Tips for speaking like a business strategist

As an IT pro, you know you need to think strategically, but can you speak strategically, too? CIOs share advice on how to catch the ear of senior management.

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To the adage "Don't lead with technology, lead with the business problem," Doniz would add a trailer: "Don't let the business side lead with technology either." It's an increasing problem as technology pervades every aspect of the organization and beckons as a cure-all for every corporate challenge. "Don't let the business side say, 'Let's do something with Facebook' or 'Let's digitize,'" Doniz elaborates. "Get them to state the problem, state the goal, then fit the technology to the solution. That's strategic." (For more tips on talking to the business, see "Tough Questions, Better Outcomes," below.)

Jim Forbes, CTO at University Health Network in Toronto, agrees that IT needs to be vigilant when the business side comes asking for a specific technology. "You need to ask the question, 'What are you really trying to solve?' You need to get closer to the business problem, and the way you do that is to keep drilling down and down to find out what they really want," he advises.

When managers at University Health Network said they wanted to "improve the patient experience," Forbes and his team qualified that by examining the entire process to identify which specific elements of the patient experience were subpar. "We went through and made sure we really understood their requirements," he says.

One key concern turned out to be the time patients were left in common areas or examination rooms waiting for doctors or test results -- a challenging situation to improve, since it involves multiple departments and several different staffers. The solution is a smartboard application that shows nurses and clinicians how long patients have been waiting in any one area and tracks that against industry benchmarks.

Know Your Industry -- and Others

As crucial as knowing the business is, it's only a first step, say Peterson and other CIOs. To be truly strategic, IT pros need to fully understand their industry and even cross-industry forces that will eventually impact their companies -- not an easy task, Peterson points out, in complicated industries like healthcare that are roiling with change.

For midlevel IT staffers who aspire to rise through the ranks, that means homework, everything from reading trade publications and attending industry conferences to asking to be mentored by an appropriate executive.

"Ask questions and get involved," Peterson advises. "Even if you're on what you might view as a pretty technical component of a project, try to understand the business context of the requests being made of you. What are the senior executives' business goals for the project? How will the paying customers feel?"

And how will your industry -- and beyond -- react? Strategy means anticipating where your market is going and identifying the technological elements of that change, and also contributing IT perspective from other industries. "If senior leaders, and I include myself in this group, aren't thinking about how technology is being applied in relevant ways in other industries and other companies, we're being shortsighted," Peterson says. Just one example: As healthcare continues its customer-centric reform, it should take cues from the retail and financial services industries, he says.

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