The Communications Gap Between CIOs and Business Stakeholders—and How to Fix It

When asked to describe the skills most critical to the CIO’s success, “communications” may not be the first phrase to jump to mind. However, in an age of BizOps and digital transformation, the role of communicator is one that can have an increasingly pivotal role in a CIO’s ability to lead change and deliver value. As a marketing and communications executive, I’ll examine why communicating with business stakeholders is such a vital mandate for the modern CIO and I’ll offer some key strategies for optimizing these communications.

The BizOps Imperative, and the Implications

The lack of alignment between business and IT has been a reality forever, or at least as long as there’s been IT and business. However, the reality is that schisms between these organizations have persisted, and alignment isn’t what it can and should be.

BizOps can be integral for addressing this alignment challenge since it represents a strategic architecture that transforms decision making. Much the way DevOps can accelerate digital delivery, BizOps can support the establishment of a strategic foundation that can accelerate and scale digital transformation.

As organizations pursue BizOps, the demands on CIOs will continue to evolve. Moving forward, one of a CIOs’ most critical roles will be that of communicator, and of particular importance will be their ability to communicate with internal and external stakeholders.

The Challenge

Historically, IT and business leaders have operated in an isolated fashion, with distinct organizations, teams, processes, and so on. Part of this distinction also arises in terms of communications and language.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that CIOs are comfortable with, and default to, technology speak. In their day-to-day jobs, these executives are inherently focused on concepts like capacity, availability, and performance. However, it is this fundamental reality that can mean that a CIO’s communication style isn’t aligned with the business leaders receiving them.

The inability to communicate optimally with business leadership can have significant and far-reaching ramifications. Maybe a CEO isn’t sold on the business value of a technology initiative, and ultimately that initiative doesn’t get funded. Or within the larger business, the perception of IT’s value is diminished or stays low. Perhaps support for ongoing IT initiatives and policies isn’t sustained or maybe business leaders choose to go around IT altogether. Maybe line-of-business leaders don’t buy in to IT approaches, so they don’t advocate for adherence to policies, and compliance lags.

Keys to Communicating with Business Stakeholders

These implications are increasingly costly for organizations. Ultimately, this communications gap limits the ability of IT to contribute to critical business objectives, which can have a direct and significant impact on the business’ prospects and degree of success. Further, this lack of strategic alignment will continue to stifle transformation efforts, and is very much anathema to vital initiatives like BizOps. The following sections offer a practical look at how CIOs can begin to optimize their communications with business stakeholders.

Understand the Audience

To communicate effectively, it’s critical to know your audience and tell a story that creates empathy. To do this, a CIO can adopt an approach out of the marketing team’s playbook: persona-based marketing. In marketing, we focus on tailoring communications to specific types of prospects. In a similar way, CIOs should focus on aligning their communications with several key personas, such as board members, CEOs, CFOs, and line-of-business leaders. Based on an understanding of these key contacts, CIOs can then adapt and tailor their communications to these individuals.

Objectives and Strategies

In particular, take time to study the key audience members and their strategies, including the following areas:

  • KPIs. How does this persona track their team’s progress? What metrics does this persona’s leadership use to measure his or her success?
  • Objectives. What are their primary goals and objectives? Adopting a new business model? Responding to new competitive threats? Increasing new customer acquisition or retention? Increasing customer lifetime value?
  • Challenges. What are the top challenges they’re confronting? What issues are impeding their progress?

Communications Processes, Habits, and Preferences

To enable optimized communications, CIOs should look to the persona’s existing communications, including the following three factors:

  • Terminology. What types of terminology do they use, particularly to describe the topics they care most about?
  • Communication methods. How does communication happen with their organizations? This can be invaluable in aligning communications most seamlessly. This can help with determining whether to focus on in-person meetings with accompanying reports, formal presentations, or emails.
  • Timing. Look at the audience to guide timing, both in terms of frequency and dates. On a practical level, you want to ensure you’re communicating on a frequency they’re accustomed to, and, for example, that you’re not communicating with the CFO during a cycle close or with a chief revenue officer in the days preceding the end of the fiscal quarter.

By gaining an understanding of the audience’s strategies and communications preferences, CIOs can begin to better align the content and format of their communications.

Articulate Business Value

When it comes to communications, planning, and strategies, it will be incumbent upon CIOs to focus on business value. At the highest level, it can be helpful to think about business value along three key domains:

  • Value creation. This can include the delivery of new services, perhaps to keep pace with, or differentiate from, competitors. How can these efforts translate to key business metrics, such as customer acquisition or retention? For example, how will an upgrade to an e-commerce back-end’s scalability impact business metrics, such as increased checkouts per hour? How will enhanced responsiveness enable reduced shopping cart abandonments?
  • Resource optimization. While this can often fall into a cost-reduction discussion around IT budgets, there can be far broader business impact and value. For example, from an IT standpoint, an AIOps initiative that helps automate event management and remediation may boost the productivity of IT staff and reduce a team’s reliance on outside contractors and associated costs. However, this type of automation may also translate to cost reduction in other areas of the business, for example reducing staff calls into the help desk or avoiding disruption. Alternatively, maybe the automation will free up high-level staff to deliver against some other business-impacting effort.
  • Risk mitigation. A wide range of efforts can fall under this category. While security-related investments and initiatives come immediately to mind, there can be a number of other areas that can benefit. For example, the automation initiative outlined above can help with risk mitigation. Maybe persistent service issues are leading to increased customer churn. The automation of event management can reverse this trend by enabling faster remediation, reducing the scope and duration of outages. Further, intelligent automation can even set the stage for the detection of potential problems and the ability to preempt them before customers ever notice there’s an issue.

By thinking about IT initiatives within each of these categories, CIOs can help frame their efforts in a way that resonates most with the business stakeholders they need to collaborate with.

Optimize Communications

Finally, look to ensure communications are optimized for maximum impact. Look to ensure your communications adhere to these principles:

  • Relevant. Ensure your communications map to the strategies and business values outlined above.
  • Clear and concise. To the greatest extent possible, try to eliminate ambiguity and deliver clear, succinct messages.
  • Credible. Provide key points that are supported with evidence, including metrics and examples.

Conclusion

As organizations continue to pursue digital transformation and BizOps initiatives, the alignment of IT and business grows increasingly vital. Consequently, communicating with business stakeholders represents an increasingly strategic component of the CIO’s job description. By gaining an understanding of the audience, clearly articulating the business value of IT initiatives, and optimizing their interactions, CIOs can begin to establish the communications that foster alignment, and help facilitate successful BizOps initiatives.