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"Leading by Communicating"
Executive Roundtable

Bridging the communications gap between technology managers and executive business professionals was the focus of a panel of executives who shared their insights with a packed auditorium of current and prospective Executive Master's in Technology Management (EMTM) students, alumni and faculty.

The roundtable discussion and lively Q&A exchange was a special session of EMTM's Emerging Technologies Seminar (ETS), a series of 90-minute seminars offered throughout the year on different areas of emerging technologies and markets. Previous seminar sessions during the second term focused on specific IT technologies; the roundtable offered perspectives on a challenge that faces many EMTM students and alumni in technology leadership positions. (For a summary of this year's ETS sessions, see also ETS Year in Review.)

Just how important are communication skills for managers whose background expertise is in technology? How do you make the best case to executive management for a technology-based proposal? The panel brought experience on both sides of the communication equation, with executives and IT leaders from Merrill Lynch, Sunoco, Tasty Baking Company, Unisys, and the University of Pennsylvania, and was moderated by veteran corporate speechwriter and communication consultant Jim Senior. Their advice ranged from how to position a proposal, to who makes the best messenger, to how to respond when asked to do the impossible.

Communication — a real differentiator

With the strategic role that IT now plays in most organizations and the changing technologies and business models for IT, technology managers are increasingly responsible for project proposals that may have significant business implications, usually competing with other projects for a limited pool of investment dollars. Technology knowledge is important, but it has become a commodity. "Beyond technical expertise, the #1 skill needed is communication. It's a real differentiator," said Janet Brutschea Haugen, Senior Vice President and CFO of Unisys Corporation, whose responsibilities bridge finance, IT and procurement operations. Unisys currently earns 80% of its revenue from IT services and the other 20% from IT hardware sales. The company has 36,000 employees worldwide.

Effective communication, Haugen added, is not a one-way process. It requires that technology managers listen to managers on the business development side, understand their needs, and communicate back in a language that can be understood.

Her point was echoed by all of the panelists, who also agreed that one crucial component of communication was understanding the business, and the business drivers, of your organization.

Understand the business

Can you describe, in 3 minutes or less, how your organization makes money? (Not just that it sells oil, or bakes cakes, or helps other people invest their money.) According to Peter Whatnell, CIO of Sunoco Inc., technology managers must understand the competitive drivers in their business in order to see how IT can contribute to making the organization more competitive. This is true, he said, both in businesses such as Sunoco, where IT is an enabler, and in information-driven businesses such as Merrill Lynch, where IT is crucial to business development. Prior to joining Sunoco in 2001 to develop and lead the company's IT renewal strategy, Whatnell spent 17 years with Texaco including a stint as Head of IT Europe in London.

For panel member Joseph Ferlisi, Director of Application Infrastructure Services at Merrill Lynch and a current EMTM student, the need for a better understanding of business drivers in the context of technology was one of the reasons he enrolled in the program. "My responsibilities have been crossing over between pure technology and business," said Ferlisi, who also serves as Program Director for CRM Initiatives for the firm's Global Private Client Technology Group. "The challenge really is to 'bridge the gap' and communicate with the business client about where it is important to invest IT resources and how it will ultimately help them achieve their objectives."

Understanding the business is a key starting point for another piece of advice the panel had for creating successful project proposals.

It's not about technology projects

Technology is not an end in itself. "What's important is how technology is used to generate new business or to improve the current business process," said Autumn Bayles, CIO of Tasty Baking Company, the 92-year-old company headquartered in Philadelphia. In a relatively small firm, her IT managers need to be "superstars who can wear many hats" — good at technology and able to talk to everyone across the company. She recommends keeping proposals simple and clearly demonstrating how they will make (or save) money for the organization.

"Don't present a technology project," added Sunoco's Whatnell. "Present a business project with a technology component." The three business concerns Whatnell cites as most likely to grab people's attention: risk, cost and growth. "Don't present 'a proposal for an inventory management system'," he suggested, but "a proposal to reduce working capital by $xx million by reducing buffer stocks of materials on hand enabled by a new inventory management system".

Robin Beck, Vice President for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. While a non-profit university may seem to have different concerns than a business, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) is the second largest private employer in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, behind Wal-Mart. As an academic institution, moreover, Penn is vitally aware of both the vulnerabilities and importance of the Internet to its faculty, students, staff and admissions processes. In a recent analysis of Internet security, her group looked at the potential impact on productivity across the University if Penn's system was temporarily crippled by an Internet virus or other external attack. The results were dramatic. "We were selling a 'security' investment," said Beck, "but by putting things in productivity terms, the financial case for doing it was clear."

The right messenger

Taking the not-a-technology-project approach one step further, panelists recommend having someone on the business side of the team present the proposal rather than the IT leader. The IT person should be present and able to discuss the business and technical implications. But if it's a project that is going to benefit customer service or accounting, said Whatnell, then someone responsible for customer service (or accounting) is in a stronger position to make the case for it.

In addition to this "2 in the box" approach, Beck suggests finding a champion in the organization early in the project development stages. The champion does not necessarily have to be a decision-maker, but should be someone whose opinion is respected by those who are involved in the final decision.

For Ferlisi, establishing "mutual ownership and trust" with his Merrill Lynch financial advisors and business counterparts is crucial. He involves them early and often in setting priorities, balancing the portfolio of technology initiatives, and mutually assessing progress and results. "The constant feedback loop and joint ownership approach simply works better."

Tell the truth

Finally, what happens when your proposal is greeted enthusiastically, but you're asked: "Can we have this yesterday?" Or, "Great, but can you do it at half the cost?" The temptation may be strong to say that a stretch effort might be able to cut time or reduce costs... but the unanimous advice of roundtable members is: "Tell the truth."

"In the CEO world, there is still a lot of mistrust and suspicion about IT projects," said Haugen, "especially when in comes to costs and timelines." Don't over promise. Set realistic budgets and timelines. And if you're asked to do something faster, or with fewer resources, find out more about what is driving that request. Then come back with a revised proposal that details what additional resources would be needed to meet a shorter timeline, or what time/quality trade-offs would be needed to meet a lower budget.

It all comes back to knowing the technology and the business concerns... and effective communication.


Senior IT executives shared their advice at a special session of EMTM's Emerging Technologies Seminar.

Jim Senior

The executive roundtable and Q&A was moderated by veteran corporate speechwriter and communication consultant Jim Senior.

Janet Haugen

“Beyond technical expertise, the #1 skill needed is communication. It's a real differentiator.”

Janet Brutschea Haugen
Senior Vice President and CFO
Unisys Corporation

Peter Whatnell

“Don't present a technology project. Present a business project with a technology component.”

Peter Whatnell
CIO
Sunoco Inc.

Joseph Ferlisi

“The challenge really is to 'bridge the gap' and communicate with the business client about where it is important to invest IT resources and how it will ultimately help them achieve their objectives.”

Joseph Ferlisi, EMTM'06
Director, Application Infrastructure Services
Merrill Lynch

Autumn Bayles

“What's important is how technology is used to generate new business or to improve the current business process.”

Autumn Bayles
CIO
Tasty Baking Company

Robin Beck

“We were selling a 'security' investment, but by putting things in productivity terms, the financial case for doing it was clear.”

Robin Beck
VP for IS and Computing
University of Pennsylvania

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