How to talk to your CEO about technology

IT leaders must translate tech into the language of business

When speaking to business leaders, it is also essential for CIOs to understand the audience and what sort of attitude they have to risk and reward - and couch any discussions about technology in those terms, says City University's Chan. "Say you are discussing an infrastructure renewal project then you might want to express in terms of 'If we don't do this the BlackBerry server will continue to break down and you won't be able to communicate with your sales force and from the want of spending £10,000 now you could be losing out on a million-pound deal'," he says.

IT leaders must gauge the technical understanding of the audience and get the important information over quickly, he adds. "The important thing is if you are talking to someone who is very busy and hasn't got an understanding of the technology itself then you have to make sure that you get the key points over fairly early on in the piece."

According to a recent report from analyst Gartner titled Business Performance is the Value of IT, CIOs will gain acceptance of their ideas only by talking to the board or the chief executive in terms of how the new technology will directly impact the performance of the business. "Above all else, CIOs must use the language of business performance and business outcomes to drive home the message that all initiatives are business initiatives, whether or not IT is a major part of the initiative," the report states.

Specifically this means the CIO must act as a translator, spelling out exactly why a new IT system represents value for money, Gartner believes. "CIOs who successfully communicate IT value do not report to business executives about internal IT technical operations. Instead, they describe how IT operations affect business performance," says the report.

CIOs should also speak to chief executives and the board in terms of what differentiates their business from the competition, adds Gartner. "Senior executives who clearly understand how their business is differentiated from competitors are more likely to see potential for differentiation via IT," the analyst states.

To help IT managers and senior staff from other areas of business who aspire to be CIOs better cope with the demands of the role including explaining the importance of technology, City University is planning to launch a new Masters programme in September 2010. The two-year Masters in Information Leadership will use distance learning as well as "full contact teaching" with experts from industry and CIOs helping participants to master different aspects of being an IT chief.

Details of the exact syllabus are still to be confirmed but City University's Chan said the course will address the shortfalls which the industry currently perceives in the communication skills of senior technical staff. "It is an executive degree and people won't be allowed on until they have had managerial experience," says Chan. "It will be designed specifically to train information leaders. I am not saying CIO specifically because the information leader could be the chief information officer but equally he could be the chief knowledge officer, he could be the business transformation director or he could be the head librarian."

Whatever the future holds, the importance of CIOs being able to present ideas clearly and in the terms of the rest of the business is likely to become greater. The economic downturn is continuing to force companies to scrutinise investments and look to IT for innovations to drive them towards recovery. Only those CIOs who are tuned in and able to speak the same strategic language as the wider company can hope to be instrumental in helping their organisation thrive.