WSJ offers decision tree for executive involvement in technology investment

How CEOs Can Manage Information Technology -

Jeanne Ross and Peter Weill for the WSJ:

In a digital economy, IT is the foundation for doing business. This is easy to see at born-digital companies like and Google. But companies of all types are discovering that how they manage IT is crucial to their competitiveness. It determines whether the company's dealings with customers and suppliers are efficient, scalable and timely; whether employees have the information they need to do their jobs; and whether employees throughout the company see technology as a tool to move forward, or an anchor that keeps them running in place.

To provide focus, Ross and Weill offer four excellent questions executives and strategic planners should be asking of their IT pros and investments.

  1. Are we using technology to transform our business, or are we just adding bells and whistles to existing processes?
  2. Are you ignoring important business differences as you standardize processes across the company?
  3. Who is making sure the company's digital strategy is being implemented?
  4. Is electronic data empowering your people or controlling them?

The summary and case in the discussion of each question is spot on and worth digesting this morning as you evaluate the technology at work in your change initiatives.

Andrew McAfee poses: biggest tech deals in business--what is technology doing for teams?

Which Technologies Will Be the Biggest Deals?

Andrew McAfee is working through a series of questions aloud on his blog covering the span of digitization in business. His first questions from this morning:

So here’s question #1: Which recent digital innovations will have the biggest impact on the business world over the next decade? By ‘biggest impact’ I don’t mean anything like ‘largest IPO;’ instead, I’m trying to get a sense of which new/new-ish technologies will bring the biggest changes to the most companies and industries? Which ones will most increase productivity, change how work gets done, change the balance of competition, affect the most jobs, and so on?

McAfee offers a few suggestions to get the discussion started, including Google's autonomous car and IBM's Watson Q&A Computer (of Jeopardy fame). But the comments bring even more grist to the mill. This from Jochen Adler:

I'd bet on "awareness" technologies in the workplace to facilitate virtual teamwork. These can be activity streams like the ones generated from microblogs that improve the understanding of who does what by when and for whom, but also location-based services that render questions like "where are you, should we start the meeting" obsolete.

As often as we look to technology to solve our workplace woes, when it comes to delivering big results, the fuel is still the team. It's people that bring the beauty of technology to fruition in new and wonderful ways -- in ways we rarely expect. It's people that bring technology and process to life.

To riff off McAfee's question then, what are the biggest digital innovations you're seeing in your workplace that affect how your teams are able to function? How has technology served communication and organization? Where is the innovation in systems that allow you to work better, more fluidly, in teams?

Are “People Projects” Becoming “Technology Projects”?

It doesn’t take much for a complex strategic initiative to become a “technology project”, void of an end-user focus. The shift from “people” to “technology” can be subtle, as the complexity of the design begins to eclipse the project team’s ability to keep users at the center of design choices. A typical response to this shift is to call anything that involves people a “training issue”, to be addressed by others at a later time. Instead of taking this responsive position, user impact should remain the centerpiece of design choices — regularly reflected on, especially during the design phase of technical projects. Make sure that someone in your organization keeps user concerns in front of the technical design team so that the question is continually asked, “how will these design decisions impact our people?” This should be a daily ritual, bringing a discipline of “translation” to the early design phase of a project, rather than leaving it to training professionals in the eleventh hour.

A Clash of Cultures

As we speak, technology is reinventing relationship. Instant messaging continues to find its way into the workplace, slowly replacing that outdated technology called “email”. It should be of no surprise why this is catching on, given IM is that perfect balance of achieving dialogue without having to deal with eye contact and other interpersonal annoyances that come with having to influence people sitting across a conference table. Discussion boards, blogs, social networks – the way we connect is changing faster than our ability to embrace any of these tools. And with a generation of up-and-coming leaders who grew up embracing electronic media, our views on how work gets done and the meaning of “relationship” is under attack.

We are living in a clash of cultures, those of us who have spent a lifetime developing face-to-face interpersonal skills, and the generation that is weaving emoticons (:-o zz) and instant messaging phrases (PCM or LOL) into our professional dialogue. How do we develop new definitions of relationship and trust that draws from our rich history of oral communication while taking into account the changing nature of written communication and how work gets done? Is this cultural dichotomy something we as seasoned leaders continue to resist or dismiss (“when I was young, we walked 12 miles to school and we liked it!”) or do we collectively learn how to be efficient and effective, while maintaining that personal connection with each other? If this isn’t a perfect storm for the quote by Alvin Toffler, I don’t know what is:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

At a deeper level, how does building trust fit into our 21st century organizations? Does it mean the same thing to future leaders of our institutions as it does to the generation who “walked the floors” and connected one-on-one with those doing the work?

These questions are at the heart of what we need to engage our current and future leaders in discussion around.

Productivity and Achieving Business Goals: They could be apples and oranges

I think most of us would all agree that if you've achieved your business mission or vision, you've probably produced a high-level of productivity. But is the opposite true? Does a high level of productivity automatically translate into business success? The simple answer is no.

What's the difference and why is this a critical distinction for your organization's success? This is the topic of this month's newsletter.

Take this example from a Higher Education institution. Imagine a new and improved Grant Submission tool has been identified to help faculty secure research dollars. The current system is a conglomerate of Word, Excel, emails and faxes going back and forth between
administrative offices and departments.

The proposed technology appears to streamline the collection of data into one coherent set of screens and reports. The majority of faculty are loosely aware how the new system will work and have been given an overview of the benefits that this new system will bring. Ultimately the unspoken expectation by all is that it will support the institutions mission. The software gets installed and is ready to use.

The devil's in the details

On paper, everything looks great. That is, until people actually start using it.

Unbeknownst to faculty, the data entry requirements are greater than expected and the majority of the work ends up falling on their research assistants. It doesn't take long for a growing dissatisfaction to take hold.

What appeared to be a tool to help faculty meet the institutions mission of world-class research, has instead taken their key resources and turned them into data-entry clerks.

Sold a vision but delivered a tool

Software is all about productivity, i.e., simplifying, streamlining, or automating some series of tasks. Software can be a tremendous productivity solution, minus one small caveat — human involvement and the lack of understanding how it impacts people and processes.

Take email for example. The original promise of email was how we would be able to spend more time at home or on the beach, getting more done with less effort or time. (Can we all agree we're not there?)

Software is a linear, problem-solving solution that leads to what we think we want, i.e. "productivity". Unfortunately, productivity is not what we're truly striving for. It's achieving the mission or goals of the organization that is what we're looking for. Achieving vision may involve software, but the real challenge is in understanding and asking broader, mission-driven questions.

Back to our story

Frustrated with the new grant submission tool, a senior faculty member complains directly to the president. What used to be a kluge yet workable set of tasks now has research assistants spending the majority of their time manipulating data-entry screens. To make matters worse, faculty are expected to learn the system themselves to get reports about their grants. This is not what they signed on for and a minor revolt ensues by a few influential teaching fellows.

The unintended consequence of this "improvement project" is that it unfolded as a linear, software solution, versus a means to genuinely support the mission of the institution. In their haste to streamline and simplify work (remember email), the sponsors of the project lost sight of the larger goal; to support faculty in publishing well respected research and attracting the best graduate students. Although well-intentioned, the tools actually caused a greater sense of lost productivity and increased frustration.

Don't get me wrong

It's not that these software tools are bad or don't have a place in helping achieve organizational goals. It's that we don't evaluate them through the lens of meeting these larger questions.

More often than not, productivity projects lose their true value somewhere in the hundreds of pages of technical specs that drive these efforts.

What's the alternative?

The alternative is to not underestimate how easy it is to lose sight of the vision while getting caught up in believing the software alone will solve the problem.

Starting from original conception, through vendor sales, design and finally execution, broader questions about people and processes will help uncover where the real opportunity and pitfalls lie.

Remember, as a pure technology project, the questions are primarily limited to:

  • Can the software perform the following function?
  • How much does it cost?

Focused on mission, the question is:

  • What does business success look like and how will technology help us to realize these goals?

Asking the latter question may yield a completely different set of choices. Your team may even discover that the full suite of "productivity" solutions (i.e. — the software you paid for but didn't install yet) may inadvertently cause a greater sense of confusion and ineffectiveness.

Don't assume technology will keep you moving in the right direction. You may just find yourself and your people working harder but further away from the real value you were looking for.

Achieving Vision

"Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with vision is making a positive difference."

— Joel Barker
Independent Scholar and Futurist