a Rosetta stone — among all the different parties. And the CIO must be able to alter the content-delivery medium and his or her communication style to suit each constituency.

A marketing and communications professional can help CIOs to not only craft their messages in terms that are meaningful to each constituency, but also understand how every one of their actions and behaviors communicates to the various constituencies as powerfully as their words.

From captive to willing user

Because everyone in a company uses IT, everyone is, in a sense, a captive of the IT organization. However, the goals of IT communications are to make users want to utilize IT services and to persuade them that the IT organization is a provider of high-quality, high-performance services of significant value.

To accomplish these objectives and create willing, rather than captive, users, IT leaders (with the help of communications professionals) need to take the time and effort required to craft messages that place IT activities and efforts in the proper context. Then they need to instill in every member of the IT organization the notion that carrying these messages in a consistent fashion to various constituencies, within and outside the company, is important and is a part of every person’s job.

Too many CIOs and other IT professionals are comfortable running IT as a “black box” operation and communicate their activities on a need-to-know basis. However, if CIOs are to be invited to sit at the executive table, they must peel back the curtain and reveal how IT operates and articulate messages that help explain these operations and how they benefit the company. Transparency and open, candid communications are two ways to achieve that goal.

Communicating like business leaders

To manage IT as a business, CIOs must learn how to communicate like business leaders. This means properly balancing honesty and integrity with a small dose of politics or “spin control.” Political leaders and constituencies, including the CIO and those who work in the broader IT organization, need to define how others in the company perceive them and their organizations. If they don’t, others will do it for them.

At one organization I worked with, the CIO and IT staff were, from a technical perspective, among the best I’ve ever seen. Despite their skills, others in the company treated them as door mats and regularly subjected them to vicious tongue-lashings. Any time an IT-related problem cropped up, the highly qualified IT professionals became the scapegoats and were put on the defensive. They were disheartened and demoralized because they knew they were doing a good job. But the CIO and the entire IT organization didn’t know how to get that message across effectively to the various constituencies.

The marketing/communications group persuaded the CIO to hold monthly briefing sessions with each business unit. He began to issue a marketing-grade, quarterly report on IT performance, services and projects. Within six months, the IT organization’s image improved significantly within the company, and people within the IT organization began to believe they were recognized as real contributors to the company’s success.

Framing the message

Whether the message is delivered in a marketing, public relations or general communications format, it must be clear, consistent and meaningful to the intended audience. Communications should be linked, both explicitly and implicitly, to the company’s business strategy, not merely to the IT strategy. IT’s role in supporting and enabling that strategy should be woven into the IT organization’s message. Because quality, cost and service delivery are the IT organization’s key deliverables, messages should focus on how IT is progressing on improving these areas.

Three Ways To Spin It

A CIO should engage an IT organization communications professional to assist in crafting appropriate messages tailored to specific circumstances, audiences and purposes. Generally, corporate communications fall under one of the following three categories:

1. Marketing

Marketing messages are communicated through various media in ways that are attractive and appealing to specific audiences. They’re crisp and brisk. Their purpose is to get the audience to accept the message quickly. For IT, marketing efforts seek to build awareness of the IT organization, of its attributes and of the role it plays in accomplishing the company’s business goals.

Caution: Because of their tendency to produce technical solutions, many CIOs and IT organizations mistakenly focus on e-mail for marketing. In almost all cases, a more appropriate combination of media is more effective.

IT organizations can use marketing to build awareness of the services they provide, of current performance levels and of projects in progress. They can also use marketing to prepare various constituencies for changes to those services.

2. Public relations

The field of public relations seeks to use “free media” to increase awareness of an organization and of the esteem in which it’s held. When communicating to an internal audience, the CIO and all of the company’s IT professionals must portray their activities as being “under control” from a performance, economic, organizational and management perspective. For example, the IT team should regularly use PR to tout 24/7 services and special projects.

Even the simple act of explaining mundane services such as help desk usage statistics can provide a PR message. Doing it with a spreadsheet sends a message: This is a techie organization. However, adding a little narrative spin, including some trend analysis and a few clear, colour graphics conveys a different message: The IT group is able to measure things in a business-focused manner. Better yet, if the message is delivered in a formal briefing session rather than by e-mail, the CIO is seen as one of the company’s leaders.

Public relations can also be used to deal with IT crises. In fact, in today’s world, because IT touches just about everyone in the company, the manner in which IT crises are handled can make or break the CIO, the entire IT organization and perhaps even the company itself. Possible events that warrant the use of “crisis PR” include a merger or acquisition, integration mishap, a catastrophic failure of a mission-critical application, a network or critical infrastructure failure, a significant security breach or unchecked virus attack, or a physical disaster.

3. Other communications

Beyond marketing and public relations, other communications in which the CIO or other members of the IT organization engage include:

– Regularly issued (quarterly, semi-annual and annual) operating reports.

– Formal organizational leadership meetings and conferences.

– Open forums, which can range from brown-bag lunches to e-mail bulletin boards.

One of the most effective communication tools I’ve ever encountered involved a CIO’s regularly scheduled personal visits to local office locations. The CIO would engage in informal discussions with the IT organization’s key customers/users and with business-unit management. In addition, the CIO took the opportunity to meet with local IT staff members to talk about the organization’s overall strategy and to solicit their views and concerns.

These were highly successful sessions because everyone involved derived something positive from them. As soon as the CIO would leave a location, staffers would be on the phone or writing e-mail trying to set up a date for the next visit.

The direct, personal approach of this CIO created substantial trust and credibility among users, business-unit leaders and IT staff alike.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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