Being the chief of information, as in chief information officer, means you’re responsible for the flow of knowledge between people in your organization. CIOs often are described as not much more than technocrats who are wrapped up only in the procurement and implementation of new technologies. Too often, those within their agency (and sometimes even CIOs themselves) don’t realize the true strategic value their office delivers. It’s about a lot more than fixing BlackBerrys — CIOs facilitate agencywide collaboration and efficiency that furthers the government’s mission. The key to CIOs being more to their organization than just the head IT officer is to communicate their value.
1. Be the chief of information.
CIOs already do a good job of managing enterprise-level technology adoption and policymaking that meet strict requirements. But have you considered going above and beyond the traditional role of a CIO? Consider this: What if you were truly the chief of information, sharing openly with subordinate groups about organizational plans and objectives? Those who work for you, or groups that depend on your office, may not truly realize how valuable the work your office does is for them unless you make that information readily available. Don’t neglect telling your story to others in the organization. The messages should drive your overall strategy as a CIO — ensure that each time you communicate, it’s filled with purpose.
2. Don’t just tell, show.
People are generally visual thinkers. So communicating your messages to stakeholders, especially in a fast-paced, digital-driven world, will go a lot further if they are visual. Create compelling charts, infographics and photo-driven stories about your successes. Design collateral that people want to read, and can quickly scan and still get the point — which is that you’re doing a great job, and the CIO's office is contributing exponentially to the agency’s overall success.
3. Justify investments.
Do you have trouble persuading leadership, or even your employees, that your investments are the right ones? Can you really blame them if you haven’t shown them what the predicted outcomes are? Again, you’re showing stakeholders, not just telling them, that your plans can work.
Do this with business cases. Perhaps another agency or private-sector organization already has pioneered the way with strikingly good results. You’ve done your homework on why your proposed investments are good ones — but no one will know if you don’t show them. Create scenario stories and show how your solutions fill the gaps your agency may have in the future. Justify investments by communicating openly about them and telling stories that people can easily grasp instead of just throwing numbers at them. And don’t be afraid to elicit feedback — the communication model needs to be two-way. Stakeholders are likelier to buy into your strategy when they’re part of the solution.
4. Make your contributions clear to non-IT executives.
Whether in government or commercial operations, the CIO plays an important role in keeping things working from day to day. Without the solutions your office implements, many functions that other executives — and ground-level employees — take for granted wouldn’t be available. But many stakeholders who depend on your services daily probably don’t think about the hard work that goes into providing them (unless, of course, something goes wrong).
Building relationships with other executives and employees in your organization before there is a problem makes things go more smoothly when issues arise. To do this, it’s imperative that you maintain a steady flow of digestible information in and out of the CIO’s office. Digestible means, of course, information that enables non-IT executives to understand the intricacies of all the things you’re doing to make their lives easier. Identify a talented communicator, either internally or externally, who can successfully translate technical topics for nontechnical people. Do the legal, public affairs, science, HR and other professionals in your agency truly understand what you do for them? Do smaller internal organizations that rely on the CIO’s office for guidance and support really appreciate the value you contribute? If they don’t, perhaps it’s time to speak in narratives, in layman’s language and with visual components that effectively explain your office’s successes.
5. Find out what people really need.
Don’t let vendors and fads dictate your IT strategies. Stay focused on maintaining open lines of communication with your core agency stakeholders to find out what they really need. Have you spoken with employees who are in the trenches every day using technologies that were put in place by the CIO's office? What solutions would optimize and streamline their jobs? By taking care of these individuals, you essentially increase the agency’s overall effectiveness. What information do workers need? What information and support do they need most quickly? What bureaucratic steps keep them from getting the resources they need in a timely manner? By employing open lines of communication that work in both directions, you can be in tune with the agency’s needs in real time. If you provide valuable, understandable information, you’re likelier to get honest, helpful feedback.
6. Communicate what technologies help the agency to do.
Quash perceptions that your office excels at just playing with technology. When you embark onto technological territory that may be new for personnel in your organization, prepare your staff by clearly explaining what the new technology will help the agency do. Will it cut costs? Will it save time? Will it cause any pain points for end-users, and if so, what are you doing to mitigate those issues?
By providing transparent communication about new technologies and policies, and listening to feedback from your audiences, making important decisions becomes easier. Potential issues are identified earlier. Preparing responses to common misperceptions becomes less of a guessing game. Overall, the result is better for the agency because a solution that does something — and that has been accepted by the community because of early involvement — is a solution that satisfies more end-users. When the community feels that the communication process works both ways, you’ll identify champions within your agency who don’t always fit the CIO profile. But because of your excellent explanations, they’ve envisioned life with the technologies and policies you’re implementing. They become ambassadors for your office’s initiatives, and the perception of value of the CIO’s office steadily increases from within the organization.
These steps help accomplish the objective of ensuring that others understand the value of the CIO's office, and it all goes back to one point — communication. It might be easy to get tied up in your responsibilities as a CIO and hope that someone else is effectively communicating with your stakeholders, carefully explaining why you’re doing things the way you are. But that’s not always the case. To be a more effective CIO, you’ll need the entire agency on your side, contributing to the greater conversation about organizational efficiency. Until everyone knows you’re ready to talk, and until they understand your role, they’re likely to stand by silently hoping for something better. Fill that void, and let the information flow.
Eva Neumann is founder and president of ENC Marketing & Communications.