I just spent a very eye-opening day at M. I. T. participating in a symposium of CIOs. These are the Chief Information Officers who are responsible for technology across a number of large companies. What was on their mind? Exactly what you’d expect: digital, transformation, disruption, and bringing business and technology together. But there was also another recurring theme, a sort of underlying string threading it all together:
What? Yes. Communication.
Before I dive into that, let me set the scene. We’re all in the midst of one of the most significant business transformations in history, and the group of people responsible for shepherding us through this watershed moment is Information Technology. Yes, the future of business is in the hands of IT. Take a moment to let that soak in.
For many companies, IT is seen as just a department. In many cases over the years, IT has earned a negative perception of being slow, expensive, and difficult to work with. How in the world can a department with this sort of reputation be responsible for the future of business?
If I had a nickel for every time someone at the CIO conference said, “all companies are now technology companies” or ”software is eating the world,” I’d earn back all the money I spent on my business trip.
Technology or software or digital is indeed the future of business. It’s the future of everything. I have an opinion on that, but that’s for another post. For now, think about all of the potential that technology offers enterprises. New business models, competitive advantage, faster time to market, increased market share, insights, and the list goes on.
So the trillion dollar question is: how is technology going to pull it off?
Through all the panels I attended at the CIO symposium, there was that thread I mentioned earlier: “For technology to be successful, we need to do a better job communicating.” Why did they use the word “we”? Because better communication is required by ALL participants. By participants, I mean everyone in the business. That includes boards, executive committees, marketing, sales, technology, everyone, and even customers. Can’t forget about them, right? They’re the reason you exist as a company in the first place.
My belief is that a new conversation needs to happen. Actually, it’s a new language that needs to happen. It’s not about saying something at the next town hall or team meeting. It’s now about another email communique. It's about a fundamental shift in communication that will allow all of us to be aligned, on the same page, in sync, clear, and moving in the right direction.
Here is the situation as I see it. We have a bunch of siloes in the business—distinct, disconnected ivory towers rising up through the corporate sky. Essentially, these siloes are really just defensive strongholds built to protect various groups’ self-interests. They have developed unique vernaculars, languages, and processes to defend against foreign invaders. IT is perhaps the most famous for creating its own vernacular, but departments like finance and marketing have, as well.
One of the reasons IT has a bad reputation is because business people don’t often understand the language that IT is speaking. This creates distrust, which ultimately leads to less-than-spectacular outcomes for everyone involved. The typical technology practitioner wasn’t focused on communication skills when they were in school. They were focused on learning technology. They were studying up for the mathematics section of the SAT—who cared what their reading and writing scores were? Conversely, most business people weren’t focused on technology when they were learning the trade. Their SAT scores didn’t matter as much as their MBA degrees that came later. Now, throw marketing people into the mix who are on the opposite end of IT—hypersensitive about language and communication—and poof! Here we are. SATs and MBAs aside, technologists need to learn the business more than business folks need to understand the minute details of technology and coding.
If we are going to be successful, technology leaders have to climb down out of their towers and come across the aisle. If technology is the most strategic business asset, then we are required to communicate clearly so that technology people can empower business people and take an active role in leading the business. We talk about creating a common language that everyone understands, but real communication begins with setting a vision for the company. This helps everyone in the organization understand what it’s in it for them, how their roles and responsibilities line up to achieving the vision, and provides an effective system that encourages honest dialogue. And finally, the organization needs to allow for leeway and time while making real investments to sustain progress. It’s really easy to set up an internal collaboration or social system, but it takes commitment for it to pay off. Otherwise, after a few months, that shiny, cool social network is just going to be a party that everyone left.
All of this requires a top down approach. Here’s a call out to all the board members, CEOs, and executives out there: you need to make this a priority. Set the vision. Make the commitment. Invest in powerful communication tools that bring alignment and drive it forward. Otherwise, hand the keys over to the new competitor who just came out of nowhere and took away your market share.
Communication is the new critical business imperative.