How to talk to your CEO about technology

IT leaders must translate tech into the language of business

Getting the board to approve IT projects requires not only good presentation skills but also the ability to speak the same language as the rest of the business, says Andrew Donoghue.

While it's debatable whether IT leaders are actually any less articulate than senior managers from other areas of the business, the idea that technical staff lack communication skills is certainly a persistent one.

One of the issues may be that IT concepts are fundamentally complex and as a result are more difficult to explain.

While this may be the case, some experts claim that effective technologists should be able to talk about what they do in direct and easily understood terms. "If an IT technologist can't explain in plain English what it is he is trying to do or what are the issues, then the techie knows what he is doing but needs to go on a communication skills training course - or he is lying to you," says David Chan, director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University.

While basic communication skills can be learned, for some technologists it's not that they can't express themselves. Rather they struggle to communicate effectively because they are insulated from the wider imperatives of their business, say experts.

Adam Thilthorpe, director for professionalism at the British Computer Society (BCS), says there is a tendency for heads of department - including the CIO - to think only in terms of their part of the organisation.

"The first thing [for IT leaders] to do is to set all projects in the context of the business. That means the sector and market that the organisation operates in, not an internal departmental view. More and more the technology part of IT is commoditised and it is the information part, and the person who controls that, who holds the key to future success. The CIO should be uniquely positioned to best take advantage of this knowledge," he explains.

Other key issues to address, given the depressed economy and emerging legislation prompted by the financial crisis and environmental concerns, are costs and compliance.

"The language of the boardroom is finance but to ensure that you are fluent, an understanding of Sarbanes-Oxley and similar corporate governance issues is a must.

CIOs must also take ownership of the exciting stuff, like innovation, and set it in the context of competitive advantage for the organisation. No CEO is ever going to be interested in IT for IT's sake," says Thilthorpe.

The best CIOs, it seems, are able to speak to the rest of the business in terms they understand and anticipate the questions and requirements they have for a new system.

"Our IT department is very good at not going down purely the technical aspects of an IT system. We will think about what are the right solutions from a business perspective," says Ian Sibbald, financial controller of Cranfield Business School, who interacts with senior IT staff on a frequent basis.

Effective CIOs have learned to couch the benefits of IT projects in terms that are immediately accessible to the CEO or board, agrees Frank Modruson, chief information officer of management consultants Accenture.

"CIO's need to communicate with the business, in the universal language of business and that language is finance. Explaining investments in terms of ROI and business benefits will justify projects in the boardroom while also building awareness around IT's value," he says.

The ability to communicate the value of the IT operation and specific projects is especially important if the CIO is new to their role, says Catherine Doran, CIO at Network Rail. "Make sure that the front and the end of the conversation is about business, because the technology is an also-ran at this point.

"Above all at this stage is proving yourself to be somebody in the business in the round. IT at this point is your functional specialism. If that's all there is to you, you're not going to succeed around that table, because you'll be marginalised and you'll be asked to speak only when there's a technology question. And how boring is that?"