The CIO’s new job: Teach everyone to speak tech

CEOs are now asking CIOs to instruct the entire organization to speak tech fluently in the digital age. Here's how to get it done
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For years, CIOs and IT pros have been told they need to learn to speak “business.” Now, you apparently need to teach everyone else to speak tech.

That was one of the takeaways from Deloitte’s 2018 global CIO survey, which we recently covered in a roundup of stats that tell the story of today’s CIO. One surprise in that story is “tech fluency” – Deloitte’s term for ensuring that the rest of the organization, from executives through the junior ranks, has the technical literacy necessary for the digital age.

[ Read our related article: Today’s CIOs, by the numbers: 9 telling stats. ]

To IT veterans, it might seem like a raw deal: Why are IT leaders responsible for not only learning a new language but also ensuring everyone else learns how to speak theirs?

Deloitte survey: CIOs are 1.5 times more likely to report strong relationships with other business units when they customize tech fluency programs

But it’s actually just another step toward ensuring IT’s rightful place as a strategic hub within the broader organization, Deloitte says. CIOs are 1.5 times more likely to report strong relationships with other business units when they customize tech fluency programs in their organizations, for example, according to Deloitte’s survey.

Moreover, many of your peers are already doing this: Two-thirds of the CIOs included in Deloitte’s survey say that they have launched tech education initiatives that reach beyond the executive level of their companies.

Still, some skepticism on your part is understandable: It’s not like today’s CIO needs more on their plate.

We asked Kristi Lamar, managing director, Deloitte CIO Program, to give us a deeper dive into the value of tech fluency initiatives – not just for the rest of the company, but for CIOs and their teams. We’ll also give you four tips on getting such a program off the ground.

The Enterprisers Project: Why should CIOs teach tech fluency, and how can they sell its value to the rest of the company?

Lamar: The primary goal is to help the organization, at all levels, develop an appropriate depth of understanding of the major systems and concepts that form the technological endoskeleton of enterprise IT.

Tech fluency fuels an understanding of why the organization invests in technology the way they do. Tech fluency allows the rest of the organization to be more agile, aligned, and focused on business outcomes rather than just IT operational performance.

It also provides the context and appreciation of what limitations may currently exist that preclude an enterprise from moving as quickly as some would like.

Focusing on tech fluency allows CIOs to build trust and develop influence across the organization.

TEP: How can IT leaders navigate past the headwinds they might encounter here, both from their own team (who might be tired of the “translator" role) and from elsewhere in the company?

Lamar: There are many places from which to draw engagement, leadership, and sponsorship – and it can and should vary by audience. Tech fluency needs sponsorship from senior leaders in word and behavior change.

Rising stars in IT can be given this as a development opportunity.

Certainly, IT leaders can be at the helm, but with support from their teams, especially rising stars and the less-tenured leaders who can use this as a development opportunity that ultimately connects them with their business counterparts in meaningful ways to drive residual impact and relationships.

Additionally, HR and talent programs that promote continuous learning are a great place to partner, since it’s natural for professionals to anticipate professional development from here. It can even be built into annual performance objectives for those organizations and functions that see it as integral to long-term career development. Other functional leaders – including the CEO – all have a vested interest in the organization’s ability to drive value using technology so they can be partners and stewards of tech fluency.

TEP: You talk about developing a “savvy scale” that recognizes that not everyone in the company needs the same level of technical knowledge. At the high end are people on the “fluency journey”– employees who will benefit from deeper technical understanding. Who typically makes a strong candidate for this?

Lamar: Everyone is a candidate for the fluency journey – the depth of content and messaging just depends on [the person’s] specific vantage point:

  • Executives should be the most knowledgeable about their business, market, competition and how technology can enable them to drive top-line business growth in new ways. It’s also important for executives to not be too heavily influenced by the in-flight magazine that touts the latest shiny technology object. This may lead someone to ask the CIO why they aren’t already doing ‘it’ without an appreciation for the digital iceberg of legacy infrastructure that may slow speed of delivery of new capabilities and technologies.
  • Marketing, sales, and those charged with telling the enterprise story. In this age where every company is a technology company, digital transformation and relevant capabilities that serve the evolving ecosystem of clients, partners, shareholders, and employees are inherent to the enterprise storyline.
  • Everyone else from HR, finance, manufacturing, and beyond who uses data to make decisions and new tools to engage with internal and external clients. The financial impacts of cloud and anything-as-a-serve change financial reporting, forecasting, and more.

TEP: How can IT leaders ensure that tech fluency programs don’t feel like just another corporate training or brown-bag lunch session?

Lamar: Tech fluency programs can be as extensive as an organization makes them and should align to the enterprise culture: Start small and expand. They should be self-directed, digital, and dynamic. Some organizations hold quarterly innovation days where new ideas or capabilities are brought out and sponsored from various business functions to demonstrate wide-ranging appeal and adoption. Other organizations have intranet sites dedicated to tech fluency that link to relevant content and online learnings – and in some cases, employ gamification techniques and post leaderboards to show progress in [different] functions, offices, etc.

Tech fluency can be tied to professional development and can open doors to new roles and opportunities within the organization. Also, companies should remember that today’s new recruits are digital natives and haven’t ever known a world without pervasive technology – they’ll thrive if continually surrounded by the dialogue and practical use of technology in the context of their role within the organization.

Now, here are four tips for shaping your tech fluency program:

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.