How to Educate Your Business Leaders About IT

How to Educate Your Business Leaders About IT

CIOs are expected to know all about the businesses they serve. Businesspeople don’t need to know IT. However, what they don’t know can hurt them — and you. Here’s how to educate businesspeople without alienating them

Reader ROI

  • How the business's lack of IT knowledge hurts profits
  • Why businesspeople resist learning about IT
  • Ways to create your own IT education program

It's not enough for CIOs to be technology experts any more; they have to know the business, too. If the CIO "doesn't get it", he or she can get the boot.

Yet that dual expectation doesn't apply to businesspeople. They get a bye when it comes to understanding IT. Rare is the CEO who knows the difference between enterprise architecture and landscape architecture.

CIOs need to educate their business counterparts about technology, but that is easier said than done

"Businesses are confused about technology," says Karim Lakhani, an assistant professor in technology and operations management at Harvard Business School. He says that many businesspeople suffer from — and tolerate — IT ignorance in part because IT discussions have traditionally focused on the technology itself rather than on how the product of IT — information — affects business operations. "CIOs should reduce the emphasis of the 'T' side and push the 'I' side," he adds. It's a forgotten part of the business in most organizations. The CIO has to step up — nobody else is thinking about it."

That might explain why only 29 percent of CEOs think their CIOs are proactive leaders in the business, though 59 percent are satisfied with the CIO's per­formance, according to a survey by consultancy Forrester. "This is not a good sign for CIOs," says Laurie Orlov, the Forrester analyst who produced that survey. "CEOs have low expectations, and IT is enabling those expectations."

CIOs need to educate their business counterparts about technology, but that is easier said than done. For example, last year Orlov produced a series of reports on how CIOs can educate their business counterparts. She says CIOs expressed strong interest in the topic, and she proposed running seminars for business executives. A CIO at a company she wouldn't disclose hired her to come down and talk to senior management about her ideas.

When the CEO got wind of the plan, he cancelled the meeting.

"He actually said it was a bad use of executive time," she says, noting that the same thing had happened with at least one other CIO. "This is a political nightmare for CIOs," she adds.

Education Equals Value

Thankfully, it's becoming easier to show real, demonstrable value from imparting more IT literacy to businesspeople. Assuming that a company where IT and the business are aligned is also a company where the business side is more knowledgeable about IT and its strategic potential, the data is compelling. For starters, 42 percent of CIOs in aligned organizations expect they'll create competitive advantages for their business in 2007, versus 38 percent of CIOs at unaligned organizations, according to the State of the CIO 2007 (Australia) survey. Aligned CIOs say they spend only 27 percent of their time proving IT's value, versus 41 percent for unaligned CIOs. (And there's a nice personal benefit for aligned CIOs: They make about $24,000 a year more.)

As the numbers show, better IT education of the business leads to alignment, which leads to better technology strategies, which lead to competitive advantage. CIOs need to connect the dots for their business executives and show them how IT education can impact their profits. We've found some CIOs who say there are ways to teach the business side a few technology lessons without making anybody wear a dunce cap.

Jargon Free

At American Airlines, Monte Ford, senior vice president and CIO, bangs one drum over and over again with his staff: Don't use technology jargon.

He knows that worrying about acronyms must look trivial to an outsider. But "it's huge", he insists. Here's why: Techno-talk "creates another language and a set of barriers between you and your business partners". Acronyms don't educate; they actually block education by creating arcane word barriers to real learning.

Ford thinks that poor communication is the main problem between IT and the business. So he also works with his staff to talk about technology as simply as possible, focusing more on what the business can accomplish with it than on how it works. Ford wants them to do it consistently, too. In fact, whenever he's discussing a new kind of technology or strategy, he spends a good amount of time with his staff developing a template for any presentation that will be made on the topic, to make sure the same format, terms and even pictures are used every time. He says that it's a way of branding the IT strategy and subtly educating the business, because eventually the businesspeople see it often enough that they understand it — and can even do presentations themselves.

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