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3/17
2016
Denise Donohue

Business People and IT People: Improving Communication

Have you ever met a married couple where one spouse can finish the other’s sentences – so in tune they are with what each will say?

You’d think that after all these years of technology being a driving force behind business growth, there’d be similarly strong communication links between IT and business leaders. Alas, it’s still the case that those kinds of close relationships remain the exception rather than the rule. Let’s face it, even IT executives and the engineers or analysts who report to them sometimes seem to be speaking different languages.

Sure, companies have managed to be successful despite these communication gaps. But have they been as successful as they could be – or at least have they achieved their success in as seamless and efficient a way as possible? I’d say probably not.

Clearly, any enterprise that wants to lead more strategically, innovate more creatively, and expand more aggressively has a vested interest in being able to communicate more effectively across party lines. IT professionals, you should champion the cause of becoming better communicators outside of your own cohorts. When speaking to CEOs, CFOs, business unit leaders, or even other IT group members, remember that although you’re all working on the same problems, you may be approaching issues from a different conceptual viewpoint.

That being the case, ask yourself: What can you do to bring those different viewpoints into greater alignment? How can you take action to drive better communication across the organization so that the impact and benefits of suggested IT proposals or revisions are clear to everyone?

Here are some ways to get started:

IT executives should know the enterprise vision. Do you know your company’s five-year plan? If not, it’s time to ask about it, so that you can understand where the business is going and how business executives talk about achieving those goals. Optimally, IT will even be involved in the discussions that generate those strategies.

Getting your foot in the door here gives you the heads-up you need to plan the right technology to support those aims. And it gives you a chance to understand the language you should adopt in discussing the tech efforts you believe will be critical to the enterprise’s success with your business colleagues. (Bonus points if you translate that strategy all the way down to your line staff, so that the entire IT team feels part of the bigger picture.)

IT leaders should build business use cases for their initiatives. Talking with business colleagues and superiors about your IT-driven business ideas in language they can understand is good. Crafting business plans about them that address each audience’s particular issues in plain and clear written detail is even better.

Take that idea you had of putting new data center infrastructure in place to enhance scalability and halt bottlenecks to business growth. In the past, you may have mentioned the need to replace legacy systems that are getting old in language completely absent of business-goal context – and in the process sent your CFO into spasms of worry about the IT budget going through the roof. Now that you understand the corporate five-year plan, though, you can structure your proposition for a tech refresh around the enterprise’s key objectives, such as driving e-commerce growth.

Put your proposition in that context in a formal use case document. Don’t just talk speeds and feeds, but rather focus on how your solution will accelerate customer interactions to encourage buying behaviors and contribute to revenue growth, and how quickly it can be implemented. That will go a long way towards turning your CFO – and your CEO, too – into big fans of your plans.

IT staff should always be prepared to supply more information and explanations. Just as IT leaders should become familiar with the language of business, so too should all IT members be ready to help business users understand the tech concepts that are part of their world. That doesn’t mean getting nitty-gritty about the architecture of your hyper-converged systems. But it does mean providing enough knowledge to help business colleagues make their next strategic decision, or get them to understand that the IT group is ahead of the game in key respects.

For example, maybe your CEO just read an article about being in the cloud…and someone at Gartner says your company should be in the cloud…and now you’re getting questioned about why you haven’t gotten the business in the cloud yet! It’s obvious to you that your deployment awhile back of Office 365 for productivity applications and Box for online file storage means the company already is immersed in the cloud, but don’t assume that that’s clear to individuals outside the IT department. Or maybe you haven’t moved in the cloud direction yet but for good reason – perhaps you lack the resources you need to assure security and seamless integration with on-site resources.

Either way, concisely lay the facts out: Once your CEO understands them, he or she may encourage you to explore the cloud beyond what you’ve already done, or give you additional aid to manage the issues that have kept you from the cloud to date.

Work as a team, no matter what. Regardless of how many efforts are made upfront to ensure that everyone is working from the same playbook, there is always the chance that a project will run late, an installation will get in trouble, a deployment won’t deliver. Frankly, this may be less the result of poor communications between business and IT than it is of poor communications between different IT divisions.

If and when that happens, it’s important to not assign blame, regardless of how clear it might be to you where fault belongs. Remember that everyone is working towards the same business goals here, so keep the conversations calm and non-confrontational and get the problem solved.

IT leaders should take the same approach when issues arise with business peers, too, of course. Take, for example, a line-of-business head using a credit card to spin up an Amazon web server for a new effort without consulting IT. While it may be normal for an IT exec to feel annoyed at the action, especially if it could put sensitive corporate data at risk, it’s better to consider this an opportunity on two fronts.

First is the chance to explain to the business leader that IT needs to vet such plans first, for the overall good of the company, and second is the realization of a gap in IT’s own processes when it comes to discovering true business needs, so that that issue can be appropriately addressed.

The knowledge that you can be a critical part of driving effective communications that make for a healthier and wealthier business should be empowering. No time to waste, then – get cracking with some smart listening and talking!

We’d be happy to talk more about how your own organization can more effectively align communications between business and IT professionals. Just reach out for a conversation.

Denise Donohue

Denise Donohue

Business Architect

Denise has worked with information systems since the mid-1990s, focusing on network design since 2004. During that time she has designed for a wide range of networks, private and public, of all sizes, across most industries. Her expertise spans most technologies. Denise has authored numerous Cisco Press books and frequently shares her knowledge in webinars and seminars.

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