Can you clearly and concisely explain your company’s business model? Can you explain your company’s revenue model or describe the regulatory environment in which you operate?  Can you describe your company’s various strategic relationships and how they are structured?  Can you describe your competition and the company’s strategies for competing in your marketplace? If you have been with your company for many years, or in the same industry for much of your career, you probably can, at least I would hope so.  Unfortunately this isn’t always the case.  Let me give an example.

A while back a man asked for my help with selling an idea to his management.  He was the CIO of a large organization in a tightly integrated industry and he had conceived of an idea, a combination of software and automation, that he thought could provide great value if only his bosses would listen. I frequently coach people on presentations so I was more than willing to help however, as he began to explain his idea it was clear that the issue wasn’t his presentation style or an unclear and confusing description of his idea, the problem was that his proposal was completely at odds with how his company, and industry, operated. 

What he proposed wasn’t a disruptive new business model like, say, iTunes or Netflix, it was the creation of an automated business process that, if implemented, would isolate his company from the highly interconnected marketplace in which they competed. As I explained the issue to him he seemed at first surprised and then, as it sank in, he said, “I never thought of it like that.” The bottom line is that this fellow, who had been a CIO in his industry for years, really didn’t understand how his business, and industry, really worked.

While this gentleman may be the exception, I suspect that there are more CIOs, and many more junior IT executives out there who have a less than optimal understanding of how their company really works.  Perhaps you have changed industries recently and have a steep learning curve in front of you as you try to learn a new industry and business.  Or perhaps you have hired key staff from outside of your industry and they need to quickly learn their new world. How do you quickly get up to speed on your company’s business and how do you educate your staff on your company and industry? Here are five suggestions.

Understand your company’s business model. I recently read a quote from a prominent CIO in the medical field who observed that, “Business model innovation is the new contribution of IT.” If he is right, and I believe that he is, understanding your company’s business model has never been more critical.  After all, you can’t be a business model innovator if you don’t understand your business model!

One of the most effective tools I have found for developing and teaching business models is The Business Model Canvas. This simple tool allows you to visually depict either a new or an existing business model.  A copy of the canvas is attached to this post and you can go to the link above to the website which has a ton of useful information.

If you are new to your industry use the canvas to map out what you know and discover the areas where you need to learn more.  Get help from colleagues if necessary.  Then use the completed canvas as a teaching tool for staff members who may also be new or for existing staff who may need greater depth in their understanding of the business.  Having a correct, clear and current understanding of your business model positions you to do the next step.  Identify critical areas of the model where you already provide key enabling technology.  Then look for gaps to see other areas of potential opportunity.  The canvas can serve as a great strategic planning tool as well as a tool for helping to prioritize your project portfolio.

Host guest speakers. During my career as a CIO I routinely held what we called Town Hall Meetings, which were meetings for all of my staff.  We usually held these at least quarterly.  I regularly invited executives from various areas of the company to speak at these.  They would describe their business unit, the greatest challenges and opportunities they faced, and talk about how we could better partner with them. This provided an excellent opportunity for my entire staff to hear first hand from other business leaders and it helped build better relationships across the company.

Provide in-house training. In one pharmaceutical company I worked for we developed a program called Molecule-to-Market which was a two hour seminar on how drugs are developed.  We routinely gave these to various groups across the country ranging from medical or nursing associations to civic organizations.  I was a member of the company’s speaker program and routinely conducted these around the country.  We took this program and used it as part of our orientation for new IT staff.  This gave them a brief but well-developed orientation to the industry.

In the late 90s during a period of rapid growth we hired a large number of staff from outside of our industry.  Many of the technical skills we needed were found on Wall Street or in the technology industry.  I even hired a computational scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (my only rocket scientist!). These folks were brilliant in their field but had little, if any, understanding of the pharmaceutical industry.  We contracted with a third party educational firm who had developed a two-day course that provided a comprehensive introduction to the pharmaceutical industry. We brought the course in house several times putting all of our new hires and many of our existing employees through the session.  It paid big dividends by bringing these talented new folks up to speed on our business enabling them to rapidly become strong contributors. If you are new to an industry or have fallen behind, are there seminars or training programs you can attend that will sharpen your understanding?  It is well worth looking into.

Use cross-functional assignments. I was fortunate early in my career to work for a company that provided the opportunity to serve on numerous cross-functional teams, participate in temporary assignments in other areas of the company, and serve on various company-wide task forces.  These gave me the chance to learn new aspects of the business, work with a variety of people, and develop a more holistic view of both our company and industry.

Look for opportunities to take on new assignments that get you out of your routine and put you in touch with people you might not otherwise work with.  Serving on industry association task forces and working groups is another excellent way of broadening both your industry knowledge and your contacts within your industry.

Creating opportunities for some of your most talented employees to take cross-functional assignments is an excellent developmental tool. This isn’t as difficult as you may think. I began this several years ago by partnering with another executive.  We agreed to have two of our star performers switch places for a month to broaden their experience.  One thing led to another and pretty soon we had developed a successful program.

Be mentored. Throughout my career I have been fortunate to have been mentored by some great business leaders.  All of these were people outside of my direct area of expertise.  They included two men who were corporate general counsel, two CEOs, a CFO, an internationally known author and speaker and a successful entrepreneur. I didn’t report to any of these folks.  I sought their advice and they were very generous.  Today, I “pay it forward” and serve as a mentor to numerous younger people.  Take the opportunity to listen to and learn from senior leaders in your company.  A formal mentoring relationship may develop but even informally spending time listening and participating in conversations whenever you can will reap huge benefits.

Finally, a formal mentoring program can be a remarkable talent development tool.  Several years ago we established a formal mentoring program for our top performers.  I used the services of a consulting firm that specializes in setting up corporate mentoring programs (a link to their site is found here). We paired some of our top performers with senior business executives who agreed to serve as mentors. The intent was to help our people learn how executives in other areas of the business think, what problems and challenges they face and how we could better serve them and their organization.  The engagements lasted for a year during which times the mentor and protégé met at least monthly and followed a previously agreed mentoring plan.  At the dinners we held at the conclusion of the year the mentors were as enthusiastic, if not more so, than those they mentored.  It was a great success.

CIOs who want to be at the forefront of leading their companies forward need to first make sure that they and their employees are well-versed in their company’s business model and the challenges their company and industry face.  Without this understanding it will be difficult, if not impossible, to lead.

Follow me on Twitter