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Not-So-Secret Agenda

Not-So-Secret Agenda

Your budget meeting presentation has reached its apex, but no one's listening.

The CFO is replaying all the strokes from his weekend golf round in his head.

The budget director's got a look on her face like you're reading from the phone book. And the senior managers are making origami out of your handouts.

The vital meeting gone amok. Weighed down by complex tech talk, the IS strategy can slip off the corporate agenda despite the CIO's efforts.

Making sure the technology message comes across in meetings with tech-wary audiences ranks among the toughest challenges facing CIOs. Pulling off an effective meeting of any type isn't easy, but selling the business team on the innards of the latest client/server software seems at times akin to teaching kindergarteners Sanskrit.

Consultants and IT executives use different tricks to turn cross-functional pressure cookers into feel-good gatherings. But the overall message is exceedingly clear: Winning the business suits over to the pocket-protector perspective starts long before the doughnuts are passed around.

The tenets of crafting effective meetings come from practices that serve CIOs well every day: Combine ungodly amounts of preparation with a precision-engineered message to an audience that has been pre-sold on the idea.

Do it without jargon, but do throw in spoonfuls of self-deprecating humour to humanise IS - two capital letters that still carry scary connotations for many.

In preparation for a big budget review meeting, senior vice-president and CIO Deborah Gillotti spent a significant amount of one-on-one time with MIS team members before making her presentation to the executive steering committee at Starbucks Coffee in Seattle. She aimed to create ''champions'' for a slate of capital-heavy network and telecommunications infrastructure initiatives designed to prepare the fast-growing franchisee for espresso-paced expansion.

Members of Gillotti's team consulted their business-side counterparts as well.

Teaching CIOs to understand the business audience at meetings occupies most of Debra Schmitt's consulting time. As a vice-president and head of the organisational effectiveness practice at Symmetrix, a management consultancy in Massachusetts, she helps CIOs analyse the technical savvy of fellow executives.

Casting business executives as results-oriented ''drivers'' or as ''analysers'' wanting stacks of historical numbers to back decisions helps CIOs target presentations. Some executives crave attention and can't give a thumbs-up without knowing they'll get a piece of the praise; that shapes how a CIO should present an initiative, Schmitt says.

At Starbucks, Gillotti designed her two-hour meeting by assigning different parts of the presentation to team members. Using a stopwatch, they honed their speeches to no more than three minutes. By taking about eight catch phrases from the business team's own strategy and working them into the presentation, Gillotti sought to show the committee how her department was an integral part of business goals.

Each member of Gillotti's team presented a section of the IS infrastructure and demonstrated how each part could be seen as building material for a home. As the members laid out the different aspects of the network for the committee, a house took shape on the overhead projection. Making the leap from technical issues to a familiar object was the breakthrough for many, Gillotti said.

So much of what technology executives do in these meetings boils down to glorified translation, says Karen Antion, former IS director and CIO and now chief technology officer for The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

CIOs must make the material clear to the executive who thinks SAP runs from trees. ''A lot of these people don't have the technical understanding of these things, nor do they need to,'' Antion says. ''My job is to translate these technical details into business implications.''Take Antion's challenge with the enterprise systems at The Port Authority. For years, the best system available for accounting, payroll, human resources and other tasks was purchased and implemented on a sort of a la carte strategy.

Under a new technology master plan, Antion wanted to replace all the enterprise systems with an integrated suite of SAP software for the company's financial systems, linked to PeopleSoft software for its human resources and payroll needs. The costly move would create some logistical headaches.

Antion compared the plan to how people bought software for their personal computers years ago versus today. When the first PCs came out, owners purchased word processing, graphics, e-mail and other software from a host of vendors.

Today, she told the committee, when people buy a computer, they typically have a suite like Microsoft Office pre-installed. The advantages are clear: A suite is easy to use, entails no installation hassle and involves substantially less cost than trying to buy all the functions of the suite through other software.

''I tried to personalise [the plan] for them,'' she said. ''Not only did it create an experience any person could relate to, but it reduced the anxiety level significantly.'' The Port Authority recently completed much of the changeover.

Even the most creative message can fizzle at an ill-planned meeting, however.

Beverly Lieberman, president of IS executive search firm Halbrecht Lieberman Associates in Connecticut, suggests keeping the business team intrigued at meetings. ''Partially because IT people are more likely to be introverts, it becomes more difficult to be spontaneous and intuitive and overtly engaging,'' she says.

The trouble with tech-laden materials is that they often require extemporaneous delivery to prevent the glazing of non technical eyes. Follow some basic meeting rules, Lieberman advises: Stick with English, keep a ''30,000 foot overview'' of the sticky details, and present short, tidy explanations. In fact, for meetings attended by the business team underlings as well as head honchos, Lieberman advises CIOs to ask the senior executives to depart after the overview, leaving the lieutenants to chat over the nuts and bolts.

Gillotti and others favour finely structured meetings with agendas, goals and a written purpose. Most meeting gurus point toward Intel, which has formalised rules about how meetings take place. ''It's really surprising how many meetings don't have an agenda or a clear purpose,'' says Schmitt of Symmetrix.

Gillotti spent a day-and-a-half for planning and reviewing the presentation with her team, a process she'll likely repeat for the same meeting this year.

But the rewards of thoughtful planning were clear. Gillotti received funding for nearly everything she had requested and ample praise: ''One of the senior VPs who had recently come from another company told me that it was one of the best meetings he'd ever been to," she says.

Sometimes corporate structure will necessitate cooperation between technical and business teams at meetings. For Tom Espeland, senior vice-president and CIO of Viacom's Showtime and MTV networks in New York City, most technical projects are co-managed by a member of his team and someone from the business side.

Without understanding between the two sides, projects can't move forward.

Espeland himself co-managed a project to bring more financial functions to the networks' outside sales force, an undertaking that helped him build trust with the business team.

While what a CIO says and does at cross-functional meetings is important, Espeland also sees an opportunity to listen to the business team members and gauge their reactions to upcoming change. ''There are a lot of emotions at stake when solving a problem if all of these business team leaders haven't bought into the solution,'' he said. ''You have to be sensitive to that potential loss of control from their perspective.''Although perfecting the pitch in cross-functional meetings presents the toughest challenge for a CIO, Schmitt advises that the technology expert make sure the device isn't going to overpower the message or knowledge it's designed to deliver. ''I remember one meeting where a gentleman was trying to use a banana as his example. He tried to show that if you put a wrapper on a banana and take it through different databases, the wrapper would come on and off and different things would happen to the banana. After surveying the group, I found they didn't really remember much about how the databases worked. But they did recall the banana.''Pleased to be Meeting You -- Presentation TipsResist charts. Don't run to the comfort of a whiteboard and diagram databases.

"I've been at a lot of bad meetings that go that way," laments Tom Espeland, senior vice-president and CIO of Showtime and MTV networks in New York City.

Organise quick presentations. Use a five-point plan, says Debra Schmitt, vice-president and head of organisational effectiveness practice for Symmetrix in Massachusetts. Make the last point the most important.

Wake them up. Schedule meetings in the morning to catch people when they're most alert.

Create handouts with common goals. Include business team strategy statements to drive home the message that the company can't do what it needs to do without IS.

Have fun. "it helps to have presentations poke some fun at themselves," says Deborah Gillotti, senior vice-president and CIO of Starbucks Coffee in Seattle.

"You make yourself that much more human."

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