Talk the talk - are CIOs up to scratch as communicators? - Silicon - June 2011

The clue is in the job title - the CIO's role is all about information. A great IT leader manages data to create useful intelligence for the business.

Such knowledge is the lifeblood of the organisation. Executives across different lines of business can use up-to-date information to make crucial decisions about internal projects and external customer-facing services.

Malcolm Simpkin, CIO of Aviva, agrees with the sentiment that the IT leader plays a crucial role in helping to create intelligence for the business. The information-aware CIO, he says, is more than simply a necessary executive evil.

"The IT leader has much more of a role to play in leading business," he says. "I think senior people in the business see the digital world as an advantage but also think of it as a bit of a mythical beast."

The persistence of such mythology might seem surprising because IT leaders have worked hard to detach themselves from the corporate view of technology in the 1980s, where the technology organisation was viewed as an untouchable ivory tower. Modern, social IT is all about collaboration.

But as the contemporary guardians of corporate intelligence, are CIOs too guarded? Do IT leaders communicate sufficiently with their internal and external peers? Simpkin is not convinced.

"Because of competition, I wonder whether we, as CIOs, share enough information," he says. "Do we talk about opportunities and benefits for the potential of customers and the industry? There's probably lots of stuff taking place internally and externally that could help us, and which we don't know about. It's a business issue."

Importance of open dialogue

Simpkin is not alone in believing CIOs can be a little too guarded. Mark Foulsham, head of IT and operations at insurance firm esure, also believes IT leaders probably do not share enough information: "And I'm not necessarily any better than my peers, but I do believe in open dialogue," he says.

"If you want to do well, you have to understand the issues at hand and know why people make decisions. You need to build a strong internal network with your peers across the industry."

Foulsham tries to meet up with one of his CIO peers at least once a month. When such two-way knowledge exchanges take place, Foulsham says discussions normally lead to at least half a dozen good ideas.

"If I'm interested in a topic, I'll look for a specialist peer who can offer advice," he says. "The danger of not networking is that you can become isolated and parochial. No one ever had great ideas sitting on their own. We all beg and borrow to refine our thoughts."

The key, says Xantus associate director David Upton, is for CIOs to make the most of all available data. He says IT leaders, as true business executives, need to dedicate time to managing relationships carefully and understanding how innovation can work for the benefit of the organisation.

"You can then make connections for the business and create real change. Make sense of information and add value for the customer - that will be the differentiator," says Upton, who believes internal communication and a can-do attitude are essential characteristics for an information-sharing CIO.

"The natural response of an executive charged with something at the board table is to say no. The challenge is to say yes, to work in partnership with other senior executives and to show the board that IT innovation is not as straightforward as they might think. Tell the CEO you can do what he or she wants, but that it will require investment and specialist assistance," he says.

Communicating with the board

The communication of information to C-suite peers, says Upton, is absolutely crucial. The trick for any executive is to gain more credibility at the board level. Upton advises CIOs to get smarter about business cases, because any investment requires a strong justification. He advises IT leaders to really concentrate on how spending money on IT can save money in the long term.

United Biscuits CIO Cliff Burroughs is one technology leader who has worked hard to communicate the value of IT to the business, including a recent decision to renew a contract with external provider TCS. Burroughs says he relishes the opportunity to give the right kind of information to the board at the right time.

"I love talking about what we do as an IT department and, because I sit on one of the business boards, I can talk strategically about what we've done," says Burroughs, who always makes sure other non-IT executives are clear on how new technology projects might contribute to the business.

"We have conversations internally where the CEO might have read something about the cloud and, when he comes back to me, I've been able to show the pros and the cons and the type of journey that would be required. It's a continual stream of communication. I like executive interest, it shows that something exciting in technology is happening."

Avoid nebulous forms of communication

CIOs, therefore, should be supporting what the business does now, not just what it wants to do in the future. And IT leaders must be bold enough to say there are now better ways for the business to interact and engage. Be wary, however, of concentrating on nebulous forms of communication.

"There's a lot of nonsense talked about business alignment," says easyJet CIO Trevor Didcock, who believes business engagement is a given for the information-led CIO. "If you're not already shaping change then you're missing a big trick. I spend at least 50 per cent of my time outside IT talking with my peers across the organisation."

He says a communicative CIO must also look to internal variety. "They need to have a diverse management team and then ensure there is diversity across the IT organisation. CIOs need groups of talented people in their IT team - they need people who get social media, mobile technology and enterprise architecture," says Didcock.

The key, then, is to not be frightened of engagement. A great IT leader networks, communicates, listens and shares knowledge. As Jim Slack, CIO at Co-operative Financial Services, observes: "You can actually become a leader by sharing your intelligence with other people."

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