Bridge Building 101

For as long as I can remember, everyone from consultants to columnists to psychologists has dispensed advice to IT professionals on how to improve communications with company executives.

"Bridge the gap," they’ve exhorted you. "Learn to express yourselves and your issues in their language." As if they speak in English and you in Swahili.

If you go back far enough, say 10 years or so to the birth of the CIO concept, it was widely held that the most formidable obstacle in the way of IT professionals trying to communicate with executives was a language barrier. Thus it’s been drilled into your heads for most of your career: You talk tech, they talk turkey.

Unfortunately in this matter, perception belies the reality. Today, when a communications gap exists, the root cause frequently is not the IT professional; it’s the department manager or COO or finance director or HR director who refuses to step out of the stone age and deal with the fact that computers, networks and all the other trappings of information technology are ubiquitous today. IT is in the computer room, the corner office, the car, the briefcase, the bedroom and the boardroom.

Thanks to the World Wide Web and browsers, my 78-year-old mother had her first successful e-mail encounter at my house on Thanksgiving as I packed up an old laptop for her to take to Florida for the winter. She’ll join her 70-year-old brother down there, who discovered computer technology a year ago and spends two hours or more online per day.

Granted, PCs and America Online aren’t enterprise computing. But the principles are surely the same. The network is slow during peak hours. Certain users are restricted from going to certain places on the network. Everyone covets the latest hardware configuration, even though their usual applications barely dent the full potential of hardware from two generations’ previous. And is there anyone not complaining about insufficient bandwidth?

What I am saying is that while IT people may have few chances to hone their business acumen, there is no excuse for a business manager to fail to comprehend enough about IT to grasp the essence of any IT challenge or problem. Some are lazy. Some can’t bear a situation where their knowledge of a subject is subordinate to a subordinate employee’s. Others are corporate snobs who enjoy looking down their noses at techies.

Despite the many unnecessary reasons for the communications gap today, as long as you are in IT and they head the user department you support, the onus still falls on you to be the bridge builder. From numerous sources I have culled a list of three effective solutions to deal with the technically challenged.

Couch all IT issues and problems as business issues and problems – even when it’s a stretch. Today, the network truly is the computer, but it is network issues that non-technical managers often find most perplexing. They don’t comprehend when Internet-borne message packets are being dropped from overloaded lines. And don’t expect your manager to understand why a small group of bandwidth-gobbling engineers need their own virtual private network (VPN) when he’s already signing huge monthly bills to your ISP. Instead, familiarize yourself with the economic concept of opportunity cost, or the cost of not doing one thing while you do something else. For example, explain the opportunity cost of workers waiting for the network to perform is work not getting done. Then explain the productivity benefit achieved if the engineers had a VPN, freeing bandwidth for the other workers.

Explain it to your mother. Before you approach your manager with an issue or problem, first explain it to your mother. And keep explaining it until you’ve got your story in a form that even she understands. Then your story is ready for the boss. I used to employ this technique with writers who’d present convoluted lead paragraphs to technical stories. I told them if my mother couldn’t understand it, a lot of readers might not either. You’d be amazed how well this simplifying technique works.

Never let ‘em see you spit. No, not sweat, but spit -- as in spitting mad. No matter what the motive or reason for a manager’s failing or refusing to understand what you are explaining, never allow yourself to become antagonistic. This is a very important lesson for those who seek to schmooze, rather than claw, their way to the top.

What are your suggestions for dealing with the communications gap? --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at