Midmarket CIOs: Communication Key to Managing User Perceptions

Ann All
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Most midmarket CIOs are looking to cut the overall costs of securing their data and networks in the coming year, but a good 40 percent of them are planning to fund security system projects to support that goal.

Let's face it, IT doesn't always have a great reputation with business users. Folks tend to fixate on isolated instances of down time, while taking for granted the way systems "just run" most of the time. Not many CIOs hear remarks like, "Hey, awesome job on keeping those servers running."


The topic came up at this week's Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando, an event hosted by my employer IT Business Edge, when Bart Perkins, a former CIO for Dole Food Company and Yum Brands and now a managing partner at IT consulting company Leverage Partners, asked four CIOs on a panel he was moderating how they managed perceptions.


Communicating early and often with business users was the common theme in the answers of the four panelists: Bob Ashford, vice president of information technology for coffee manufacturer Massimo Zanetti; Neil Goldberg, CIO of health care communications network McCann Healthcare Worldwide; Lyla Perrodin, CIO of nonprofit research organization Midwest Research Institute; and Tina Rourk, CIO of Wyndham Vacation Ownership, part of travel company Wyndham Worldwide.


Ashford mentioned "engaging with users as often and deeply as you can," noting that his company conducts regular user surveys. The other panelists also administer surveys. Yet CIOs shouldn't rely too heavily on them, said Goldberg, because many people aren't comfortable offering negative feedback in surveys. "They don't want to share negative comments in surveys, but they will pull you aside in the hallway to do so," he said. His answer: visibility. "Get out and walk the halls," he said.


Perrodin agreed, saying, "The only way you can figure out what people are saying in the hallway is by engaging in those conversations." She also offered my single favorite tip of the discussion: "I find administrative assistants are some of the best resources for that kind of information."


(At last spring's CIO Midmarket Forum, a participant in a similar panel discussion spoke about the importance of CIOs befriending their CFOs. Befriending the administrative assistants seems like a smart move too.)


Rourk appoints client managers, IT staffers who are "not necessarily traditional technologists" and who serve as liaisons between business users and the IT department. She also stressed the importance of communicating IT successes to business users and doing it in terms the users can understand.


For tips on how to do this, I like an interview Abbie Lundberg did with Steve Bandrowczak, former CIO at DHL, Lenovo and Nortel, for her Lundberg Media site. I cited it in my post Lessons for CIOs on How to Be a Great Communicator a while back. The interview is a bit long but packed with great advice. Some of my favorite suggestions:

  • Understand the different groups you serve, so you can frame discussions around their goals and needs.
  • Use your knowledge of the business to establish baselines of how your company is doing related to the competition. Said Bandrowczak: "... In sales, if you know that the average revenue per head in your company is, say, $1 million per head, and you know the best in the industry is $4 million, then your CRM goal should be how do I triple my productivity, not how do I implement CRM. Big difference."
  • Involve IT staffers in your communications efforts. Consider dedicating an IT staffer to each business function to serve as a liaison between the function and IT. (This apparently works well for Rourk.)
  • Since IT people like metrics, establish metrics around the effectiveness of communications.
  • Look for opportunities to communicate, and make sure you do it often. Bandrowczak mentioned annual newsletters, monthly achievement updates and "meet your customer" breakfasts.

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