IT tends to neglect its own PR - and often only steps up communications with the business when things have already gone wrong. That approach has to change, say a growing number of IT leaders.
Communicating the value of technology to rest of the business is tough. Other functions, such as accounts or facilities, exist in almost splendid isolation, but technology has become the underlying architecture of the modern organisation.
CIOs charged with running the IT architecture have to communicate value to an increasingly technically literate audience. They have to deal with high user expectations, pushed upwards as employees in the age of consumerisation often have better access to technology at home than in the workplace.
But help can come in the form of a carefully-honed communications strategy, and leading CIOs are already drawing on external expertise to prove the business benefits of IT. Here, three CIOs share their top tips for using communications to boost business perceptions of IT.
Tell the story of IT to the business
Matt Peers has been appointed CIO at consultant Deloitte and has made internal communications a priority. He found on joining that the IT team was good at responding to specific incidents but bad at telling the story of long-term improvements.
Proof came in the form of recent employee surveys, which highlighted how just 38 per cent of employees at the firm understood the link between IT and overall business performance. "That goes some way to explaining how IT was not talking in terms the business could understand," says Peers, who recruited an internal communications specialist for the IT department. The specialist defines in simple terms how line-of-business executives can benefit from the good work of the technology team.
"It was sold as a transformational role and we specifically didn't want anyone with indepth IT knowledge," says Peers. "I was advertising for a communications specialist with a desire to make a real demonstrable impact, while working with a great deal of autonomy to drive the implementation of processes and procedures."
The recruited specialist now sets guidelines and boundaries for all internal technology communications. She manages the internal IT PR timetable, checking communications for consistency and liaising with the corporate function to ensure messages dovetail.
The specialist helps push a weekly newsletter to the IT function, which centres on good news and includes IT professionals' own items for inclusion. She also helps to promote discussions on the social networking tool Yammer, and has created a departmental challenge - with an Apple iPad as the main prize - for suggestions about how improvements can be made to the IT department.
"She helped us publish a blueprint for IT, which is how we want the department to look and feel," says Peers. "The strategy is completely aligned with the business and we, therefore, try to use the same phrases over and over again to improve employee engagement. Everything is focused on a story that says we are making improvements."
Use communications specialists to cut the techno-babble
Rob Fraser, head of IT and a member of the operating board at retailer Sainsbury's, is another CIO who goes to great lengths to ensure his business understands the benefits of technical innovation.
He recently explained how his strategy for communication, which draws on a management education programme called scout-hut sessions and a Monday huddle of IT professionals and executives, helps technology move beyond the confines of back-end systems.
Like Peers at Deloitte, Fraser ensures the value of IT is conveyed outside the technology team through the use of communications specialists.
Business change agents work at the IT coalface to ensure functional requirements are relayed to the technology team. Back in the IT department, Fraser ensures his inhouse lieutenants are fluent in the potential business benefits of IT rather than the techno-babble often associated with system deployments.
"The business change agents sit right at the front end of our work with Sainsbury's and increasingly we are drawing these experts from a non-IT background, which gives them real functional credibility with the areas they are working with," he says, suggesting the right people from outside the IT function can help prove the value of strategic change.
"The challenge is often getting these change agents to recognise from the outset that they have a role to play in an IT department. But my leadership team are also heavily involved in communications, too. For them, I'd say it's at least half of their jobs."
Create a five-step plan for strategic success
Wellcome Trust CIO Mark Bramwell is another technology leader who prioritises engagement between IT and the rest of the business. Rather than employing a communications specialist in the IT department, Bramwell leads on internal public relations himself, while encouraging and empowering every team member to share successes.
Bramwell's PR awareness has been boosted by his experience running the IT behind retailer WH Smith's loyalty card scheme. His practical experience is boosted by theory, having studied for a certificate in marketing during the loyalty-card implementation process.
"The only conversation a CIO typically has with the rest of the business is when things go wrong," says Bramwell, who has some strong advice for peers who are looking to avoid being stuck in a communications cul-de-sac. "Make sure you have your own PR and communications plan, and share when technology goes right, not just wrong."
Bramwell describes his own IT communications plan as very simple and has a five-step plan for communications success. First, he has one-to-one monthly meetings with every member of the trust's executive board, including the chief executive. "These meetings allow me to foster productive relationships and to promote the work of IT. Face-to-face engagement is very important," says Bramwell.
Second, Bramwell says he and his IT team do not shy away from communicating technology successes via email and the company's corporate intranet system, Trustnet. That communication relies on Bramwell's third step, an IT development agenda, which provided the framework for the delivery of 46 projects in 2011. That agenda meant the IT team could share good news on an almost-weekly basis.
Fourth, Bramwell publicly shares an IT performance dashboard each month with the Trust's chief operating officer and executive board. The dashboard provides transparency and has been a critical part of Bramwell's IT strategy, helping to address perceptions about service availability.
Finally, Bramwell tries to gain external visibility through speaking engagements: "They can be beneficial in raising the profile and credibility of IT," he says.