In addition to being skilled technologists, IT leaders must be skilled communicators.

Mark Rees, Chief Technology Officer, Xero

September 7, 2021

4 Min Read
talk tech with execs
tadamichi via Adobe Stock

With the digitization of the workforce becoming a necessity rather than a strategy in the last 18 months, new technology of all kinds has quickly infiltrated the workplace and it’s not going anywhere.

While accelerated digital adoption has delivered exceptional growth for businesses across many industries and geographies, it has also brought the onus upon business leaders and their teams to learn and keep pace with new tools, programs, platforms, and ways of doing business -- and a lot of new jargon. For non-technical staff and leaders, this has been particularly challenging, but for IT leaders and other skilled technologists, this has opened a huge opportunity -- if handled well.

Technology leaders are the custodians of technical knowledge in their organizations. Now more than ever, we have an important role in making this newfound digital world of work both accessible and beneficial to all levels of the organization. To do this, we must bridge the technical knowledge gap, from employees through to the most senior leaders.

So how do we do this? The answer lies in effective communication.

Explaining Technology to Your Grandparents, But at Work

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve tried to explain something to someone who knows little about the subject at hand. Whether it’s related to prior negative experiences, impatience, pride, intolerance to change, the willingness to learn or simply varying levels of technical knowledge -- there are many roadblocks to understanding.

These same challenges apply in the workplace. While the process can be frustrating and time-consuming, it doesn’t always have to be this way. I’ve found the following strategies to be effective with those in non-technical roles across all levels.

1. Communicate with empathy

It’s easy to get caught up in emotions and time-pressures when someone doesn’t grasp a new concept. To help others to connect the dots, I find it’s best to take an empathetic approach.

Take adequate time to prepare for the conversation and your approach. Allow enough time to explain the concept and listen actively.

By showing empathy, you’re better able to understand what your colleague or peer is hearing and how they’re interpreting your words. Empathy also allows both parties to connect concepts more effectively because it lays the basic foundations for respect and trust. In the long run, this approach will help form stronger workplace relationships with key decision-makers in the business.

2. Use examples and accessible concepts

Metaphors are great to use in your conversations as they help to explain concepts in terms that are more easily understood. For example, I often explain database architecture by likening it to kitchen cupboards containing jars and beans. Kitchen cupboards are designed to help you store and organize disparate items needed for a functional kitchen. Within them, there are separate containers or jars -- the contents of which contain multiple smaller items of the same or similar kind. The reason we use these storage facilities this way is for ease of access, tidiness, and efficiency. We know where to go to find what we need, and this improves the functionality of our kitchen overall.

By anchoring your explanations in physical objects, you help to make the conversation relatable. In this way, the person you’re speaking to will better understand the concept and why your explanation matters to them and the whole business.

3. Leave the jargon behind

Every industry operates with a certain degree of jargon and the technology industry is no exception (and perhaps one of the larger culprits). While everyone processes information differently, it’s safe to assume technical concepts and jargon are inaccessible to most. Using this language immediately creates a barrier to understanding.

When preparing to explain complex concepts to any colleague, choose your words wisely and allow time to listen to how your explanation has been received -- in case you need to make further adjustments to your language.

4. Walk in their shoes

When considering how to frame your conversation, I find it’s helpful to lead with the benefit for the other party. What’s in it for them? This requires a good understanding of their responsibilities, their past experiences with the technology or situation and any factors that may influence their understanding.

While the benefits of the new technology way of working may be obvious to you from a technical perspective, it’s important to consider how these technical benefits translate into day-to-day improvements for the person you’re speaking to. Will their job be made easier as a result? Will they save time or money?

At a time when technology adoption has accelerated by three years in the space of one, it is in everyone’s best interest to learn and adapt. As technical leaders, we have a responsibility to make this as easy and beneficial as possible and communication is the key to this.

About the Author(s)

Mark Rees

Chief Technology Officer, Xero

Mark leads the platform, security, data and automation teams at Xero and is responsible for enabling Xero’s technology platform for growth and innovation. Before joining Xero, Mark was the chief technology officer for Microsoft New Zealand and the chief product and technology officer for Trade Me. Mark has a PhD and Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of Canterbury.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights