Bridging the CIO/CEO Credibility Gap

By Jeanette James

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Mention it at a professional gathering and expect instant recognition: every CIO knows what you're talking about when you mention the "IT credibility gap".

After all, CIOs love technology, while CEOs and CFOs are focused on bottom-line profits. CIOs get swept away by adopting the latest industry standard while other executives are bedeviled by how to comply with new industry regulations. CIOs get starry eyed about software paradigms as CEOs get choked up over market share. It can make for a capacious credibility gap between the two camps.

"IT management and executive management share a deep level of distrust for one another," summarizes Phil Murphy, a principal analyst at Forrester Research in a report on the CIO/CXO rift. "Executive management doubts IT's ability to measure and manage its assets as would any (non-IT) business manager."

To be sure, the disconnect between CIOs and other executives is a long-standing issue. But lately it's gotten even more challenging.

The IT credibility gap "is not a new problem," concedes Stan Lepeak, vice president of technology research services at MetaGroup. "But it's becoming more acute."

"The perils of screwing up (with technology) are greater every year," he explains, making the stakes for effective communication even higher. Sure, it's a good thing when corporate departments stop thinking of technology as a necessary evil and begin to view it as a strategic weapon for dominating the competition and exploding revenue growth. But the transition mounts pressure on the CIO's technology decisions.

The credibility gap is less acute at startups where CIOs are as young as all the other executives, says Patrick Wheeler, a technical services manager at IT consulting firm Taos, and who previously was CIO at an interactive television firm in the San Francisco Bay area. But in more mature industries, such as manufacturing, there is often a marked age difference that exacerbates the existing gap between CIOs and the rest of the executive staff.

"CIOs tend to be a bit younger," said Wheeler. "It can be tough when you're a 30-year-old kid" and the rest of the executive staff is in its 40s, 50s and 60s, he notes.

The recent technology boom hasn't made things any easier as "a lot of people got burned" by over-investing in technology, says Cayce Ullman, a former CTO at PostX who bridged the credibility gap so well that he is now president and CEO at the Cupertino, Calif.-based e-mail security firm.

Trying to avoid being twice burned, many executives now prefer to have their company follow 18 months behind any technology trend -- to make sure that the trend is valuable -- rather than riding out front on a new technology wave.

"There's been a bit of a backlash" against technology, Ullman says. The backlash isn't helped by the fact that it's easy for CIOs to get swept away by the cyber appeal of new software and technical concepts, Ullman adds.

"Technology folks can get obsessed about their technology," he says, rather than being obsessed about increasing profits -- like the rest of the company's executives.

Seeking to overcome this classic conflict between CIOs and other corporate executives, some CIOs are learning a new language: dollars and cents. Learning to speak the CEO's language can bridge the communications gap and get recognition for the CIO's message and projects. Listening and understanding the business language of others is also critical, so that the CIO can translate technology's capabilities into business solutions.

"Understand what your business partners are trying to do," Ullman suggests. "The successful CIOs are focused on meeting business objectives through technology."

"Speak the language of the business and build business cases around IT," echoes Meta's Lepeak.

And of course, it more than just a matter of "talking-the-talk". CIOs must also "walk-the-walk".

"You have to get away from the cool-tool mentality," suggests Wheeler. "You need to be attuned to the environment you're working in. A lot of us come to it with a cowboy background and cowboy attitude. You may need to cut back on some of your fun-loving ways" -- especially in executive meetings.

Ultimately, though, there is good news. Adjustments to behavior, language and professional approach is leading to common ground, with CEOs understanding more about technology's potential to drive their business and CIOs understanding more about the business' need to boost revenue.

"Over the last five years, both groups are heading to the middle," says Ullman. "Gone is the era when chief executives have their secretaries print out their e-mail."