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CIOs must have a strategy to communicate IT changes to the business
Whether migrating to the cloud, replacing a legacy system, or adopting a DevOps approach, IT departments these days often initiate major changes. Part of planning those changes should be a marketing strategy to communicate how the changes will benefit the business. That advice comes from Chris Borkenhagen, vice president of IT at Concur, a travel expense management company. In the first part of a two-part interview, he explained why Concur's IT department has streamlined and simplified its operations. In part two, he explains how big changes like these should be communicated to the rest of the company.
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): You've presided over some major changes. How do you make sure the business understands what IT does and the impact of your projects?
Borkenhagen: This is a great question, and a topic I'm passionate about. Making sure the company is aware of technology change — whether it's deploying or implementing a new technology, or ripping another out — is a requirement I emphasize with my leadership team. We come up with a marketing, brand and communication strategy for every change so our employees know why we're moving forward, the process IT went through evaluating the technology, and how it will benefit them. We want them to buy into the change and to know that our purpose is to help make their work easier and more secure.
TEP: What form does this communication take?
Borkenhagen: We use fun tactics like putting up posters and placards around the office before the change, and we send out emails with videos and demos once the change has taken place. We don't stop there either. We offer trainings and send out surveys about our employees' experiences and revisit those surveys on a quarterly basis.
Communications is a huge part of technology change. Before heading up Concur's IT team, I moonlighted in a startup, and I learned how difficult it is to sell a technology if you can't communicate its value and get people invested in it. I take that seriously within Concur. My team is actually doing an "IT transparency world tour." We're visiting each of our 17 offices and presenting on our IT philosophy, any planned internal changes, and larger industry trends that might impact our employees. We talk for 30 minutes and then open it up for questions and discussion, which usually lasts an hour. We always have a full room, too ... and I know it's not because I'm supplying food — Krispy Kreme donuts for morning meetings and wine and beer for the evening ones!
TEP: What are the most common mistakes you see other IT leaders make when communicating about technology with the organization's other leaders?
Borkenhagen: A foundational rule for any leader is that you have to understand your business, its vision, mission and goals, and show the company your role in driving those things forward. A common mistake for IT leaders is not understanding their role within the larger business scheme, or communicating the importance that role represents to executive leadership. If you approach your job from a purely technical standpoint, thinking "I need to implement this technology by the end of the quarter," without contemplating or communicating its larger impact, then you're missing the point.
Another common pitfall is being the close-minded "IT of no." Usually, this approach is driven by fear or lack of understanding. But it should be the other way you around — you should be afraid to say no. If you don't listen to your employees and business partners and work with them to implement and integrate the technologies they want to use for work, they'll go around you and use them anyway. And you won't have the visibility or control you need to keep them secure and sustainable. You need to make it easy and secure for your employees to use the applications and solutions that make sense for them.
TEP: You've had an interesting career at Concur, starting in what appears to be a customer service post, leaving for Microsoft for nearly five years, and then returning to Concur where you've climbed the ladder to your current post. What are the advantages in overseeing technology for a company where you've spent more than a decade?
Borkenhagen: I actually started my career, believe it or not, in the military. Not only did my position get me on a technical track, which I'm thankful for, but it also gave me a great deal of respect for discipline. From very early on, I had the drive and understanding of what it means to complete a project.
And after that, I got the bug. I saw this world of opportunity in technology and wanted to be part of the innovation and change. I went back to Concur in 2006 for a customer service engineering role, but still within the R&D arm. I still had a love affair with Concur, and I kept great relationships with my previous management team. When I left there were about 125 people. I returned to an employee base of about 350, and today we're 6,400.
I spent around 12 years in engineering at both Microsoft and Concur, and I attribute much of my success in IT to those years building, interpreting code, delivering products, churning, spinning, pivoting and growing my appreciation for the way in which innovative technology is developed and distributed.
Knowing Concur's technology business inside and out helps a bit as well, but it's more about feeling inspired by and connected to the company's vision and mission. And during my decade-plus at Concur, that connection only continues to grow.