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By Dawn Roth Lindell, CIO, Western Area Power Administration
I am often asked how my role as CIO has changed over the past few years with rapidly evolving technology advances, increasing regulation and the constant need for new and better information sharing. As CIO, I have moved from a focus on wires, hardware and software to a focus on driving strategy and creating the future. A big part of my role is to keep my eye on emerging trends and to tie those that are applicable into our mission, vision and strategic direction.
This enables the organization to take advantage of a wide array of new tools like mobile computing. With a fifteen-state footprint, being able to reach out to staff anywhere at any time is key. Providing remote access to our tools enables our employees to work more productively and with less frustration. We take advantage of new collaborative communication tools in video, social media, and other outreach mediums to reach customers and stakeholders in the mode that they prefer. Cloud computing enables us to save dollars and spend our human resources on the highest needs. Awareness of the increasing cyber security threats means that we need to push the envelope in using new defensive measures against hackers and to spot them quickly, if they penetrate our defenses.
"As CIO, my role is to model—how to best match message with medium and encourage folks to meet more and email less"
Yet, with all the value that the new tools provide, it is the personal side of technology, communication, and leadership, where I spend a significant amount of my time. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I am finding that the more technology advances, the more we need to improve our social skills to deal with the diverse issues we experience.
To this end, we are spending time and resources to train our IT professionals in communication and facilitation skills. With agile development, it is just as crucial to teach people soft skills as it is to train them on system skills. To this end, my department started an all-IT book group, where IT professionals across our fifteen-state footprint, read soft skill books as a team. We break out in smaller teams each month to have smaller discussions, moving chapter by chapter. We are currently reading Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.
Most of us in IT did not choose this field, because we wanted to “get in touch with our feelings.” So I was not surprised when I initially had a lot of pushback from IT employees—wondering why we would “waste our time reading this stuff when we had real work to do.” Yet, it is imperative; we know how to effectively navigate the emotions of others. Learning computers, networks and support systems can be very frustrating and sometimes those feelings get in the way of our message of technology advancement. That is why I was pleased when, after only a couple of chapters, the feedback became overwhelmingly positive with comments like, “I use this at home and work; it is useful information. This book is truly changing my thinking and my life."
Having a wide array of technology at our fingertips means that we need to understand how to use that technology wisely—ensuring the information reaches the right audience through the right venue. As technology advances, people tend to interact less and e-mail and text more—even if they sit just a few cubicles away from the person they are messaging. Helping them gain the understanding of when to use which medium, ties into the human element of technology: Email is a great venue for direct information sharing on non-controversial topics. If the topic is more difficult or divisive, then the best format is a meeting or a virtual video conference meeting. When conveying a message, only seven percent comes from the words, 38 percent from tone, and 55 percent from the body language, according to the study by Albert Mehrabian. In the absence of hearing or seeing body language, people fill that void with their interpretation, one which is often considerably different from the intended meaning of the message. As CIO, my role is to model—how to best match message with medium and encourage folks to meet more and email less.
The rapid pace of technology increases the need for an effective change management approach. By our very role, IT is often at the forefront of change. Taking the time to create a communication plan that allows for dialog is critical. People resist changing less, when they understand why the change is needed. Formulating the message to include the “why” as well as the “what” and the “how” enables people in all parts of the business to successfully navigate through the change. At WAPA, we require every employee in every part of our business to attend change management training, so that folks are reminded that we each work through change at different paces and also we need to recognize that others may be in a different stage of change.
As CIO, I help to guide the organization’s strategic direction, ensuring that we always meet our mission. The amazing IT Professionals I work with every day must be responsive to—and better yet—anticipate the needs of our internal business partners and external customers. This role has evolved from just keeping the application running on working hardware across a functioning network to a role of meeting the strategic organizational needs, now and into the future. I get to work with leaders inside and outside of our organization to work toward that goal. Of course, if the video conferencing equipment does not work, yes, all eyes do still turn to me to make the magic happen.