What are you doing for me, and why don't I know it?

A close relationship with the chairman isn't enough

I was invited to an urgent, one-on-one meeting with the CIO of a very large IT organization. No hint of the subject matter. Upon arrival, I saw that he was very disturbed about something, but he simply handed me a copy of an e-mail he had recently received from the chairman of the board:

There is such widespread dissatisfaction with data processing within the company that I think we need an outside consultant to come in and determine how and what we can outsource or how we should organize ourselves. The costs are going up with the tight labor market, and as I suspected when we raised our IT salaries, performance doesn't seem to have improved in the eyes of the users. In fact, I believe it is getting worse.
You and I have such a different idea of how well we are doing than the users that I can't see any other way to put the train back on the track.
I don't want another survey like the one we just had. That is too depressing, but we need to see how we can get at least some of our users believing that they are getting value for money. I would bet at this point that we wouldn't win one vote if we put ourselves up for election.
Any ideas or any suggestions on what consulting group to use? A general management firm or a more DP-oriented group?

After I reread the e-mail a couple of times, the CIO talked at length about the many unplanned challenges his organization had met over the past seven years and the many initiatives that had been launched to improve the responsiveness and cost-effectiveness of almost every aspect of IT services. He explained that his organization had successfully absorbed seven acquisitions with no interruptions to existing application systems and services. He told me about the very high numbers of transactions that were successfully handled on a daily and yearly basis. He also explained his practice of meeting with the end users of his services to glean their perceptions about IT. He did all this and more, thoroughly convincing me that users' complaints were off the mark.

Then he asked, "What can I do about this?"

"You can ask the chairman for a 90-day delay before he pursues outsourcing any further," I said.

"What," he wanted to know, "can we possibly hope to accomplish in 90 days?"

"A lot."

Communication is not a four-letter word

I suspected that the general managers of the business groups were unaware of the things that had just been related to me. These accomplishments in all probability had never been communicated to the business groups, at least not in the business terms they understood.

We often fail to make an effort to communicate our accomplishments because we think they are obvious enough that everyone will see them. But business managers don't know what we know about IT. What they knew about IT is that it's very expensive, and they suspect that they aren't getting their money's worth.

Certainly, this CIO wasn't blind to the need to communicate. He had met with users at lower management levels in an effort to find out about their perceptions of IT. His mistake was to think that what those users told him was the same thing they told the general managers. In business, lower-level managers are notorious for telling those above them whatever they want to hear. And from what the chairman had said in his e-mail, the general managers clearly didn't appreciate the value of the IT function.

The CIO got his extension, and we set out on a plan to help general management appreciate the strategic and operational business value that the IT function contributed now, in the near past and into the future. A related goal was to let every IT professional know that they should take pride in these contributions and in their own place in what IT consistently does in support of the enterprise.

His response: "I've been trying to do that for years. How can it be done in 90 days?"

I explained that he needed to build a formal communication plan to stay in touch with clients and staff. It was obvious that this IT organization had done some very important things in support of the business. What it hadn't done was let the interested parties know.

Over the next 60 days, we prepared a "yesterday, today and tomorrow" presentation that substantiated and broadened the message the CIO had conveyed to me in our conversation, putting it all in business terms. In it, the CIO explained that his department was changing its culture from a focus on technology to one on business processes, that it was very involved in all business activities, that it clearly understood that business drives technology, that it had remained responsive to business changes in spite of dramatic growth through many acquisitions, and that it had added business value.

He also demonstrated that his organization was doing all this less expensively than could be done by any alternatives.

The CIO's very credible and understandable theme was simply that his technology function is much more than an expense. It is also a cost-effective, powerful ally and a partner involved in almost every aspect of the enterprise.

So, what happened?

During the final 30 days of the chairman's grace period, the CIO repeatedly gave this presentation to the general management of the enterprise, including the chairman, and to all levels within his IT organization. It was so well received that he was requested to give it nine more times in the following six weeks.

The chairman shelved the notion of outsourcing the IT function.

Going beyond first steps

Of course, the only way to keep dissatisfaction at bay is to keep such presentations updated and give them annually as a minimum.

To his credit, the CIO wasn't finished just yet. Slowly, within the CIO's own organization, the understanding that what IT did avoided cost, improved service or increased revenue resulted in a small but growing sense of pride. And to ensure that he would never repeat such a lapse in communication, the CIO established a small client relationship management (CRM) function as part of his IT organization but outside of the usual plan, build and run technology parts. This new function reports directly to him.

Further, he engaged outside consulting help proficient in CRM transformation processes to more fully develop the interpersonal and communication skills of his CRM unit and IT professional staff. Among many other key communication and commercialization initiatives, this CRM function has since maintained the CIO's presentation as current. He continues to give it every year.

At some point during the information-gathering process, I had mentioned an ancient Chinese saying to the CIO: "You tell me, and I forget. You show me, and I remember. You involve me, and I understand." He looked at me and said, "Got it!"

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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