Loud and Clear

Strategies help CIOs foster effective communication.

by / August 7, 2007

Rumors, misunderstandings and information bottlenecks can sabotage any workplace. As government IT organizations grow more complex and take on more responsibilities, open, clear internal communications are more crucial.

"Even on the simplest projects, we wouldn't be able to function if we didn't communicate effectively," said Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO of Oakland County, Mich. His IT work force, which has to understand and serve the needs of more than 350 agencies and public safety departments, can't afford any roadblocks from poor communication. "If you can't get your internal folks to pull together in the same direction," he said, "you're going to have a problem."

In addition to the increasing need to align the IT organization's activities with customers' needs, several other forces make it vital today for a CIO to develop strong internal communications strategies. One is the prospect of change in the workplace, which may trigger waves of fear and uncertainty.

Will the government outsource some of its IT activities? Will people lose their jobs when a new administration comes in? Does a new software platform or business process threaten workers who have invested entire careers in doing things the old way?

In the private sector, David Foote, co-founder, president and chief research officer of the consulting firm Foote Partners based in New Canaan, Conn., often sees the panic that erupts when executives consider offshoring work and don't keep employees informed. "Almost immediately the e-mail grapevine is just alive with people saying, 'We're losing our jobs. We're going to start taking calls from headhunters,'" said Foote.

A similar buzz ensues when a government IT department looks for ways to cut costs, said Brenda Decker, CIO of Nebraska. "The fear always comes out: 'They're going to take this business and they're going to find a way to provide this through a local corporation.'"

Election year concerns about changes at the top also distract workers. "You can get caught up in the rumor of the day," said Mark Rutledge, CIO of Kentucky. "Effective communications help squelch this distracting 'noise.'"


Deadly Silence
While rumors generate noise, fear can produce silence. The Concours Group, a Kingwood, Texas, firm whose research, education and consulting activities include an IT Leadership Development Program, has researched why so many IT projects fail. Often, researchers found it's because of communication breakdown.

"The likelihood of people in the IT organization effectively speaking up when they saw one of these slow-motion train wrecks occurring was staggeringly low - in the 20 percent or less range," said Andrew Shimberg, president of the firm's advisory services division. Workers feared - sometimes rightly and sometimes not - that if they spoke up, they would be penalized, he said. For example, they might be labeled as poor team players and passed over for future opportunities.

Another condition that challenges CIOs to hone their communications skills is having employees from several generations - from baby boomers to Generation Xers and Millennials fresh out of college. 

As droves of older workers near retirement, managers need them to transfer their knowledge to younger colleagues, said Cam Marston, president of Marston Communications, a Charlotte, N.C., firm that studies changing demographics and their impact in the workplace. "The resistance they face often is from the senior members eyeballing retirement, recognizing that if they give away too much of their wisdom they become replaceable." So in today's workplace, he said, people who know how to share their wisdom with others are valuable assets.

Another challenge lies in that different generations favor different communications styles. Young workers only want to hear the essentials. "Is he just rattling on, or is this going to be 'on the test?'" Marston said, by way of illustration. "It frustrates a lot of the senior members of the workplace who want to give the breadth and the scope of an issue."

Management experts and CIOs agree that one key to good communication is to keep the message simple and precise. "People want very clear, succinct statements from management as to what's going on," Foote said. "They don't want you to obscure negatives."

If managers want to get a point across, they need to keep repeating it. "Usually if it's an enterprisewide event in particular, the kind of penetration it takes to get eight out of 10 people to understand and be in agreement as to what they heard often takes six or more attempts," Foote said.

To neutralize gossip, communicate early and often, Rutledge advised. "Be repetitive with the message, be clear, break it down, keep it simple."

When Rutledge first took office, he launched a series of e-mails called "Straight Talk" that challenged rumors flying around about his plans for Kentucky's Office of Information Technology. That did the trick, he said.


Tailor the Message
CIOs also need to keep their audience in mind, tailoring the medium and message to the targeted person's needs.

"The key thing with IT people, the majority of them are probably introverts," Rutledge said. Although they want their leaders to talk to them in person, many prefer to respond via e-mail, instant messaging or other electronic pipelines that don't make them feel quite so exposed, he said.

Some employees can take instructions for a project and respond to them immediately, Bertolini said. Others need to go off and think about it. To figure out which members of his supervisory team fall into which camp, each member took a personality test.

The tests helped Bertolini understand why he wasn't getting through to some employees: They needed more time to mull things over. Armed with this knowledge, he changed his approach. "If I knew that was the way they processed," he said, "I would talk about the project, and I would say, 'Why don't we set up a subsequent meeting, and we'll talk about the details and see where we need to go from here?'"

No matter how a person communicates, to make sure the message gets through, it's essential to provide a feedback loop, Foote said. If workers lack formal channels for response, they turn to informal ones. "Look at blogs - people who know nothing talking as authorities," he said.

An official response mechanism keeps false information from spreading and helps the executive pinpoint and correct misunderstandings, Foote said. "You may be getting across something that you're not intending to. Without feedback, you don't know that."

One key to eliciting useful feedback, and also gaining trust, is to provide plenty of lead time. "You're not going to walk in one day and say, 'We're doing this in two weeks and, oh by the way, give me your input,'" Bertolini said. "If you're going to engage, truly engage with them."

To encourage employees to point out problems before they throw a project off track, some organizations hold workshops on how to speak up. Executives are often the ones who create the atmosphere that stifles comment - intentionally or not - so they can play a key role in making employees feel safe, Concours' Shimberg said.

"If you're going to teach these skills, get the leaders to teach them, or get them involved," he said. An executive who tells employees face-to-face that bearers of bad news won't get in trouble is much more likely to keep that promise than one who simply includes that message in a handbook or memo.


Dialog Becomes Habit
With formal communications channels in place, two-way dialog becomes a habit. Among other benefits, that continual exchange keeps workers up-to-date on IT developments beyond their daily activities.

One method Kentucky uses to encourage information sharing is a town hall meeting for the state's more than 600 IT employees. These will soon become available via streaming video and a teleconferencing link for those who can't participate in person, Rutledge said.

Also, the three major offices in the IT organization hold weekly 15-minute "office stand-ups" to exchange information and recognize employee accomplishments. Rutledge tries to attend these at least once per month. "I'll go up and ad hoc whatever the topic is for the day or whatever the questions may be," he said. "I'll just speak freely and loosely and take questions." 

Nebraska's CIO publishes a monthly internal newsletter to keep staff informed on major technology initiatives, and on relevant activities in the Legislature and governor's office. Decker asks staff to contribute articles, which must include a contact name and phone number, so readers who want more information know where to call.

This kind of exchange helps counteract the tendency of many employees to pay attention exclusively to their own concerns.

"You can't function in those silos," Decker said. "We have to get a broader sense of, 'What's going on with the person next to me?'"


Merrill Douglas is a contributing writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer