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Three Questions: Talk business to me

Are you in an executive business school program? One expert says it's critical.

With Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal in Forrester Research's IT Management research team. He recently authored a report entitled "Are CIOs Too Tech-Oriented to Communicate Well with the Business?"

Question: You found that CIOs spend an average of 38% of their time dealing with business issues, and that 78%...

spend less than half their time on these issues. What are some of the reasons CIOs aren't devoting more time to the business -- especially since that's what so many companies say they want their CIOs to do? Cameron: Most IT shops are in enough disarray that it takes a lot of focus for the CIO to pull the disparate technical elements together. They need to just focus on picking up the biggest messes. Also, a lot of CIOs just don't have the business commitment they need; they don't have that kind of control. Companies where CIOs have the ability to drive spending -- GM is a good example -- gain a lot of efficiencies by focusing on consolidating their technologies so that business processes can run the same across the company.

Question: Your research also seems to indicate that poor communication is a key reason for a disconnect between IT and the broader business. What are some of the issues contributing to this lack of communication?
Cameron: If you come from a tech background, you tend to speak in technical terms -- and that's not what the business wants to hear. I had the painful experience recently of working with a CIO on a major IT strategy presentation. He just couldn't make himself stay away from the acronyms. We weren't more than half a minute into the presentation when the CEO interrupted him to ask, "Where is my consumer data?" The CEO didn't want to hear about the CRM system. He wanted to hear about the business models it supported, how the system could help the company launch new products.

Question: How can CIOs communicate better with line-of-business executives?
Cameron: Getting into an executive business school program is critical. You want to get to where you understand the balance sheet, which is ultimately what the business guys care about. And you need to spend a lot of time with business people; build your strategies through interviews with them. A multi-disciplinary governance committee is an excellent practice to put into place. Then you have the discipline of setting business objectives with the business guys and determining how to measure results in ways that are relevant to the business.

Finally, the whole notion of running IT like a business is critical. You need to focus on using technology in areas where it offers a competitive advantage and be able to set objectives based on the values the business cares about. I'm not sure it's the techies who will drive this. Some people only like the technical aspects; they are not going to be able to warm up to the business side. They may go off to work for somebody like Accenture or IBM or Wipro. Anecdotally, I'd say about 70% to 80% of most IT shops today are the techies. In the future, I think it'll be more like 20%. It's going to become more about the services layer on up.

This 3 Questions originally appeared in a weekly report from IT Business Edge.

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