Improving Communication Skills or Building Adaptation in Fellow Colleagues-The Priority of a CIO

By Pavan Kumar Malladi, CIO & Director-IT, Dhiraagu

Lost in translation: Is it communication skills of CIO or competence mix in executive teams that is the problem?

A chairman of a very large semiconductor giant very recently gave advice on how CIO’s can communicate with the board and executives. The summary of what he said was very similar to what is being written across the board that CIO’s need better communication skills. His points to summarize quickly centered on the fact that CIO’s need to explain rather than make “blackmail type” statements such as “Our security will be breached within next x months if we don’t invest”, and he would want his board to have a CIO who “Also Understands Business” along with being an IT specialist not just a peripheral person. There are many articles on this topic and how IT professionals need to improve their communication skills and this is not one of them. However as I think about it as being among board rooms and executive teams I cannot help but think that this problem is not defined very well and there-in lies the issue. Firstly the problem is not just “Low communication skill of CIOs or IT leaders”. I do believe there is a point there but I think the real problem is “Low competence of the entire executive teams not fit enough for the current hyper connected and hyper automated digital world”. 

“State of the CIO -2016 Survey” done by www.cio.com across 517 CIO’s. 

As you can see in figure 1, from the focus areas towards 2016 are getting converged into a very congested set of focus areas. While improving operations, aligning to business has always been there and still continues to be priority new priorities such as Security are climbing into the mix. This is where the first symptoms of the problem lie. I would like to call it a “Congested Focus of IT”. The reasons for this being the focus areas such as aligning to business and leading change have started but not yet completed and continue to be priority while the environment is pushing new priorities such as security into the high priority zone. Why has this happened? 

The reality is that no one anticipated the changes to the requirements for these initiatives that came across during the period and the process of CAPEX allocation and its utilization which is cyclic across a year doesn’t lend itself to adjustments and agility. Therefore things are as they are today. So it was the competence of the executives within the boardroom collectively where they had to learn a new incremental way of developing things fast, failing at them and re-adjusting to collectively meet market demands, which was lacking. The competition coming from new age companies is built upon this “failing fast” and “Agility” rather than “process” mentality that had been succeeding at these new innovative initiatives. So the sum total competency of the executive boardroom is the issue and not communication. For communication to be successful it has to be contextual. The context arrives in small increments of time and in the new age IT structures and not in yearly cycles of production and distribution as it was the tradition. The context of communication is never in line with the context of the change initiative, improvements to operations, rapid adaptation to technology that the CIO or IT leader is leading. This is the central issue.

While we have described the problem and slightly touched upon a comprehensive solution which seems like an impossibility considering how many board and executive members have to learn new ways, here is a small work around as promised to survive this contextual conundrum. Typically the question to the CIO comes from board discussions and executive meetings when the question of “WHAT has to be done?” has to be answered. My advice is do not wait till then. Start educating your boards’ and executive teams on “WHY?” much before and then take them through “HOW it can be done?” in a much more informal atmosphere. Then come back to “WHAT?” while finalizing it. If you need to explain security investments don’t start with WHAT is the new security paradigm the company needs. Go from WHY? to Increasing opening of company assets to the outside world to increase new uses of company information. Then to HOW? By Opening up these information assets the incredibly focused BIG DATA inside the company can utilized and analyzed by outside parties, however while protecting privacy of the company’s customers as well as securely sending and receiving information. Then go into WHAT? i.e. the security software, encryption methods that will be introduced for such interactions and the risks of not doing it.

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