Technology Is A Human Endeavor - InformationWeek

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08:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Technology Is A Human Endeavor

IT leaders share their insights on why technology doesn't mean anything without people.

Time Killers At Work: How To Avoid Them
Time Killers At Work: How To Avoid Them
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Last week, while covering Interop Las Vegas, I was struck by the number of technology leaders who didn't talk very much about technology. They talked about people. Even when asked how they deployed technology to turn around their IT departments, they talked about people. If Interop made one thing clear, a fully functioning IT department isn't about the interoperability of a network, or a storage system,  or a datacenter. It's about the interoperability of the people who put it all together.

In session after session, speakers at Interop emphasized this point in their presentations.

"Technology is fundamentally about people," said Eduardo Ruiz, Director of IT, Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health. "In the most critical moments, when everything is on the line, nothing is more powerful than the connection of one human to another."

People were top of mind for Terry Bradwell, EVP and Chief Innovation Office, AARP. "Our technology was developed with a social mission in mind," he said  "Millions of Americans over 50 are having trouble adapting to technology."

Johnathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC, advised: "Love technology, but love people more."

And Andy Aczel, CTO, The Specialists Guild, observed: "A good manager finds a way to bring out the best in people. Basically, that's your job. You are an enabler, so others can do their best job."

(Image: Michelle Zell-Wiesmann via Flickr)

(Image: Michelle Zell-Wiesmann via Flickr)

It is easy to discount this as something leaders have to say to get everyone on board and so they can move on to the "good stuff." But each of these leaders made a commitment to the idea that dealing with people was the "good stuff." The key to the turnaround or the new product or the better organization or the improved culture all started with people.

[ Want to learn more on what these same leaders said about innovation? Read Innovation Starts with Culture: Interop Leadership Track. ]

For example, when Feldman inherited an overworked, under-appreciated staff at the city of Asheville, he said it was easy to see that they were the "working wounded." "Miserable employees deliver miserable service," Feldman said. "There is a notion I learned working for the city that they use in firefighting called 'task saturation.' When a commander has too many things going on, bad things happen."

Avoiding the "bad things" comes down to the work you and your employees are doing (or not doing). Equally important is for an IT leader to take the time to learn about the work employees want to be doing. Bradwell said that when he assesses talent, he doesn't ask a person about their current job. Instead, he asks:  "Tell us, not what you do, but tell us what you can do, or what you have done, that is not relevant to what you do now."

Feldman turned around the old leadership question of what keeps people up at night  "I don't want to know what keeps you up at night," he said. "I want to know what gets you excited to spring out of bed in the morning."

This enthusiasm for the human side of tech was evident in the management tales these speakers told, as well as in their views of how to serve customers. For example, Bradwell talked about launching a nationwide campaign to train senior citzens to use technology, and shared how his team produced a tablet designed specifically for older people. Feldman and his team have launched award-winning apps to serve the Asheville community. With an IT team of only eight individuals, Ruiz takes care of the tech needs of a nationwide community of hospitals and universities by successfully deploying off-the-shelf software and cultivating a positive culture.

We often think of technology as a "0s" and "1s" kind of business. It is becoming increasingly clear that if you want to succeed at it, you need to put the human first. This is going to make some technologists uncomfortable, but if you aren't ready to do it, you aren't ready to lead. If you want to lead, take Ruiz's advice: "Invest in people. They are your greatest resource."

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
5/5/2015 | 7:03:45 PM
Re: Technology Is A Human Endeavor
This definitely goes hand-in-hand with the piece Dave wrote the other day innovation and people-oriented culture; I'd recommend anyone who enjoyed this to go give that a look as well. The great thing there was that some of these same leaders shared precisely how their culture-first approach paid dividends. Mr. Ruiz said that his small team was precisely what enabled him to make surgical kinds of innovations by keeping his team tightly knit and focused, rather than spread out and spread thin - "If you start to pay attention, you can create a deliberate, vibrant culture.". Mr. Bradwell explained how putting IT staff in conversations they woldn't normally be in helped AARP to launch that tablet. They made a conscious decision to do more than shave costs, and eventually noticed innovations waiting to happen.

I'm a big fan of the term 'lip service' - it describes a problem that's all too common in IT; something that's talked about but never actually done. The idea that people come first certainly gets enough lip service - it sounds great in board meetings to say how your technology services will tangibly impact your customers, and it sounds great in HR/PR to say you don't treat your IT staff like numbers (like tjgkg is saying). Fortunately it's also the truth that things will turn out better for you if you do it, not just say it. To that end, I do think we could have done with a few more examples here of specific gains these leaders noticed from being 'people-first', specific projects or initiatives they were able to complete because of it, or anecdotes that made them feel like they had made correct decisions. It's not that I doubt their honesty - it's just that, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
User Rank: Ninja
5/5/2015 | 9:32:17 AM
The sun is peeking out finally
It seems that we are turning a corner in the IT industry where people are valued instead of counted. Too often the work they do is not appreciated, let alone understood. Too often the work is repetitive and unnecessary in addition to being unappreciated. Too often the management is more interested in counting the beans instead of cultivating them. I liked the comment about wanting to know what makes you spring out of bed instead of keeping you up at night. That is positive. I hope this is the dawn of a new era where management and companies think in positive terms not only for their employees but also for the value IT brings to a corporation.
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