4 CIOs on marketing IT’s value to the business – CIO

Perception matters, particularly for internal IT organizations. While CIOs may be acutely aware of the essential value their teams create, that value isn’t always evident to stakeholders and clients. We may hope that the work speaks for itself, but the reality is, IT leaders must communicate IT’s accomplishments in a way that people can understand why and how it matters to them.
In other words, you have to think and act like a marketer, shaping IT’s message in a way that resonates.
The inability to communicate IT’s value effectively is contributing to many of the frustrations technology organizations are dealing with today — from not being involved early in the strategic decision-making process, to lack of financial support for key initiatives, to low employee engagement. It’s even affecting perceived impact. An Info-Tech Research Group study found a direct correlation between overall satisfaction with IT and satisfaction with IT communications.
Giant Eagle EVP and CIO Kirk Ball notes that you can’t separate technology from the business anymore; technology is the business. But it takes work to transform long-held perceptions and make your organization’s value proposition tangible for all of your business partners.
In a recent virtual roundtable conversation, Ball joined Teledoc Health Chief Innovation Officer Claus T. Jensen, Pearson CIO Marykay Wells, and Anna Reuhl, senior director of enterprise architecture for performance materials and coatings IT at Dow, to discuss the strategies they’re using to market their IT organization’s value and how they’re developing a marketing mindset and skillset across their teams.
Not many IT people jump out of bed and say to themselves, “I cannot wait to go market technology today.” Yet every member of your team is marketing your IT organization every day. Each conversation leaves an impression.
At the same time, the people we are communicating to are bombarded with thousands of messages daily, of which they remember maybe a dozen. In this exceedingly noisy environment, every word matters. Jargon and acronyms that don’t have any meaning to your business partners just become part of the clutter.
There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about the bells and whistles of an innovative new technology or the technical nuances behind a cyber risk mitigation plan. But if you can’t talk about them in a natural, relatable way, you’re going to have a hard time getting through to your information-overloaded stakeholders.
People want to understand: What’s in it for me? To get buy-in for your initiatives and build your credibility, you have to articulate those benefits — and the consequences of not implementing the technology — in the context of business problems and business outcomes.
“With certain groups, I know that if I don’t adjust the way I’m speaking with them and the vocabulary that I’m using, I could totally lose them in about 30 seconds,” Ball says.
Reuhl’s organization at Dow also applies this multilingual approach to communicating with the business by adapting to the language that their audience is most accustomed to.
“We tend to lean towards manufacturing type of language and storytelling, because that’s the vernacular of 95% of the company. And then on the strategic side, we tend to use vernacular that’s similar to R&D or innovation,” she says. “So, for me in architecture, when I’m with a group that doesn’t know necessarily what enterprise architecture is, I explain it in the context of how we do R&D and innovation.”
Even simple changes in phrasing can make a huge difference in perceptions. Jensen gives the example of “integrated” versus “aligned.” The words are similar, but they generate different impressions. At a broader level, many CIOs have taken their organizations through internal rebranding efforts in recent years, recognizing that “IT” has very specific connotations that don’t convey the full picture of how they’re driving transformation and outcomes for the business.
The big takeaway? What we call things matters — in how others perceive us, whether they’ll listen to us and even in how we perceive ourselves.
One of the ways great leaders communicate a compelling vision is through storytelling. Pearson’s Wells remembers realizing just how powerful that skill is when Andy Bird joined the company as CEO.
“He came from Walt Disney International, a company that’s all about storytelling. And it only took listening to him for a few months to understand how more effective he was, as a leader, in communicating his vision in a way that people could actually understand and get behind and then learn how to tell their own version of the stories to their teams,” Wells says.
In addition to setting that example for others to emulate, we need to provide people with frameworks to help them get beyond the blank page, especially because, as Ball points out, a lot of people simply don’t know how to tell a story well.
Reuhl takes an approach that would likely resonate with many of your more process-oriented team members. She uses a whiteboard to chart out the journey of the story she wants to communicate.
“I start with, what is the objective I want to achieve? How do I want the audience to be left when this is done? What do we want them thinking? What do we want them to feel? What do we want them to be asking? I usually do a rough outline that gets me from point A to point B — from where they are today to the outcome — and then I work on the content in the middle. But I’m always starting with where I want them to be at the end,” she says.
Jensen emphasizes that purpose is paramount. “There’s a difference between storytelling and telling stories. Make sure you know why you’re telling the story and what you’re trying to achieve so that the story carries the message you want it to.”
How you deliver the story matters as well. In the storytelling component of Giant Eagle’s leadership academy, participants learn how to use pictures and data to tell the story and how to use metaphors from the audience’s context to help explain how the technology will help them achieve their objectives.
It’s worth noting that stories don’t always have to be formal, prepared presentations. They can also play an important role in everyday “hallway marketing.” Interacting with their clients in the course of business, technology professionals can impart their storytelling skills to educate partners and stakeholders, whether to get them excited about the future state or understand where there is a problem.
Jensen recalls a moment early in his career when he had a choice to make. He could continue to be the phenomenal expert that no one wants to talk to because of the way he presented information. Or he could become a storyteller, someone who explains what the person needs to know in a way that they can use it.
“I decided to become a storyteller,” he says, “so I could help make a positive impact in the world in a more direct fashion.”
Even marketing-savvy IT leaders struggle with getting their teams to adopt a marketing mindset and build those storytelling and communication skills. Jensen, who has sponsored and facilitated a learning program on storytelling for his teams at three different companies, says the first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it’s not something they’ve been taught in school. This is going to take them outside their comfort zones, and it’s a process to make that shift.
“I think of it in three stages,” he says. “First, you have to change what you do to start changing the narrative of what you do in your organization and how you show up. Then you have to change how you think. Because if you’re not embracing it and doing it yourself, it’s not going to be credible. The third step is changing how you influence.”
The storytelling program is part of a multi-year learning journey that includes five, six-month, themed semesters that everyone in his organization participates in. Storytelling is so important to him that he dedicates a full semester to this important skill.
“It makes the point that leadership is not just for executives, that anybody can choose to step up as a leader,” he says. “This isn’t ‘training.’ It’s more about realizing, what role do you want to play in the technology world of the future? As the leader, we’re not the ones molding how people show up. They make those choices. We shape the narrative around who we are, who we could be, and why that’s something they have to think about.”
Wells is similarly intentional about prioritizing learning for her organization, and those opportunities extend beyond the traditional classroom. Through a program called “learning hours,” technologists meet with their colleagues from the business and have the chance to learn about a new product under development, share ideas, and collaborate.
“You’re going to lose your audience if you don’t understand how the business works and the value you can provide,” Wells notes. “This allows them to come together, learn, and teach each other. When they leave, they’re thinking about how what they do impacts what the other does and how they can work together to drive value for the company.”
Building bridges with the business not only helps technologists get more comfortable with speaking the language of their audiences, it also gives them more opportunities to understand their partners’ business problems and educate them on how they can help with their needs. Reuhl has seen this dynamic play out at Dow, where they have invested in business relationship teams that are aligned with each of the business segments.
“It’s a two-way bridge,” she says. “We’re educating the business on what’s going on in IT, and we’re also making sure that the business needs are met through IT.”
Organizations that are intentional about developing and executing marketing plans are less apt to fall into the trap of “one and done” and “broad brush” communication and are more successful in communicating a narrative that positions the technology organization as a strategic partner and innovative anticipator. This is one of the lessons we’ve learned facilitating technology-specific marketing workshops with CIOs and their teams.
Ball’s team at Giant Eagle is a good example of how implementing an effective strategy will help ensure marketing remains top of mind.
“We try to be intentional about the audiences and really convey a story. And it’s not just telling a story outwardly; it’s inward as well,” he says. “I also let the team contribute to the development of the story, because then it’s not mine, it’s ours. Once you get the story told internally then you start to drive consistency through all the different touchpoints and ways in which all of the technology team members tell the story.”
It’s easy to assume that everyone understands the value the technology organization brings, particularly now that technology is engrained in every aspect of business. But rarely does the work speak for itself. Successful CIOs shape the narrative through effective communication and by building a marketing mindset across their organizations.
As Wells notes, “Our technology assets are now a considerable part of our assets and our valuation of our company. So we have to have people start thinking about it and talking about it differently to reinforce that technology is what the business is.”
Getting the message across requires an intentional focus to bridge the gaps of miscommunication and reframe perceptions, both within the technology organization and outside it.
“I always tell my team, if your audience doesn’t understand you, that’s your problem, not theirs,” Jensen says. “When you’re in a specialized field like the field of technology, you can’t actually expect people to understand you. Sometimes you have to tell them the same thing 17 different times and not be frustrated that it didn’t stick. Because if it didn’t stick, it’s because you didn’t tell the story well enough.”
It is, as he says, a hard truth. The good news is, we can give our teams the tools to become more effective communicators and ambassadors of the organization. Maybe your folks won’t jump out of bed in the morning thinking about marketing, but they will be better equipped at shaping a narrative that resonates with their audiences and demonstrates the full benefits and value of the technology organization.
The type of marketing we’re referring to here isn’t about hype or glitz or making a sale. It’s about communicating the art of the possible and being able to tell a story that energizes people to go on the journey with you. The more you do that, the more credible you’ll be, the more trusted you’ll be, and the more opportunities you’ll have to drive business value.  
Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including “Unleashing the Power of IT” and “Confessions of a Successful CIO.”


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