It's rare these days to meet an IT professional who doesn't know what matters most to their organisation. They are generally knowledgeable about its value proposition, relationships with customers and what differentiates it from competitors. But when IT professionals from the CIO down talk to their colleagues, often they lead the conversation with technology – that's a problem for everyone involved. The idea that leading the conversation with technology might be a problem will undoubtedly strike many such professionals as counterintuitive. After all, isn't technology their business? Aren't they expected to know technology and what it can do, as well as help everyone in the business use technology to its maximum effect? Isn't technology exactly what everyone else in the business expects them to talk about?
The answer to the last question might be yes, but if so, something has to change — and not just for the benefit of the IT professional. It's not enough to refer to valuable business outcomes in a conversation with colleagues. Value must lead the conversation because the topic that leads is implicitly the one that matters most. IT professionals must demonstrate that what matters most to them is what matters most to everyone else in the business.
Of course, IT professionals are supposed to be expert in the ways of technology, just as marketing professionals are expected to know marketing. But like everyone else in the building, they are there to help the business create value for customers and itself. Technology is not value – a conversation that begins with technology is at least one step removed from a conversation about the value the enterprise creates.
Most IT professionals know what outcomes matter to their business. Leading the conversation with those outcomes is a habit that can be learned. Doing so positions them as a member of the team — an essential player who knows what game the team is playing and how they score — as opposed to the "IT guy" who only cares about machines.
IT professionals at every level can take the following steps to prepare themselves:
Know what outcomes and performance matter most. A CIO recently commented to us that she couldn't engage the executive team in a strategic discussion. When strategy was discussed, she was outside the room. We asked: "What percentage of the cost of one of your products, as manufactured, is accounted for by labour?" She told us: "I don't know, but I guess I should." Indeed. The labour cost for that product is a metric that every other member of the executive team knows by heart and thinks about every day. If the CIO doesn't know that number, they are certain to be outside the room when strategy is discussed.
Know six top operational and six top financial metrics for every non-IT manager or executive you work with, and why those metrics matter. Getting to this level of detail helps demonstrate the IT professional is really paying attention to the performance needs of business units throughout the enterprise. "Operational" metrics are emphasised here for the simple reason that they are too often ignored.
IT professionals, like everyone else in the enterprise, often think in terms of financials when they think value. But anything that is material to the interests of the enterprise, quantifiable and baselined is fair game for a value discussion.
It's common for many IT professionals to refer to such metrics as "soft" metrics. But a metric is only soft if it's not quantifiable or baselined. There's nothing soft about order accuracy, on-time delivery percentages, inventory turns or any other operational metric that matters to a business unit leader. Knowing what these metrics are, what the current level of performance is and what changes in those metrics imply for the fortunes of the enterprise makes discussions of value concrete and vital.
Name initiatives based on outcomes, not technologies. Technology is never the point in any project — the point is the outcomes the technology is intended to enable. Naming the project after technology has the effect of telling the rest of the organisation that it has no connection to anything that anyone outside IT cares about. That's not a good way to talk about value.
Communicating value means keeping everyone's "eyes on the prize." The prize is never technology per se. Focus on the prize — the outcome that justifies the hard work it will take to achieve it. If that outcome is not clear, neither is the value.
Practice, practice, practice. It takes time to change the way you think, which is essential to changing what you say. CIOs can start the ball rolling by practicing value conversations with staff about outcomes, not technologies; then encourage the staff to do the same with their reports. Over time, the mindset of the IT organisation will change and IT personnel will be better prepared to lead with value — meaning the outcomes and performance that matter most — in their conversations throughout the business.
By changing conversation to lead with value, IT professionals signal that IT is an essential player on the team, playing the same game as everyone else in the enterprise, focused on the same kind of wins. Until that happens, IT is on the outside and no one gets enough value from IT. When it does happen, the groundwork has been laid for serious discussions about which initiatives offer the most potential for improved enterprise performance — for which IT can expect to get its share of the credit as a key team player.
Linda Price is group vice-president, executive programmes, Gartner. Email comments to Linda.firstname.lastname@example.org
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