Communication breakdown

Communication breakdown

The CIO has to be more adept than most business leaders at adjusting the message and the medium according to the situation.

How many times do we hear that the root cause of a particular misunderstanding or process failure is poor communication? This observation applies equally to something as supposedly simple as a failure to communicate effectively within a department, to a more substantial failing of poor communication between an ­enterprise and its customers. You may recall the recent criticism of Westpac when it sent its customers a video email comparing the rise in its interest rates to buying banana smoothies. That comparison drew criticism from consumer groups, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and even Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The 2009/2010 Communication ROI Study report by Towers Watson finds that ­ enterprises that communicate effectively are the best financial performers. In fact, companies that are highly effective communicators had 47 per cent higher total returns to shareholders over the past five years compared with firms that are the least effective communicators. Likewise, CIOs who master the core leadership skill of communication are more successful in their roles and lead more successful IT organisations that help their enterprises run, grow and transform. Courageous, innovative and effective communication is ­especially important now as the economy starts to pull out of the economic challenges of 2009 and the IT agenda again ramps up.

Great communication involves delivering the right type and amount of information to the right people at the right time using the right method. Many IT organisations do themselves a disservice by considering a broadcast email as the right method in all instances. During a team-building exercise with my IT firm some years ago, our facilitator applied Myers-Briggs testing to the team as a way of increasing understanding of each other's style preferences. The results were illuminating. With few exceptions, all team members aligned around one particular Myers-Briggsstyle. One characteristic of that common style was a preference for communicating by email – rather than face-to-face. This finding had a significant impact and we made a concerted effort to increase this type of communication by IT with our business colleagues.

Considering each element of effective communication will lead to better communication – and will enhance your personal reputation as CIO and that of your IT organisation:

Message content – Consider the needs of the stakeholder by answering the following questions: Why does the stakeholder need to hear the message? What does it mean to them on a personal or organisational level? Why should they care?

Delivery method – Consider the corporate culture when selecting how a message will be delivered. For example, in an environment with warehouse employees who do not have access to email, use hard-copy methods. Word the message in the recipient's language: the context and tone of a message targeted at the CFO will be more financially oriented than one for the head of sales who speaks more about business growth. Also consider the nature of the message. If change is the topic of the communication, the more significant the change, the more important it is to deliver communications in person or via video.Perhaps site trips to other locations to give all IT employees the opportunity to hear the message directly and ask questions are required.

Delivery frequency– Consistent delivery of common communications will contrinute to the level of IT credibility. In emergency situations, engage quickly and communicate frequently throughout the crisis period. And, as one of our Gartner Executive Program members recently said: "If you wait for a crisis to start communicating, there will be more questions about who you are and what you represent, versus content of the message you're trying to communicate."

Feedback – Communication is a two-way loop. It involves soliciting the ideas and opinions of others and using that feedback to refine your message, identify additional stakeholders, improve your timing and measure your success. Listen to what is being said as well as what is not being said. Determine whether a full understanding of the message has been achieved. To return to our example of communicating significant change, do people clearly understand their role in the change and are they prepared to effectively play it?

As one CIO eloquently stated at a recent Gartner event, "The CIO has to be better than most at changing their style of communication to communicate effectively with the range of their stakeholders, constituents, partners and customers."

To assist with this challenge, I offer the following recommendations:

  • Adjust your communication style to the maturity and culture of the organisation.
  • Employ professional help if you need it.
  • Make it more personal – develop your own communication style.
  • Don't wait for a crisis – adopt a strategy of continuous communication.
  • Develop a vision for the organisation – ­vision is the CIO's signature.
  • Share and live your vision.

Linda Price is group vice-president of executive programmes, Gartner. Email comments to

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