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IT Leadership
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John Edwards
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How to Explain Complex Technology Issues to Business Leaders

Promising digital initiatives can only succeed with enthusiastic management support. Here's how you can help business leaders understand why a complex new project is necessary for long-term competitive success.

Credit: sibstock via Adobe Stock
Credit: sibstock via Adobe Stock

As technology grows increasingly sophisticated and complex, it's also becoming more baffling to business leaders, many of whom may have come of age in an era when fax machines and flip phones were all the rage. This poses a challenge for IT leaders who need wholehearted management support to receive the funding and other resources necessary to guide a proposed digital initiative to its successful conclusion. Here's a quick look at ways IT pros can communicate effectively and productively with business counterparts to their mutual benefit.

Focus on the Goal

The most effective way to explain a new technology to non-tech-savvy colleagues is to emphasize how the project will ultimately benefit the organization. "From a purely business perspective, features and capabilities are secondary," observed Chris Carragher, director of technology for hedge fund firm Kaiju Capital Management. The common thread should always be the organization’s growth and success, not the inner workings of a specific technology or system.

Unless it's absolutely necessary, skip the solution's technical details. "The more detailed one goes into a technology issue, the more nuanced it gets," noted Prashant Kelker, partner and Americas lead, digital strategy and solutions, at technology research and advisory firm ISG. "The entire [conversation's] tone changes from discussion to explanation," he said. "Our non-tech colleagues get the gist, [but] they are more interested in the outcome, the path forward, and the approach to get there."

Chris Carragher, Kaiju Capital Management
Chris Carragher, Kaiju Capital Management

Business leaders generally trust their tech counterparts to successfully address and resolve all the necessary technical details. What colleagues most want is assurance that whatever technology IT is proposing delivers benefits that outweigh capital and operating expenses. "We need to rise above the technology itself to explain the impact it will have," Kelker said.

Jerry Kurtz, executive vice president of insights and data, at IT advisory firm Capgemini North America, also stressed the importance of focusing on the project's potential business outcome and value. "Rather than getting into the details of the technology, challenge, or solution in technical terms, showcase the outcomes the solution can bring and how they will impact the business as a whole," he explained. "Once this has been accomplished, it's time to develop a roadmap to reach the agreed upon target state."

Analogies Rule

Using analogies rooted in shared experiences is a good way to find a common ground with business leaders, advised Mike Bechtel, chief futurist at business and IT advisory firm Deloitte Consulting. "For example, you can try -- and fail -- to explain cognitive automation AI/ML by using technically accurate terms, like 'in-band neural-network executables,' yet that won't prevent a non-technical audience from glazing over," he warned. A better approach is providing an analogy to a commonly shared experience or reference.

Bechtel provided this example: "AI was slow and reactive, providing verbose facts and figures from the back seat -- sort of like C-3PO annoying Han Solo. Cognitive automation is more like Chewbacca grabbing the controls as an able co-pilot and actually being helpful as opposed to pesky."

Mike Bechtel, Deloitte Consulting
Mike Bechtel, Deloitte Consulting

Justin Rodenbostel, practice lead in open source application development for technology services firm SPR Consulting, agreed that using common analogies to describe a proposed technology's benefits is a good approach to take when trying to communicate advanced concepts in a relatable manner. "Software issues, for instance, are often rooted in logic, and because logic-based processing happens constantly in the real world, your audience may find familiar analogies easier to grasp," he said.

It's also important to limit the use of tech slang when presenting project specifics. "Try to describe problems and solutions in plain, layperson terms," Rodenbostel advised. "People don't need a lesson in acronyms or buzzwords to understand whatever concept you’re explaining." Carragher concurred. "Tech leaders are most effective when they use the organization’s common lingo rather than technical terminology," he noted.

Finally, avoid the impulse to rush through project specifics. "These days, it’s easy to move fast, so ask permission before moving on to the next topic," Rodenbostel said. "It’s also easy to get excited or carried away about a particular topic, so always check-in with your audience and confirm they are following your train of thought."

The Devil's in the Details

An IT leader who can't communicate complex technology concepts in easily understandable terms, risks failing to convince business stakeholders of the project's full value and long-term potential. "This can lead non-tech colleagues to undervalue and underprioritize the situation and, in many cases, be unaware of the larger picture," Kurtz warned.

Leading with technical terminology can also intimidate non-tech-savvy colleagues, effectively excluding them from the conversation. A little advance preparation can prevent this problem. "It’s often constructive to share information in advance of a meeting, using visual aids as a communication tool," Carragher suggested. "During discussions, it’s also helpful to summarize often and pause for questions."

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John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic ... View Full Bio
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