Eye to eye

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, CEOs are from Mercury and CIOs are from Jupiter. There’s good news, though: The distance between them is narrowing. Chief executives and chief information officers are learning to communicate.

Traditionally, information technology types thought

and talked in terms of bits and bytes, bells and whistles. Often they saw new technology as an end in itself, and tried to talk to their corporate bosses in terms of processing power and bandwidth. Non-technical executives — even when they bought into the assumption that newer technology provided a competitive edge — saw IT as a cost centre whose contribution to business goals was far from obvious.

In the past, says Wynne Powell, president and chief executive of Vancouver-based retail chain London Drugs, IT people talked about choices between mainframes and minicomputers or among different software products, and business people paid attention mainly to the costs.

“”It’s a very big challenge,”” says Paul Tellier, president and chief executive of Canadian National Railway Co. in Montreal. “”The answer lies partly in making sure that the IS/IT people are prohibited from using the jargon and that they explain what they want to do for their customers in plain English.””

From the other side of what he calls the “”semantic gap,”” Eugene Roman agrees. Bell Canada’s chief information officer says IT and business people must develop a common language. “”Systems work is sometimes very difficult to portray unless you put it in simple terms,”” he says.

The advent of the CIO title brought some progress. CIOs have learned their top-level job titles mean they must emphasize business strategy, not technology, says Jean-Claude Aube, partner with the Montreal-based IT consulting firm CGI Group Inc.

Of course, poor communication is never the fault of only one party. If IT executives have been too concerned with technology for technology’s sake in the past, non-IT executives have been too quick to dismiss technology as a cost centre with little relevance to the rest of the business.

That too is changing. “”The technology is more important, so the other officers in any institution spend more time on it now,”” observes Charles Baillie, chairman and chief executive of TD Bank Financial Group in Toronto.

Powell says a good understanding of technology is now essential for a successful CEO.

“”Most of the CEOs have realized they have to, that there is no such thing as e-business and business, it’s business — and business is electronic,”” agrees Wendy Merkley, chief information officer and vice-president of customer relationship management at Empire Financial Group in Kingston, Ont.

Merkley adds, though, that many CEOs still don’t appreciate the need for a strategic systems architecture to ensure the organization uses technology dollars wisely.

“”Absolutely the business strategy drives the technology strategy,”” she says, “”but a business strategy without a technology strategy is not a good recipe.””

And if IT executives are to focus on business strategy, that strategy must be clear. “”The onus on the CEO is to articulate the vision for the business sufficiently well that it is clear to the CIO what their job is,”” says Jim McKeen, head of the MBA for Science and Technology program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Powell at London Drugs says he finds IT people respond very well to business needs once they understand them.

To talk the same language, CIOs and CEOs must first be talking — and not just now and then. “”I think that the IT folks have to have regular, quick contacts with the most senior management,”” Powell says. This dialogue keeps IT people aware of business needs, and keeps senior management up-to-date on technology issues.

Merkley is part of Empire’s executive group and meets with the CEO constantly. “”I have his ear,”” she says, “”and I don’t see how any CIO can work without that.”” Roman praises his CEO, John Sheridan, for an open-door style and a willingness to trust IT management — and he suggests that if other CEOs took a bit more time to talk to their IT people “”they’d get performance that they didn’t think they could get.””

Communication between CIO and CEO is not the whole story, McKeen adds. The CIO’s dialogue with other senior executives is also important. A few months ago, Queen’s planned a seminar on e-commerce for CIOs and senior marketing executives. It was called off because not enough CIOs could persuade their marketing counterparts to join them. “”I think that spoke volumes,”” McKeen says. “”They don’t spend a lot of time together.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.
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