Tech makeover time: How to improve the reputation of IT in your business

Organisations often have a negative perceptions of the IT department. Here's how to get them to think again.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
How does the rest of your organisation view IT?
Image: iStock

Sometimes it's hard to be a CIO. If they are not being undermined by decentralised procurement and shadow IT they're facing an uphill battle to justify their existence to a sceptical CEO.

So why do negative perceptions of the IT leadership role persist and how can CIOs prove the value of their position to the rest of the business? Four experts offer their views.

1. Be passionate about the work you do

"As a community, we're good at saying what a CIO should be doing, but we're not so strong at thinking how we might get the CMO, CEO and COO to view the CIO differently," says Ian Cox, former CIO and consultant at Axin. "That's what really matters - and that's a really tough proposition: how to get the broader business community to see the value of the CIO."

Cox says success in such a debate would be about managing to break outside the IT community and to convince people that the CIO role really is evolving, and that that transformation matters. "We're stuck in a loop, where some people can't affect change, even though they need to be strategic," he says.

As consultant that advises IT leaders on how to cope with disruptive IT, Cox's post-CIO engagements with marketing chiefs suggest openness is more common in that line of business. "I suppose it's all about different personality types," he says, before offering best practice advice to other technology chiefs.

"When you talk with the CMO, try and forget you work in IT. Just be passionate about the work you do. Successful engagement is all about the communications style you adopt."

Cox advises IT leaders to take a step back, particularly during early stages of project discussions. "As CIOs, we're great at thinking though the potential end game of a project quickly, whereas CMOs will be excited and committed," he says."

"CIOs are used to overcoming challenges but that focus can be perceived as negativity. You need to make sure you know the potential obstacles to project success, but you need to highlight these pitfalls at the right time. Instead of being negative, ask a question such as: 'Do we have all the data to know that project will work?'"

2. Get your organisation to support leadership development

Omid Shiraji, formerly CIO at Working Links says there is a significant gap in terms of CIO skills development. CEOs and CFOs can benefit from taking an MBA and HR professionals can become chartered specialists. CIOs, however, do not have an IT-focused equivalent.

Shiraji took the now-defunct masters in information leadership at City University, London. He said the course proved invaluable. "It wasn't just about academic rigour - it was practical, too. The course leaders brought in people to reflect on the CIO role against some of the established theory," he says.

Such courses, however, are not cheap to run or to join. Shiraji says any successful post-graduate CIO leadership course would have to be accompanied by a change in perceptions of the technology chief position.

"Organisations need to be ready to take the role of the CIO seriously - and that's the problem," he says. While big businesses will support MBAs and continued professional development, organisations might still struggle to see the value in CIO-focused training.

"Many organisations are willing to support short courses for IT professionals, like ITIL," he says. "But, from an executive leadership perspective, companies do not understand that you need different skills from other business leaders in order to be a really successful CIO."

3. Translate for business, build strong teams

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says any IT leader who is unable to translate why technology is important to the business will have problems creating a positive perception. Finding people who can make that interpretation is critical for a successful CIO.

"It can take years to craft people," says Marks. "Proper team building can often be a bit like open heart surgery. Sometimes you'll have to drop people. But you'll also need succession planning. As a CIO, you'll need to know who your top people are."

He says a focus on top talent also helps IT leaders to reduce the pressure. Rather than fearing they might be replaced, great CIOs need to be able to spot the best up-and-coming technology professionals.

"Always look to employ people who you think might be better than you," he says. "You'll enjoy your job more because you will know the people you rely on can be trusted to do a good job."

4. Focus on the business benefits of technology

Richard Norris, head of IT and business change at Reliance Mutual Insurance Society, says that - despite some views to the contrary - there isn't always a negative view of the CIO. In a lot of businesses, the organisation has made the right kind of journey and put technology at the heart of everything it does.

But in some businesses, IT is still viewed as a cost rather than an enabler. "And that perception is often down to the CIO," says Norris. "IT leaders need to take the rest of the organisation on a journey and show what technology can help the business to achieve."

He refers to an example during his tenure as IT director at Cullum Capital Ventures. The technology team deployed a standard renewal process that allowed agents to capture information and feed it back to head office automatically. Rather than relying on a manual system, the renewal process allowed agents to upload data quickly.

The team ran a pilot in three parts of the business and received very positive feedback. Individuals that benefited from the project then spoke with other people across the organisation and became advocates for the renewal process.

"We had 35 parts of the business that all wanted access to the renewal process. That momentum made it much easier for me to talk about budget requirements at the executive board meeting," says Norris.

"One of the regional managers said rolling out standard processes across the business would be one of the best things the organisation could do. That was a great feeling for me and it showed that our business really understood the value of great IT systems."

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