The CIO as Chief Communicator

The CIO as Chief Communicator

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In the State of the CIO survey, Australian CIOs rank ineffective communication with the user community their fourth biggest hurdle (rated that way by 40 percent of recipients, up from ninth biggest hurdle a year ago). They also know how important it is to build empathy and a mutual understanding with their peers. Some 23 percent say they would leave their job if they were experiencing disconnects with their executive peers, while 8 percent confess to have been forced out of a job for just that reason. But such disconnects can also force CIOs to rethink the messages they are sending - and the way those messages are being formulated.

"In the past I have worked in organizations where IS was seen as a function of the accounting department," says Allens Arthur Robinson (AAR) CIO Chris Holmes. "This placement led to IS being disconnected from the organization as IS issues, other than the correct running of the general ledger, didn't capture much of the CFO's attention span.

"It was a great training ground because I was forced to develop the communication skills necessary to connect to the organization's leaders. I needed to communicate at a level that was understood in the context of the business. It really involved building empathy with each individual and being able to interpret technology to their need and level of understanding. [Today] I constantly find myself cast in the role of techno-jargon translator and business application visionary."

Indeed James Huckerby, CIO at western Sydney entertainment behemoth Panthers, thinks the nature of the CIO role means disconnects on a daily basis are inevitable. "I am the conduit between business and IT," Huckerby says. "A big part of this role involves acting as a 'translator', by explaining technology in a way that is understood by executives. Getting around these disconnects can be a challenge, but an enjoyable one."

For instance Panther's CEO Shane Richardson is as "BS" savvy as he is technology savvy: a problem given that Huckerby confesses to occasionally being guilty of having bandied about terms he was unable to explain when pulled up.

"A good example of this was the use of the term 'enterprise architecture'," Huckerby says. "The CEO wanted to know why this was known as 'architecture'. I was flummoxed. I knew what architecture was, but came into some serious difficulty when explaining it to the team. My initial answer probably came out along the lines of: 'It's just the vibe of the thing.'

"I asked if I could get back to him on it. I have always liked the [Peter] Weill and [Marianne] Broadbent triangle model for explaining architecture, but realized that it would not really get my message across."

Huckerby's solution was to reformat the model into a house, representing the floor as the infrastructure, the walls as the transactional systems, the windows and doors as the informational systems and the roof as strategic systems. By presenting a slide showing a neat little house with each component of it marked as described, then another with all the components lying in a heap, he was able to demonstrate that without an architecture, you are not going to get much of a house. The analogy worked, he says.

While today's CIOs, like Holmes, have often had to learn such skills the hard way, the next generation of CIOs might find themselves entering the job a little better equipped. Increasingly, programs to help students acquire effective communication skills are becoming a major component of IT degree courses.

"[Communication skills] are absolutely vital," says Roy Hill, Faculty director of IT for the Hunter Institute of Technology, who also runs the Australian Information Industry Association's (AIIA's) Education and Employment Forum in NSW. "It's one of the things that we really stress with our students: the importance of communication skills in the industry. It's not [being] the nerd sitting behind the bloody keyboard in front of a computer, it's actually getting out and talking to the customer that counts."

CEOs increasingly know this. Hill says feedback from CEOs show soft skills around communication, interpersonal relations and teamwork loom far larger in their minds in choosing a CIO than any number of technical skills. "A lot of CEOs say: 'If [a potential CIO] hasn't got the technical skills - and they usually haven't got those skills in the area that I want anyway - I can give them the skills; but if I can't have them sitting in front of a customer inside of two weeks, they're no use to me'," he says.

By the same token, many CEOs are actively opening pathways to their CIO in the name of improved communication.

"This is the best job that I've had in terms of the levels of communications being opened among the various levels of organization," says Max Gentle, director of Information Management with the Tasmanian Department Of Education, who has been working in government and semi-government roles since becoming a CIO. "It's the meeting regularly and discussing the variety of issues, and really communicating - which means talking through ideas - that keeps the communication pathways open. I'm part of the executive management group and that meets monthly. I meet with my deputy secretary on a weekly basis and with other executives on a less frequent basis."

Gentle says keeping the communication lines open, and being prepared to discuss the full range of issues with people, has proved the best way to build and maintain trust, both among senior management and the school principals he works with.

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