Communicating IT value proves to be an elixir for GlaxoSmithKline

At the drug giant's Canadian branch, pushing IT's cause using business-talk language senior executives could understand led to worldwide adoption of the practice.

If IT has to serve business, IT must talk the language of business. A no-brainer? Perhaps. But, according to one Canadian expert, many IT managers are unschooled in the art of biz talk (defined here as using business concepts and lingo to communicate IT value).

“That’s why I can’t say enough about the need to invest in communications,” says Savino DiPasquale, vice president of IT and CIO at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Canada.

For DiPasquale, when it comes to “effective communications” it’s often a matter of “been there, done that”. As CIO, he has spearheaded critical communications projects, large and small, and knows where the pitfalls and opportunities lie.

One of the biggest, yet most common, communication mistakes IT professionals make, he says, is to be too focused on facts.

IT managers, he says, don’t score when they brag about “facts”, such as what their department has done, the list of successful projects they’ve launched and so on. Instead, IT makes a real impression when it uses the language of impact. “It’s important to change the lingo from: ‘What it is we’re accomplishing?’ to ‘What is the impact of what we’re accomplishing?’”

Other professions understand this, he says. “The manufacturing guy doesn’t stride into a meeting saying: ‘We have 32 production lines, and 60% of them are down, but the remaining 40% are available.’ A medical spokesperson doesn’t run through the litany of clinical trials she’s accomplished. But IT folk tend to boast about what they’ve done — ‘We’ve put in a new email system, rolled out a new technology.’ Who cares, that’s your job.”

He says for IT departments to switch from fact to impact-based communication, one prerequisite is a dedicated communications team or person.

He rues the fact that most IT departments don’t do their own communications, but rely on the business side to do it for them. “It’s surprising how many CIOs don’t have a communications team, but use corporate [resources], and only say something when corporate tells them it’s okay.”

DiPasquale has a dedicated communications person who also sits on his management team. “This person writes and [also] reviews everything that we put out to ensure it fits in with our theme. He ensures our [IT] initiatives and successes are expressed in business terms.”

The “facts” trap, he says, needs to be avoided in employee performance reviews as well. “Usually in reviews people tend to talk about what they’ve done. Who cares? In performance reviews, too, it’s important to speak the language of impact.”

That’s a principle DiPasquale adopts when discussing his own department’s performance plans with the CEO. “I don’t list all the things we accomplished [we set up that datacentre, we did disaster recovery]. I don’t even mention those things. Instead, I focus on the impact of all this on the CEO’s agenda, because his performance plan is my performance plan.”

He says senior IT executives should get to know the CEO’s hot buttons.

“Usually, CEOs are very vocal and concise about those issues. Is the hot button ‘profitability’ or the fact that [processes] are just too complex? Get to know that.”

One of the first requirements for aligning technology with business is for IT leaders to understand their company’s core strategies. DiPasquale described these priorities in some detail when he spoke recently at the CIO 100 Conference, an event held by CIO magazine, Canada. His tips include:

1. Achieve operational excellence: “You’ve got to be good at what you do. No vice president is going to talk to you about innovation if you can’t keep the laptops running and you can’t solve their problems. You’ve got to be good from a cost perspective, from a service-level perspective; you’ve got to be at best-practice level.”

2. Grow your people: “Do you have the right talent across the organisation? You’ve got to have the best people leveraging that technology.”

3. Focus on innovation: “You’ve got to create some skunk works. You’ve got to start to take technologies and put them together. But you can’t just start firing them at the business; you have to start building a portfolio. Take a page out of the marketing folks’ book.”

At the CIO 100 conference, DiPasquale described how he and his team took a slew of disparate global corporate initiatives and created a single theme to promote them company-wide — “Working smarter at GSK.” GSK’s Canadian office took the lead in creating the message for these projects, which have been launched in the 176 countries where the firm has subsidiaries.

Key initiatives, in an 18-month time span, included refreshing laptops, tablet PCs and computers for the field force; rolling out a new email system; launching new collaboration tools worldwide (specifically, employee text messaging, which has taken off at GSK, and is expected to replace email); promoting electronic meetings, to replace face-to-face ones; and increasing the proportion of e-learning programme for the salesforce from 10% to 90%-plus.

“There were ten such projects,” he says, “so, typically, we would have launched ten messages. However, that would work out to a message a month and it would just be noise. We needed a better way.”

He says the IT think-tank first identified the common element in all these projects. “We asked ourselves: when we consider all these tools — the collaboration initiative, our [quest for] operational excellence, our e-learning project, along with the focus on our employees — what is it we are really trying to accomplish? We came up with the answer: ‘Working smarter at GSK’. These four words captured it all. We made that our theme.”

He says the motif expressed a cross-functional goal between the IT and business sides of his company. Both sides don’t want people working harder. “We want software and technology to do the heavy lifting while people work smarter, so our employees can free up time to focus on what’s important to the business and to their lives.”

The theme, DiPasquale says, struck a chord with everyone. “It resonated with GSK employees because it was a value proposition to them. And it resonated with our executive team because it had a direct impact on the Canadian action plan that drove alignment.”

That theme, he says, was continued in every major project or initiative the company launched — much like a campaign. “It was like our calling card.”

John Pickett contributed to this story

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