Business leaders need to know more about IT, writes Ali Law, Managing Partner at Hanya Partners Ltd. But, they shouldn’t overlook the need for human relationships, trust and the value of storytelling.

Every business is a technology business, so technology should be everyone’s business. This was true before the pandemic and more so now. The digital response to the pandemic significantly increased the level of technology needed and vital services across businesses and public services. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume this is true: every business is an IT business.

So, why is this an important statement? Well, in a digital world, IT is central to your ability to provide value to customers, colleagues and citizens. Your innovation, adaptability, competitiveness and relationships are the prizes. That has profound implications, even without the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis and the economic situation.

For today, let’s concentrate on the implications for non-IT senior lead executives and non-executives, and what we as IT leaders can do.

It’s about trust

Does the C-suite know enough about its IT capabilities to make decisions that positively impact innovation, adaptability, competitiveness and relationships? If you’re a senior leader, board advisor or non-executive director, it’s very likely you know enough accounting to understand the financial position to challenge or help the finance director. Can you say the same for the CIO or IT director? If not, why not?
Many in that audience have assessed IT as: too slow, too costly, we don’t know what you do and don’t understand what you’re saying. Forgive the pessimism, but trust can be in short supply and as one of your most valuable assets, that’s not healthy.

Why does it matter?

Many senior non-IT leaders would benefit from more IT knowledge, most would even welcome it. To help illustrate, let’s consider a few questions through the lens of people and trust:

  • Do they trust your IT and service? If the answer is qualified in any way, then the possibility of waste and missed opportunity is significant. Technology can be a source of new ideas, new capabilities, and competitive advantage. It is most effective when we bring a diversity of thought and ideas to the table. Do executives trust and value IT enough to get into the conversation on new ideas?
  • How is technical debt growing in your organisation? More importantly, do you know the consequence to your ability to move and adapt at pace? Do you know what technical debt is? No business can afford zero technical debt. But taking conscious decisions and following up on commitments to manage it are even more important now. This cuts to the heart of trust between IT and other areas. It can be a source of huge waste.
  • Where to invest in IT and service? There is a world of new possibilities from technology emerging every day. However, most organisations are not greenfield and will have a legacy – some older than others. How do you cut through the hype to make the best decisions? Trust in the IT leaders is essential in navigating crucial decisions on investment.
  • How long does it take to get from idea to customer or citizen value? This is about the flow of value through your organisation. What hinders it? Where does it get stuck? You might be surprised at how little time IT has at its disposal.
  • Where is the uncertainty? And how are we set up as a collective organisation to recognise and respond to uncertainty? One example is the blinding speed at which technologies are advancing and combining; it’s not a surprise that we can be unsure of how to proceed. We are all human.

So what can we do?

Be wary of one-size-fits-all answers because every organisation is unique. We need to engage senior leaders in meaningful ways. Right now, let’s focus on what we can do as IT leaders.

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What we do, is of course, complex. But, we have a history of hype. We do talk a different language but then so do marketing, ops and finance. These three are of course interconnected. Starting to tackle these language gaps will build trust and build bridges with the rest of the C-suite.

In our defence, I must admit that the role of IT leadership is getting harder. Expectations are high, complexity and pace are increasing, and the bewildering range of options are increasing daily – and yes, I know I’m biased.

So how can we respond to the challenge?

As leaders in IT, we need to start with ourselves, by building bridges, establishing and strengthening trust with the wider organisation.

  • Be a storyteller. Not in a hyperbolic way. Rather, in a way that helps non-IT people to connect and understand, especially when it comes to complex subjects. We have to work hard at creating the space for co-invention and developing trust. Transparency and understanding are a great start. Again, this is a wide arena of opportunity. Find interesting ways to make the complex more relatable. Have you thought about using a short play to deliver the message? Seriously. A troupe of IT people can be fun and informative (although a little scary). Digital marketers and designers can bring great ideas including animations. Get creative and engage the human beings, not the roles.
  • Be a salesperson and be clear on your value proposition. Whether you like it or not, you’re in sales. Communicate and talk about value. Language drives perception and action, so when communicating with colleagues and stakeholders, it’s important to talk about outcomes and values that matter most to them. Many years ago, I brought in a specialist to take my senior team through a business development course. Why? Because a business case is a pitch for investment.

    For example, when communicating progress, it’s better to talk in proof points (tangible outcomes), rather than internal constructs like milestones, that, although useful, don’t mean much to most of our colleagues. Avoid phrases like ‘the business and IT’. This immediately sets us apart, as if we are on different planets, speaking different languages (which, contrary to popular belief, we’re not).
  • Concentrate more on change adoption. Getting more value for the investments already made will be a key activity over the next few years. A great capability that helps to create the value in the first place is change adoption. When this is done well, from the outset of the initiative and with a focus on people, you reap benefits on a number of fronts. You increase the probability of delivering what’s actually needed, reduce the friction around implementation and increase the value delivered as your new capability is used, all the while, increasing trust as colleagues and customers feel listened to and included. It’s a great area to explore in more depth.

As an added benefit, change adoption done well helps to contain technical debt.

How would I summarise? IT and our relationship with other areas is about people and trust. It is the thread that weaves its way through everything. Think about it explicitly, not only by instinct. Business leaders do need to know more about IT; what can you do to engage them?