Why CIOs must be storytellers and able to talk the language of business

Penny Horwood
clock • 3 min read
Alex Foster talking to Tom Allen

Alex Foster talking to Tom Allen

Alex Foster, Director of Division X at BT shares her experience of using the language of strategy and finance to ensure technology initiatives have the financial backing to prove transformative

One subject that many delegates at the Computing IT Leaders Summit were keen to gain insight on was strategy to secure the budgets necessary to ensure the continuity of technology initiatives. Alex Foster, Director of Division X at BT, in discussion with Computing Editor Tom Allen, set out some ideas.

BT's Division X is a technology practice, taking leading edge technology for the purposes of transforming both BT and its customers. Foster acknowledged that rising costs and salaries made for tough business climate.

BT has transformed from the telecommunications company of old to a partner with technology at its core. Part of that process, according to Foster, involved consolidating thousands of legacy systems - which were costing millions to maintain. The first thing to do was examine the extent to which these systems were being utilised. Foster likens it to cleaning.

"As a division we spend some time cleaning. Part of that cleaning process is cleaning up budgets. You'll find you have technologies and systems that are under used, and some will be more productive or enabling efficiencies or increasing productivity."

The three Ss

Foster raised the three ‘Ss' which are crucial to technology budgets. The first is security, which is of course of paramount and in some cases existential importance to every organisation. The second is scale and the third sustainability.

"Is this technology that will only be used once? Can it be used across other divisions and departments?"

Parts of the sustainability discussion is the deep consideration of exactly why a piece of tech is required, and careful avoidance of product sprawl - something many organisations are struggling with.

"It's easy for people to be wowed by the latest model but we have to consider whether something is genuinely needed or whether it will just look good and solve a short-term problem but gather dust over time."

Once this process is concluded, the traditional next step would be essentially selling a project to a CFO or CRO. Foster thinks that these C levels distinctions are becoming less important as digitisation becomes increasingly integral to businesses.

"The CIO is as part of a CRO as anybody because if we look at the technologies coming down the track such as AI, machine learning, data analytics, they all have a crucial part to play in growing revenues. Technologies are central to driving the customer experience. These C levels roles are going to start to merge. As a CIO it's really important to understand the financial machinations as it is from a CRO point of view to understand technology. Every business talks of itself as a technology business."

Avoid acronyms but know your numbers

Foster disagreed with the premise of a question based on the concept of getting buy in from the C suite for a tech project because by definition there is only ever a business project. The approach where technology teams pitch a project to the powers that be is one that's unlikely to succeed.

There isn't an IT strategy and there isn't a business strategy. The two have to be one and the same.

"When we work with organisations on transformation, we spend a lot of time building business plans. Sometimes we go in together to speak to boards, and in those conversations, we tell the story of the why. How is that project going to enable the business to meet its goals? It has to be told not using the acronyms of IT language but using the language of strategy, business and numbers.

"Going into those board meetings as CIOs we have to be able to understand the financials and really understand it to almost the same extent as the CFO. How does your technology translate into growth? And how does that translate into a beautiful story that the CFO can understand? You have to show respect for the currency you want to spend and tell the story of how it translates to the growth that the organisation needs."



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