Communicating Across the Divide

by on 11/04/2010

Martin Barmby
Communication skills expert Martyn Barmby draws on his experience of running IT consultancies in the UK, US and Europe to see how we can solve the communications difficulties between IT and the rest of the business.


We know how Cinderella felt. We are doing all the hard work, keeping the business on track yet still waiting for the recognition we deserve. When we are talking to senior managers outside IT, it feels like they wished we would get back to the cinder-blackened offices of the IT department and stop making the place look untidy.

Well if this true for you then here it is: your own, personal Cinderella-themed action plan to take you from unloved, misunderstood IT geek to a seat in the Handsome Prince’s Palace Board Room.

There are few things you will need for your journey instead of the traditional pumpkin, mice and a rat. Your faithful friends will be Time, Cost and Quality who come along in a neatly packaged triangle. And of course no Cinderella story will be complete without a glass slipper.

How to get fired as a CIO

Firstly, the problem. Let’s start at the top. How many CIOs do you know who have gone on to become CEOs. Even in heavily technology-driven companies it is usually the Chief Operating or Marketing Officer who will ascend to the throne. If you are lucky he or she may have dipped a tentative toe into technology along the way but that is about the extent of it.

Why? Well an interesting report by CSC research said that the main reason why CIOs lose their jobs has nothing to do technology. The main reasons are that the CIO would or could “not communicate with the top management group, were ineffective change agents, or could not contribute to business strategy development”. So the message for the CIOs out there is clear. You are a part of the business first and a manager of IT systems second.

What does this mean for us further on down the food chain? Our problems are more mundane than that of the CIO missing out on a coveted promotion to CEO. Our concerns are that when IT needs some help (generally more resources) from the rest of the business our voices are not heard. When we raise IT-based risks that we believe senior managers should be losing sleep over, we are unable to penetrate the fog of blissful ignorance. Finally, when we do save the business’s bacon we don’t get the kudos, career advancement and cash we so dearly deserve.

Where does that leave us? The good Cinderellas will sit quietly and accept their lot hoping one day a fairy godmother will take us away from all this. The bad Cinderellas will bitch and moan until we become one of the Ugly Sisters but without the perks and benefits.

So what about the action plan?

Well, let’s learn something from the poor old CIOs who were fired in the example above. Let’s make ourselves part of the business first and a member of the IT department second. When seeking support from another part of the business let’s put to one side the FEATURES of what we want and let’s start talking about BENEFITS. Sound familiar from sales training for dummies? You bet it does.

So instead of talking about the whizzy features of your new system upgrade, talk about why the person from the business should be excited about it and how it will make their life better. People often talk about the Business being afraid of IT and therefore being wilfully ignorant. In fact, most people will happily use Facebook, Skype or Twitter if they care enough. What they do not have is an inbuilt desire to invest time, money and effort into something they cannot see the benefit of.

The problem with politicians’ efficiency savings

So how do we come up with these benefits? This is where our faithful friends come in. You may be aware of the time/cost/quality triangle. The theory is that can’t change one without affecting one or both of the others. For example, if you want to finish a project quicker, it will cost more or quality will suffer. This is why we should be suspicious of politicians promising efficiency savings: lowering cost while maintaining quality and getting everything done as quickly is the project manger’s equivalent of alchemy.

In our quest to snag the handsome CEO prince Time, Cost and Quality are where we should look to find our benefits. And by this I mean our business’s benefits not our IT department’s. How much money are we going to save the business, how will our customer’s experience be enhanced and how will we get things done quicker? Better still, find out what our boss is most worried about and think of your project as the glass slipper that will solve their problems. We complain so often that people do not understand what we do in IT. If we offer a solution to their most pressing problems then people are suddenly much more interested in what you can do for them.

To take this one step further we can start to think about the PAIN our managers are suffering or are about to suffer. Do our rivals get their products to market much quicker than we do (Time)? Does our boss have to cut 10% on his budget and is terrified of having to make staff cuts (Cost)? Or is Customer Care filling up the inbox with an ever expanding collection of red flags (Quality)? In which case it is time for you to play fairy godmother but make sure you talk their language. You want to be saying “You shall go the ball” not “I have perfected a cutting-edge, anthropomorphic transfiguration programme, I just need your sign off on a tender for rodent supplies and over-sized pumpkins.” We do not need an urgent hardware upgrade, we need to protect our boss from losing his or her job.

And finally, the glass slipper….

So what is the point of this glass slipper? We need our handsome prince to come and find us some time in the future. When pay and bonuses are being worked out we want our name to be at the top of the list. Well once you are known as the person in IT that senior management can go to, when they know you will not make them feel ignorant and are capable of spreading your fairy dust onto the most knotty of business problems your stock will continue to rise. The only risk is that you will be pulled away from your IT specialism as people see you more as a business-person rather than an IT-person. But then at some point you do have to ask yourself, “what gets me up in the morning?” Is it the technical challenge or do I really want to be the CEO? Not a bad problem to have.

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