CIO’s Tap Into the Power of Written Communications – How Mark Twain and Cuttlefish Can Help

IT organizations dwell in the realm of computation, not prose. So why was Accenture Corporation’s CIO Frank Modruson quoting Mark Twain on a recent Wednesday afternoon?

“If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter,” he said in a telephone interview.

Modruson, working from Chicago in his seventh year as CIO, was underscoring IT’s need for succinct written communications aimed at internal and external audiences – including the IT organization itself. He was also submitting that the job isn’t so simple.

In the old days, it was simple. IT departments would broadcast cryptic emails and conduct a couple of training sessions to jumpstart employees with new software and hardware. Employees shared tips to avoid reading the manuals. Business executives saw IT through a haze – confidant that it made sense because it heralded the future.

The communications efforts often failed. When a large insurance company installed a computer in my father’s Manhattan office in the 1980s, it stayed parked on a table behind his desk until he retired, glowing green with data he felt was too stale to use.

Today is the future. We have an ocean of applications, mobility gadgets and business-driven IT initiatives. With our economy under strain, if companies are to excel, even to stay afloat, employees need first-rate IT communications. And executives now demand full grasp of IT’s business sense.

Despite the tension, this is a flowering moment for IT. Twentieth Century IT has the potential to lead in its own right, forging the future for everything from business operations to the growth and sustainability of the enterprise.

Even as IT’s influence spreads, however, its visibility shrinks. This vanishing act is as natural as photosynthesis. “The better IT works, the less noticeable it is,” said Modruson. “Communications is probably one of the most important things we do, in part because IT has a way of disappearing from view.”

Adding to IT’s mystery is a fog of acronyms and hijacked words like “cloud.” IT and plain English are at war. Twain would wince at what a tall order writing a short letter has become.

Lessons from Cuttlefish: Using a Strategic Communications Plan

Excellent communications can improve satisfaction with IT services, and justify IT investments. They can propel CIO’s into dialog with business leaders, forging a path for CIO’s to act as change agents and history makers across the enterprise.

IT organizations might learn from a fellow master of disguise who can take center stage when needed: the cuttlefish. The Montana-based Biomimicry Institute encourages industry to imitate the sustainable design and processes of this octopus relative. Cuttlefish are communications pros, influencing their world with tailor-made broadcasts, continuously adapting their strategies with a remarkable tool set.

Cuttlefish hold up two arms to scare off a diver, for instance, but can alter their skin color, pattern, and even texture to communicate with other creatures. A zebra stripe comes in handy for courting. Super eyesight and sound-detection without the ability to hear give them precision intelligence and metrics. In two seconds, cuttlefish can turn from invisible to exhibiting prowess, a skill IT departments would love to have. A video shows the fish in action.

Cuttlefish get help from their built-in strategic communications plan, but IT organizations have to make their own. Such plans are common to corporate communications departments. The concept is still new to IT organizations, but that situation is changing, said Modruson, and Accenture is helping to lead the way.

Accenture’s strategic communications plan for IT covers both internal and external audiences. “It’s a flexible document that projects annual activities and gets tweaked throughout the year,” explained Modruson. The aim is two-fold: to inform, and to cultivate an IT brand: “You want to let people know what you’re providing, and build awareness around IT’s value.”

A strong plan covers broad territory. It identifies audiences, surveys the environment (such as business needs and technology trends), sets goals and objectives, and establishes a budget. It also drafts a timeline for quarterly rollout.

Accenture’s plan targets three audiences: the non-IT workforce and executives, IT employees, and external groups such as the media and clients. Modruson’s organization manages over 300 global applications for 187,000 internal customers. “You can’t write the one piece that covers everything,” he said. “The key is diversification and repetition.”

Deliverables in a strategic plan include standard articles, press releases, white papers, PowerPoint presentations, and emails. Accenture’s “Tech Tips,” monthly email, for instance, gives employees brief articles on “how to make your life easier with the technology IT provides,” said Modruson. A plan also should include cutting-edge approaches such as an IT yearly update (like an annual report) and Web 2.0 functionality such as blogs, podcasting and RSS feeds.

Accenture’s IT yearly update, now in its fifth year and available online, is an annual report that “summarizes who we are, what we’ve done, and what we’re going to do,” said Modruson. “It’s written in language that any business person can understand.” The concept is just catching on in the business world: “A small number of organizations have copied us, which is very flattering.”

Also generating excitement internally is the Accenture Collaborative Innovation Solution, alias “The Grapevine.” Using Web 2.0 technologies, it’s a combination survey tool and “Wikipedia-type updating gizmo that lets employees answer questions and vote on the best responses,” explained Modruson. IT fishes out the results to craft communications about demonstrated needs. Watch for such a tool to become useful not just to IT, but to all corporate communications.

Building a Team

Through his glass office walls, Modruson can see three people: his executive assistant, the head of human resources, and the lead for IT communications. “They are three of the most important people on our team,” said Modruson, adding that his organization has additional communications specialists and uses contract writers.

Although the communications specialists are deployed to IT, they belong to Accenture’s corporate marketing communications organization. “They understand our brand messages and they network with communications managers and specialists around the world,” said Modruson.

The communications lead is the “conduit to the outside, but she’s also ours – focused on our stuff,” explained Modruson. Most CIO’s have an HR lead, noted Modruson, but he suspects communications leads are less common, or less tightly integrated than at Accenture.

As a $23.39 billion global enterprise with more than 187,000 employees, about 4,000 of them working in IT, having five people working on communications is practical for Accenture, said Modruson. Smaller organizations might use corporate communications teams on a project basis and outsource to contract writers or agencies.

For Modruson, excellent written communications are a cornerstone of his responsibility as CIO, part of running IT as a business. “We need to be active participants in representing IT to our people, our internal customers, and our clients.”

Mark Twain knew well the challenge of such an imperative, and the value of perseverance. On the back of an envelope to sweetheart Olivia Langdon in 1868, Twain penned, “I took out some of this letter – and tore up some of it – but still I can’t get it short enough – however, I shall succeed better next time.”

Communications Cowardice

I believe there is now is a pervasive communications problem in business and life, Communications Cowardice. I suspect all of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. My definition of communications cowardice is sending an email, text, or some form of an electronic message, avoiding plain old spoken communication. The real cowardice is evident in those instances when the sender knows in his or her heart that a phone call or a person to person meeting would be a far better way to deal with an issue, but is too “chicken” to do so.

Electronic communication is wonderful and has plenty of uses. No need to chat when imparting basic info, things like, “See you in 30 minutes”, “Meet me at the office”, etc. Electronic communication connects us to each other in ways we couldn’t even dream of years ago. Social media has put this phenomenon on steroids with our “friends”, even considering that the definition of a friend in the digital world is far looser than in the old-time analog one. I used to know who my friends were (or at least thought so). In today’s digital world I seem to have more friends than I can shake a stick at.

I am far more digitally knowledgeable and active than those of my age, and in fact more than many far younger as well. So when I yearn for yesteryear, it is not through the eyes of someone who is an old fart and fears the new communications frontier. Yet I still yearn for more person-to-person communications rather than digital ones. Real dialogue. Listening. Talking. Thinking about what was said and reacting. I have been criticized throughout my life for being too quick on the solution without real listening (Perhaps this is Lonny’s 5th Habit “Seek First to Understand Me, Then Shut Up”-I don’t think Covey had that one in mind). This criticism was often legitimate. Still is. Be that as it may, with analog dialogue you have the opportunity to listen to someone, hear the passion of their feelings, and if in person, observe body language, which communicates far more than mere words. With electronic messaging you have none of that. In fact electronic communication is terrible in expressing feelings. So much is misread into the underlying feelings in a lifeless email or text.

I fear that today’s “yutes” (sorry for the overuse of the Cousin Vinny reference-but it was great) lack some fundamental oral skills and fully developed writing skills. These were critical skills as I entered the business world in the 70s. I recall my boss at BBDO, Jack Thorne, urging me to write a business memo as if it were drafted for the “Man on the Moon”. Facts, rationale, crisp, simple and to the point. Not flowery. I paid attention Jack. You were right.

Oral communication is best of all. You can explain, change direction, influence and drive toward a solution. I enjoy a business meeting recap when the leader says, “OK just to recap, here’s what we are doing”. There’s a unified game plan. I also enjoy a dialogue and discussion that makes me think and challenges my point of view. Despite the strength of my personal convictions on many topics, I also can change my mind. That’s what human dialogue is about. Did an email ever make you change your mind? Even worse, a Facebook post on a political candidate-why waste everyone’s time, please outlaw these.

So my advice to you when the subject is really important, don’t wimp out and just send an email or text. Call and/or meet instead. I guarantee you it is more likely to have a positive outcome.

The Value of Written Communications

Have you ever stopped to consider the value associated with written communications? While our society has become so driven by the visual and the verbal, it is written communications that provide daily direction to us as individuals and to our society as a whole.

Consider these elements of value provided by written communications:

Written communications INFORM. Would you be pleased to know that the pilot of your jetliner is going over the preflight checklist from memory? Or the pharmacist is ignoring your physician’s orders and guessing which medicine you require? Or your employer failing to notify you in writing of an important change in your medical benefits? Obviously, we need written communications to provide information and facilitate understanding. We read newspapers, books, and magazines. We decide on what to eat from reading a menu. We make purchases based upon written specifications and reviews. With the veritable explosion of information now available to anyone with an internet connection, we can become informed on virtually anything/everything.

Written communications PROVIDE CLARITY. While any form of communication can be confusing or ambiguous, as a general rule written communications provide more clarity than verbal instructions. Written communications, as opposed to the verbal form, can be referred to repeatedly if one’s memory is less than stellar. Presidents send our armed forces to war with written orders. Military commanders develop plans and issue their own written orders. Rules of engagement are provided in written form to combatants. Clarity is typically better served in writing.

Written communications PROVIDE A BASIS FOR AN ORDERLY SOCIETY. Our laws are developed, interpreted, and communicated to citizens in written form, from Supreme Court decisions to posted speed limits to search warrants. Our public entities and private companies publish written codes of conduct to establish standards of acceptable behavior. Our games are guided by written rules of play (imagine how players and fans would react if game officials ad-libbed the rules and the home team lost!).

Written communications are TIMELESS. Moses didn’t rely on his memory for the Ten Commandments. We have the documents of our nation’s history-the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Eisenhower’s message on the eve of D-Day-that are preserved and revered in their written form. Letters we write to friends and loved ones are saved and appreciated for years, perhaps even generations.

Surely you’ve heard the phrase, “Put it in writing.” So often, the written form of communications is the most effective way to educate and inform. There is indeed often great value in “putting it in writing.”