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How Do You Talk to a CIO?

Last week I was interviewed by a writer from a popular business magazine. He wanted my views on the question, “How do you talk to a CTO or CIO?” It’s an interesting question, and what makes it most interesting to me is that I’ve never heard anyone ask the question about any other senior executive position in a company. I don’t hear anyone ask the question, “How do you talk to a CFO?” or “How do you talk to a COO?” I don’t even hear anyone ask the question, “How do you talk to an HR organization?” So why do you think the technology organization is singled out for this type of question?

The answer, unfortunately, is that there’s a layer of mystery around the IT organization; IT is less understood than any other business organization. In my book, Boiling the IT Frog, I compare IT people to doctors, who share some of the same problems of having to communicate complex technical information. But as I point out in the book, good doctors will get around the communication problems by focusing on the patient implications of the information: How will a particular treatment impact the patient? How long will treatment take? What are the risks? How will the treatment affect the patient’s quality of life in the long term? What kind of success rate does such a treatment have? These are all questions that skirt around the “how does it work” technical core of the issue at hand, but most doctors don’t feel the need to go into the details of how a particular treatment works, since the description of the patient impact is more relevant and more easily understood by the patient.

IT issues are just like the issues of medical treatment. Every business is made up of hundreds of processes: some which use computers and some which don’t. Any IT project will affect some of those processes – some will be improved and some will be negatively impacted. The negative impacts can range from rigidity (making a process more difficult to change in the future) to cost (making a process more expensive, hopefully with a counter-balancing reduction in cost or an improvement in revenue or profitability elsewhere in the business). So just as a medical procedure has an impact on the body’s processes, an IT project will have an impact on business processes.

A good IT executive will discuss the pluses and minuses of IT projects with business executives in much the same way that a doctor will discuss various treatment options with a patient. It’s a high-level discussion that focuses on positive and negative outcomes, project durations, risks and success rates. At the end of the discussion the business executives should feel like they’ve been presented with enough information to make choices, and that’s all that the discussion is intended to do. A good IT executive won’t attempt to explain technical issues unless the business executives ask, just as a doctor won’t go into the medical details unnecessarily. If a project requires an unproven technology, then that’s important to know, but only as it impacts the risk of the project and the probability of success.

Bad IT executives talk to business executives in great detail about the technology that will be used, why it was chosen, and why it’s the best technology for the project. These bad IT executives don’t seem to realize that (a) the business executives don’t care, and (b) the business executives just get more confused and uncomfortable when they are provided all of this useless (in their opinion) information. It’s bad IT executives who make the business executives ask, “How do you talk to a CTO or CIO?” But the real answer is to replace your IT executive with someone for whom the question doesn’t have to be asked.

The Flip Side
Now you may ask, “Aren’t business executives sometimes at fault as well?” Absolutely. Just as there are bad patients who try to tell surgeons how to operate, there are bad business executives who try to force specific solutions on an IT organization rather than keep the discussion at the level of benefits and costs. In medicine we see drug manufacturers doing an end run around doctors by advertising specific drugs directly to the patient. And in the IT industry we see technology vendors using the same end run approach to try to sell hardware and software solutions directly to business executives.

But when a patient who is sold on a new drug goes to his doctor, it’s the doctor’s responsibility to determine whether or not the drug is the best treatment for the patient’s condition. And the same thing applies when a business executive who has been sold by a technology vendor goes to his or her IT organization to request the technology. It’s the IT executive’s responsibility to look at the real business problem that the business executive is trying to solve, and to recommend a solution that is optimized for the specific business need. That might be the technology that the business executive wants, but there may be an alternative technology which better meets the real business need, has lower risk, or fits better with the overall IT architecture of the business.

If there is in fact a better alternative and the IT executive fails to convince the business executive, then one of two things is going on:

  1. The IT executive doesn’t have enough trust and support from the CEO to stand up for what’s right, or
  2. The IT executive doesn’t have the communication and political skills required for the senior IT position.

In either case the IT executive – and in fact the entire IT organization – is headed toward failure, just as a doctor will fail who prescribes drugs just because a patient wants them. An IT organization can survive a few of these failures, but if there are any more than a few, then the quality and reputation of the IT organization will sink rapidly as the number of unconnected and uncontrolled systems grows within the business. When non-technology people control technology choices, chaos will ensue.

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