If your company doesn't care about IT, here are four ways to change its mind

It's time to take a new approach when talking about tech to the business -- here's how.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Building up a history of delivering projects can help win the business over to IT's cause. (Image: iStock)

CIOs are criticised for not showing enough interest in business matters. IT leaders, so the theory goes, should spend more time engaging with the outside world and less time tinkering with their servers.

But maybe the reverse is true, too: should business managers pay more attention to what the tech team is doing and thinking?

If so, how can CIOs encourage their business peers to become tech-savvy? ZDNet spoke to the experts and discovered best practice tips for helping the board make the most of technology.

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    Stay open-minded
    Lisa Heneghan, global head of KPMG's CIO advisory practice, spends a large amount of time talking with non-IT board members and says executives recognise the power of technology. "They don't necessarily understand IT but they are keen to learn. That desire presents a great opportunity for CIOs," says Heneghan.

    Research from KPMG and Harvey Nash suggests the board is looking for IT leaders who can use systems and services to boost business profitability. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of CIOs indicate projects that make money are a priority, compared to 37 percent who report the CEO is more interested in IT as a cost-saving tool.

    CIOs who have been asked to keep costs down might find it unusual to take an upbeat approach to technology spending. However, Heneghan says an open mindset is likely to be rewarded. "The majority of IT leaders have traditionally adopted a defensive stance. CIOs must take an alternative approach," she says.

    "They need to appreciate the context of fellow board members and actively debate how IT can help. In IT, we all talk about the importance of adopting an agile culture -- and that's a mentality you also need in the boardroom. As a modern CIO, you must be open to other viewpoints."

    Build a track record in delivery to build confidence in IT
    Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, agrees non-IT executives should know more about technology. He says digital systems and services play a critical role in modern business operations. The good news is great boards recognise this key role.

    Dowden uses the relationships in his own business as evidence. Non-IT executives at Airswift understand the potential power of technology and are keen to learn more. "We have a lot of younger people in senior positions and an interest in technology is natural to them," says Dowden.

    Not all IT leaders, of course, will find themselves facing a receptive audience. Dowden says CIOs in this position must prove both the value of technology and their ability to lead great projects. "Change comes with risk -- and no business likes risk. You need to build the confidence in the rest of the business," he says.

    Dowden suggests a track record in delivery is crucial. "You have to have history in delivering transformational IT projects on time, to budget, and with measurable business benefits. If that track record exists, then the business will believe its exposure to risk is much lower and they will be much more confident in IT," he says.

    "When you do present your vision for change, the rest of the C-suite will believe value is going to be created. You have to understand how your initiative will affect profit and loss, and that needs to be forecast long in advance. By doing that exercise at the beginning, you will resolve a lot of challenges."

    Reach out to business peers and show how IT solves problems
    Richard Corbridge, CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland, asks a simple question to his IT executive peers: "Do you, as a CIO, have an interest in all aspects of your peers' business responsibilities? I hope so but I doubt it, so why do we think our peers in the C-suite should have an interest in digital?"

    Rather than a fascination with technology, Corbridge says non-IT executives should have an interest in creating solutions to business challenges -- and that is where IT leaders can provide critical input. "The CIO is now the problem solver for the business, and it's a great role if the relationships can be created effectively," he says.

    Corbridge says the modern CIO role is mainly about convincing the rest of the organisation how problems can be resolved. The resolution often, although not exclusively, involves business change facilitated through technology. CIOs looking to push their point should be prepared to reach out to non-IT colleagues.

    "The CIO need not be a lonely role, it needs to be a role where you are part of the team," says Corbridge. "That doesn't mean you have to make technology simple; it means you have to be seen as the solver of problems."

    Have big conversations with the board to prove the value of change
    Andrew Marks, former CIO and now UK and Ireland managing director at Accenture Technology Strategy, says there is a well-known business principle that IT should never hold an organisation back. Until recently, this would have been questionable at best. However, digital transformation has created a shift in perception, and the technology department must be ready to support quick changes in direction.

    "So much of business operations is IT-enabled that it is critical for boards to understand the role technology plays," says Marks. "Poor management of IT investments is a board-level responsibility. Many businesses recognise that they haven't invested to an appropriate level in IT for many years and that technology is now crucial to success."

    Not all organisations have been quick to transform. Yet Marks says even these companies can make a rapid change. "The exciting thing is that the capability of technology today is such that executives at slower moving firms can jump to the future without having to overcome so many of the hurdles faced by earlier adopters; and they can do it today at much lower cost," he says.

    "Some boards have been able break the cycle where an IT director comes and asks for a big cheque every couple of years. To make that change, smart CIOs have had big conversations with their CFOs and CEOs. They've had the debate over the cost of IT, the move to variable rather than capital costs, and everyone now understands the value of change."

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