When CIOs gear up to speak about IT priorities in the annual board meeting, they may as well be speaking a different language.
Jargon, acronyms and technical expressions that act as a norm in the IT department aren't always commonly understood by business executives. Board members, wary of being vulnerable, may shy away from asking questions or admitting they don't understand. So, it falls on the CIOs to come prepared with translations.
Finding simple terms related to business needs, starting with technical initiatives close to the business and developing strong relationships, can help IT executives be more successful at the next board meeting.
"Whether it's in the boardroom or outside, really taking the time to debunk and understand what we mean ... would be really helpful to those people who haven't gone and studied technology and yet need to appreciate the context that technology is being used to support and grow the business," Cathy Horst Forsyth, founder, CEO and managing partner at Strongbow Consulting Group, said during the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium on Tuesday.
Leaders spearheading digital change often struggle to communicate its value and need to stakeholders. Enterprise leadership, including the ability to communicate with the board, is one of the top traits businesses look for when hiring CIOs, especially moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic.
To effectively work with the board, technology leaders need domain expertise and communication skills, according to Stephen Gold, CTO and chief process improvement officer at Hudson's Bay Company. Domain expertise encompasses the technical knowledge from the vantage point of an executive, while communication must be tailored to the audience.
"The absence of senior executives that have had amazingly good careers but have not spent their careers in technology, that's a void that we have to fill," Gold said. "It doesn't just get filled with the domain expertise, it gets filled with our ability to effectively communicate."
The COVID-19 pandemic crystallized the value of digital change and agility, but IT leaders still have to help the board make the connection between technological innovation and business value.
"The resilience was going up, but the innovation and growth was going down," Virginia Gambale, managing partner at Azimuth Partners, said. "To me, there's really a cognitive disconnect there because they don't even realize that in order to survive, they were probably innovating."
Bridging communication gaps with the board
One way CIOs can overcome the disconnect is by starting on the increasingly well-understood ramifications of poor cybersecurity.
Given the rise of high-profile attacks, board members likely understand the importance of investing in cybersecurity, according to Gold. Upholding the obligations to shareholders by protecting the business in cyberspace likely makes sense to them. IT leaders can use this to their advantage.
"Build credibility by building confidence in their cyber programs and once that confidence is built and reinforced that makes it easier for that executive to have further influence on the board," Gold said.
The areas of entry for a cyberattack are often a part of the IT infrastructure, and showing this interconnection can help IT executives make their case. Make it very clear to the board that cybersecurity and IT infrastructure are interconnected, Gambale said.
When looking ahead to advanced technology — such as AI or machine learning — the IT executives have to be knowledgeable enough on the innovations to walk the board through the basics.
A primer for the board on how AI and ML work, and the ways it could be used to drive business value, is a good starting point, according to Gold. "You have to bring it to life in a way that it can be commercially appreciate[d]," Gold said.
Getting to know board members ahead of time can help IT executives decipher how to make the tech pitch fit their interests. CIOs and other technology leaders need to invest time in developing relationships with board members and C-suite counterparts before the meeting happens, according to Gambale.
In highly regulated industries, such as insurance and finance, technology leaders face the additional hurdle of compliance, according to Horst Forsyth. The "ecosystem of policy and procedure is meant to establish control, but innately restricts innovation," Horst Forsyth said.
In these cases, board leadership and non-technical members of the c-suite lean toward the incumbent technology providers that have been tested and approved in the past, according to Horst Forsyth.
"One of the ways I've seen large companies combat that is to step outside of the IT channel, and really build a formal program to identify and incubate suppliers and work with them to shepherd their introduction and ultimately adoption," Horst Forsyth said.