When to talk, when to shut up: How honest should you be with your peers?

Sharing experiences and war stories with other IT leaders is an important way of expanding your knowledge and network. But how much sharing is too much?
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
CIOs can appear open and engaged - but only up to a point.
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CIOs tend to be a friendly bunch. Get a group of senior technology chiefs together and you will quickly become involved in an honest debate about the benefits of a particular technology and the challenges of receiving buy-in from other managers across the business.

While some executives in other departments might be reticent to speak so openly, CIOs seem keen to engage and to think about how shared experiences can help to make a big problem smaller.

So why are IT leaders so keen to chat and impart best practice knowledge to their peers?

"Sharing experiences is absolutely key," says Sean Harley, IT director at media firm Top Right Group. "I always like to think about how some of our innovation could work in other organisations. Unified communications, for example, has transformed how our company works. We've been lucky to be able to run these sorts of projects and I think many CIOs in other sectors could benefit from hearing about these experiences."

Such a refreshing attitude seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom surrounding competitive advantage. Rather than being pre-occupied with the loss of information, Harley is more eager to think about how he can use his experiences to help other CIOs - and how they might also help him.

The wider perception of the IT leadership role provides one possible explanation for the collaborative attitude of the CIO. The position of technology chief is still in its infancy in comparison to mature c-suite alternatives, such as CEO and CFO.

Unlike the operations or marketing chief, the CIO can struggle to gain the ear of the top table. CIOs have to fight hard to be heard and IT is often viewed as a service, rather than a crucial element of business success. Being with technology peers provides an opportunity to find common ground and let off steam.

The power of shared experience

Abi Somorin, senior IT manager at beachwear retailer Orlebar Brown, says IT leaders are surprisingly keen to impart their best practice knowledge on a peer-to-peer basis. He shares knowledge with IT professionals in various sectors.

Somorin, for example, says he is able to benefit from strong relationships with technology peers at a non-competitive high-street retailer. When he is with his peers, Somorin compares best practice evidence in regards to IT tools.

"CIOs can benefit from sharing their experiences, especially in a forum of like-minded individuals," he says.

IT leaders might be willing to get together and talk about useful tools. But knowing a piece of technology or a leadership approach has worked is not the same as knowing how to use such intelligence in practice. "I might be able to give you my secret recipe but that doesn't mean you're going to be able to cook the same food," says Somorin.

CIOs, then, can appear open and engaged - but only up to a point. It is a sentiment that is recognised by Said Business School CIO Mark Bramwell, who says it can sometimes be a challenge to find IT leaders who are keen to talk honestly about problematic projects.

"People are naturally risk-averse when things haven't worked well - it's seen as a personal failure," he says. "The disappointing thing is that, when you can get hold of them, insights about things that haven't worked as well as anticipated are incredibly powerful."

The reason for that power, says Bramwell, is that insider insights can prevent you as a CIO from making similar errors, which might help explain the reticence of other IT leaders to talk openly about their mistakes. "I guess people don't want to leak information that might be seen as providing a competitive advantage, both in terms of business and career development," he says.

"The CIO is in a highly prominent position. But having access to negative experiences from other CIOs can help you as an executive to make less mistakes, whether that is in terms of implementing technology or working with a vendor."

The importance of competitive advantage

Like Bramwell, former CIO and now consultant at Axin Ian Cox says best practice knowledge can be incredibly valuable, yet he also recognises that many IT leaders are careful with the truth. "CIOs are OK at sharing information, but it tends to be a case of sharing to a point," he says.

"They're better at talking about things that have gone well. When you're at a round table event with CIOs, it sometimes seems amazing how much is going well. Few IT leaders really talk about the actual challenges they face."

So, what information will CIOs share? As well as news of their successful implementations, IT leaders will share their frustrations about working with the rest of the business. Yet Cox says conversations that figure on internal issues for the technology department are rare.

Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard says IT leaders can certainly benefit from sharing best practice experience and evidence with fellow technology chiefs. "Peer networking is a great way to find out about new suppliers and new projects," he says. However, and like so many of his peers, Gerrard is also careful to retain the crown jewels of information that he believes can make a difference to business performance.

"What you hold back depends on the audience you're with," says Gerrard. "Rather than talking, I'd do a lot of listening if I was in the company of other logistics CIOs. Technology drives business advantage in the modern age, so you need to be extremely careful who you chat with and what you talk about."

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