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Listen to Your Own Plumbers

Ron Miller’s piece on Changing the IT Plumber’s Image yesterday was excellent. Most businesses do not see the business value their own IT organizations can and SHOULD be providing. Instead of being seen as the experts who can expand the business through new technology, IT is just somebody you call when your virtual toilet backs up. The analogy of the IT as a plumber has one flaw though. Usually when a plumber leaves things are better than when he got there.

Pavlov’s IT

IT as a community has not done itself any favors, as Ron points out. I have written before that IT’s default “no” is more often learned behavior born out of a response to unrealistic expectations, lack of resources and honestly – a culture overrun with bad management. Very few people you meet really want to stop you in IT. The pain of extra work or consequences that rain down from management if things don’t go their way condition them to say to say no to almost everything.

For technology to make a real difference more that just what is on the monitor has to change. The skills and tasks of the workers has to evolve as well. IT however has traditionally had little or no influence on its own over that aspect and it is always the hardest part of a project. Many years ago I found myself in IT and realized quickly that I was in no position to change the way things worked. I had a choice to make.

  1. I could coast and work between the in and the out box and perpetuate the culture. (not my style)
  2. I could leave and hope to find a different experience elsewhere.(this problem is everywhere)
  3. I could figure out make a difference from the outside in.

No Prophet is accepted in his own home town (Lk 4:24)

This paraphrase from the Bible represents a pattern I have seen repeated in my career hundreds of times in big and small ways. Time and again experienced internal IT people would identify a problem and propose solutions and receive some variation of the “that’s nice” response and nothing would change.

Eventually these problems don’t go away and evolve into projects. I developed a practice where at the beginning of a project I would have lunch with the consultant/vendor that management brought in and tell them in plain and simple terms what the problem was, how to fix it and the obstacles, human and otherwise to getting it done. The newly minted MBA’s would always argue about the need for months of analysis to truly understand the underlying roadblocks to synergy. The experienced one’s would write it down and order cheesecake. Two weeks after cheesecake my information would start to show up in the plan and progress would be made.

The best external consultants make their living by listening to your people, writing it down in their templates and selling it back to you. I discovered that if  I quit caring who got the credit and use the consultants instead of the org chart as my megaphone I could get more done.

The external consultant also has the benefit of being able to speak credibly about both business and technology. They often have far less experience than the internal resources, IT and otherwise but sadly many in management simply refuse to hear and see what is going on around them. They must be told from the outside. I used to think it was a problem with objectivity but far more often it comes down to nothing more than arrogance.

Change is in the clouds

This environment has to change whether IT wants it to or not. They must become ever more customer focused and profit minded and prove their value to organizations in new ways. Management on other hand has to do a better job of mining IT for business acumen. Cloud technologies will force an unprecedented realignment of skill sets in technology. The realignment will drive a wave of attrition and structural change that if not properly managed could drain your company of some of the best thinkers and experts in your industry.

My advice is listen to the plumbers in your own company before these changes suddenly make their knowledge and skills available to your competition.

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