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Speeding the Rubber Stamp Process

CIOs these days are walking a tightrope. They need to balance an IT environment that is secure, but where information is always available. New IT initiatives are regularly proposed by various business units, but CIOs often encounter red tape in getting those initiatives approved.

The problem that many CIOs are battling is the perception that the IT department is a drain on resources -- merely another "cost center." This perception has, unfortunately, been well earned by some IT departments that have amassed a track record for coming in over budget on projects and behind on schedule. The technology excesses that many companies committed during the late 1990s and early 2000s also contribute to this view.

In many organizations, however, IT's positive contributions are merely overlooked. They're invisible because of a failure to communicate the ways in which the IT department has helped the organization become more efficient, cut labor costs, and reduce risk.

For the CIO, the ticket to streamlining the approval process for important new IT initiatives starts with learning how to convey to other C-level executives, and the staff at large, a track record that points out IT accomplishments and results and the business value of new IT projects.

In other words, CIOs need to better market IT.

"IT projects need to be deployed as part of an overall marketing campaign," says Laurie Orlov, vice president and research director at Forrester, who recently wrote a report on the topic. Orlov outlines five steps involved in an IT marketing plan:

  • Outline the objectives The product the CIO is selling needs to be something that his or her customers want to buy and that executives want to finance. Give them reasons for undergoing the security upgrade or for migrating to a new email system. The objectives of these projects should be communicated in terms of reducing interruptions of service or improving user satisfaction survey results.
  • Segment the audience The fact is that not everyone in the company is going to benefit from a new global dialing plan. Don't waste your time blasting communications out to everyone in the organization. Understand which portions of the company are impacted. Understand the business problem of that audience. Fix the problem and communicate the results.
  • Identify communication channels Should you get the word out in email, lunchtime seminars, demos, or company-wide or department meetings? A good marketer knows that repetition via multiple channels is the best way to ensure the success that a message is understood, Orlov says. Advanced notice and follow-up are also helpful.
  • Have a campaign owner or champion Recruit someone from outside the IT department to help in the campaign. If your IT project is designed to save money on phone charges, make sure you sign up the finance executives of various business units to help out. "IT can't market IT by itself," Orlov says. Choose a business sponsor of the IT project and have them push their case to the C-level executives, the board, and the troops.
  • Measure success The campaign is over when the project has been funded and the objective has been achieved. Some successful means of following up and quantifying results are surveys, executive feedback, and interviews with select representatives inside the organization. Use these measures as ways to communicate success, recognize failure, and/or refocus the campaign.

The next step is to make sure the organization understands the value of an IT project in business terms. For example, if the business is an insurance company, a CIO needs to point out how an IT project can help lower the cost of processing claims. Inflated ROI figures that project a 70 percent cost savings won't score points; a CFO can see through such overstated numbers. ROI projections need to be realistic and phased in over the time period in which an IT project is deployed. The ROI of replacing a phone system or increasing network security may be merely measured in terms of risk aversion. Communicate the fact that those risks may some day cost the firm millions.

George Tillmann, vice president and CIO of consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, says there are many channels through which a CIO can communicate the value that IT projects can have in business terms. Tillmann set up a high-level IT steering committee at his firm, chaired by the leader of one of Booz Allen Hamilton's largest business units, and populated by most of the other C-level executives. The steering committee has nine members and meets quarterly. Tillmann says the committee was modeled after a board of directors; several councils operate under the committee with more junior staff members who examine various IT initiatives before bringing the best proposals to the more senior steering committee.

"The thing that made it work was that we got the right chair and the right people on board," Tillmann says. "When I got the right senior executives, the meetings went quicker and were much less volatile. We get a whole lot more done and the result is more projects are approved -- which is a win-win for the business."

Another tool Tillmann used was to separate the IT department's operating budget from the IT projects budget. That helps others at the firm understand that the projects are an investment in the firm's future. That also helps Tillmann communicate to the heads of other business units that many of the IT initiatives will help their divisions. "The answer is: don't make them your projects," Tillmann says. "Make them your clients' projects."

Lastly, a CIO -- along with an IT project's sponsor -- may need to go to meetings and do a bit of face-to-face selling. Understanding the importance of marketing the value of IT is becoming as essential to the job as understanding the intricacies of the technology being deployed.

Elizabeth Wasserman has written about technology and business for Inc., CIO Insight, and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a freelance writer based in Fairfax, Virginia.

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