Translating IT Speak Into Business Speak

By Frank Petersmark  |  Posted 03-31-2014
tech money

Translating IT Speak Into Business Speak

By Frank Petersmark

Parlez-vous francais?

Even if you don’t speak French, you probably recognize the question. When IT and business people get together, however, it often seems like they are speaking two very different and unfamiliar languages.

Is it any wonder that, lacking a common vocabulary with which to effectively communicate, many IT initiatives fail to deliver what the business really wanted? Business people often complain that it’s difficult to communicate with their IT brethren—whether management or technical staff—and IT people often complain that business people aren’t very good at articulating exactly what they need.

In this morass of muddled communication, one thing is certain: It’s incumbent for an organization’s CIO to figure it out.

While that might not seem quite fair, here’s why it is nonetheless true. As CIO, it’s your job to intimately understand your organization’s business domain, so you can connect existing and emerging technologies, and the business processes they are likely to impact, to your organization's business needs, goals, and objectives.

One might reasonably ask why this should be the CIO’s job as opposed to a shared responsibility between a CIO and his or her executive colleagues. I have personally grappled with this issue for quite some time until I finally realized that the CIO's job is about getting things done for the organization rather than engaging in turf wars about who should be doing what and why.

Additionally, the CIO is more often than not in the unique position of standing squarely at the crossroads of the organization, with one foot in IT and the other foot in the business. As such, CIOs and their staff, by the nature of their roles, often knows as much about how the business functions as their business colleagues do.

Here’s another way to look at it. If the most common C-suite positions were placed on a chronological timeline relative to their creation dates, the CIO position is easily the newest amongst the group that contains CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and general counsels.

To pick CFOs as an example, what we understand as modern accounting has existed since at least the Italian Renaissance, when Venetian merchants needed a way to keep track of the many goods, and the associated money, moving in and out of the busy trade city. As a result, the principles of modern accounting are several hundred years old and, in their essence, remain largely unchanged. A Venetian accountant would recognize a modern ledger sheet, but would struggle with the fact that the sheet is not contained in a recognizable format to him—a book. Today’s CFOs are functional descendants of that long-gone era.

On the other hand, CIOs are decidedly not functional descendants of any ancient era. Rather, they are the newbies in the board room. As such, they aren’t as firmly grounded in the functional principles of their executive colleagues. And that is exactly why it’s incumbent on CIOs to understand the language of their business colleagues.

Like it or not, the CIO position is as yet unproven, or perhaps under-proven, in the C- suite context of providing strategic and business focused leadership and guidance. Some CIOs have certainly crossed the business chasm, but most have yet to do so. Being able to walk in your colleagues’ shoes by understanding their role and responsibilities is a big first step in that direction.   

Talk About Business Benefits and Value

CIOs need to couch every technology initiative in the language of business benefit and the value. Your non-IT colleagues need to be able to understand what a particular IT effort will add to an organization's profitability, business processes, products and services, and overall efficiency.

Translating IT Speak Into Business Speak

Virtualizing an enterprise's infrastructure, for example, is often viewed as a purely IT-centric initiative that may lead to some cost savings, but has no tangible business benefits. Done properly, however, virtualization all the way through the desktop can provide valuable benefits to the business. Things such as customer service and employee's work flexibility can be achieved via virtual desktops that can accessed from any Web browser, plus publishing software applications for device-independent access and creating a much easier disaster-recovery program. All of these things add business benefits and value to the organization.

It’s up to the CIO to communicate tech-oriented initiatives in this manner. Successfully doing so leads to much better discussions about the substantive issues at play, and also enables the CIO to firmly ground technology initiatives in the context of strategic and operational value. This is no small matter. The ability to communicate in the business language of the organization is one of the crucial skills that, in the long run, will materially impact the career of a CIO.  

So the next time you’re asked the question at the beginning of this article, respond with Oui, je parle couramment français. Or, maybe, "Yes, I speak business."  

About the Author

Formerly a CIO at Amerisure, Frank Petersmark is CIO Advocate at X by 2, a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based technology company specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. He can be reached at fpetersmark@XBY2.com.

To read his previous CIO Insight article, "Three Keys to Effective Time Management for CIOs," click here.