Critique of Boiko’s Chapter
I’ll admit, I didn’t read the entire book Laughing At The CIO , but I did read the chapter that was assigned to our Information Management class, called “Engage Intelligently” and reread it. The book had been endorsed at the beginning of the school year by a recent MSIM graduate and by Boiko’s website as “a prescription for IT executives and professionals who are sick of suffering through a never-ending stream of technology ‘solutions’ that never really solve anything”. So, I was ready to listen, absolutely certain that I would one day “lack a broad base of support for (my) your ideas”.
The premise of the chapter is that IT spends too much time supporting or repairing poor solutions that other groups ask for, don’t understand, and then complain about. The IT group, using less emotional language senses that it could deliver better solutions, but also finds itself frustrated to be on one side of a widening chasm of communication between IT and its’ constituents. The fundamental problem is that groups needs help with their information needs and IT groups want to solve them but with no common language with which to agree on the specifics of the solutions. There comes a point, Boiko suggests, following this period of actively listening and trying to understand your customers, at which that you will have to dispense with the attempts at abstract discussions of specific solutions and start forging ahead with your own ‘goals, information, and audiences’. And if, along the way you need to engage in a little cunning and forging of alliances, do not feel bad about it. It’s these tactics and the assumptions behind them that I want to examine a bit here and then postulate that they should not be resorted to unless you are the CIO or are formally tasked with leading a project. In my opinion, the risk of following Boiko’s advice as a mere IT professional in your organization is the further deepening the distrust that, by his own admission, already exists between IT groups and the clients. User centered design and its driving principles are suggested as an alternative.
Tactic #1: Shared vocabulary
Boiko proposes a Lingua Franca that could be the language of information management and is presented somewhere else in the book. I haven’t seen the language but my first question is why should there be yet another barrier between IT and customers? The layman terms in which dentists, plumbers, and scientists speak is sufficient to persuade people to wear braces, pay a lot of money, and change lifestyles. A professional with a good bedside manner and track record will always instill trust and motivate compliance with directives.
Tactic #2: Identify Top groups
The way to do this is to identify your strategy and those groups who have an sympathetic relationship to it. Before approaching them you are to “consider how much they are likely to agree with your assessment and decide which part of your strategy you would be willing to modify if they are unwilling to play”. Overall this seems strikingly manipulative and demoralizing for a consensus builder like me. I would not like to find myself in an organization without a formalized process for managing initiatives. There is the potential of being marginalized by an initiative by merely disagreeing or suggesting it be opened to consensus or a director’s oversight. Tribal culture such as this was nearly the downfall of Southwest Airlines back in 2000 and whose radical shift to team playing saved it from bankruptcy.
Tactic #3: Play your cards right
“If you believe that this group will take more effort than they will return in value to the organization, approach them slowly or not at all”. . .court someone else and possibly the first group will soften their attitude out of jealousy or sense of marginalization. The question this raises what motives are behind the tactics and will they benefit the whole organization? Is he promoting initiatives for the right reasons, or because he is enamored by a technology that he wants to try, or by the challenge of improving his resume with another accomplishment?
The above tactics seem subversive to me. From my professional experience, I realize this is how small things sometimes get done within organizations. But, I believe that rather than making the IT department feel in control of its’ destiny or promoting the success of the organization, these tactics breed disillusionment about the competence of management and an inflated sense of self which results in job changes and factionalism. When a person becomes a member of the organization it is with the idea that it will work together following agreed upon processes and procedures and defer to the CIO, not laugh at him!
So, as an alternative to these tactics I would suggest the development of processes by which departments can formalize their requests and a forum for having them mediated by anyone formally entrusted with the organization’s overall mission. Approved information services should then be guided by user centered design with checkpoints that gauge usability, functionality, aesthetics, and consistency with end user needs and opens up a dialogue at regular intervals. Possibly, in a worst case scenario, in emergency situation, leaders may rise to certain occasions and employ heavy handed or manipulative tactics to save what is salvageable and disregard the rest, but in a functioning organization I would hope that cooperation and consensus would always be the preferred way.
Having not read the entire book I cannot be sure that I haven’t taken the chapter out of context and even if I haven’t there were lessons to be drawn from Boiko’s chapter, along the lines of human behavior. As he stated, it’s useful to observe that some people are more deeply committed to their organization than others. From this I take the lesson that it’s useful to recognize that your style will be studied by others in your organization when deciding who the key players are. But, I disagree that the tactics he spells out should ever be used for promoting information solutions in your organization unless you are tasked to do so. It’s unprofessional.
Boiko, Bob. Laughing At The CIO: A Parable and Prescription for IT Leadership. CyberAge Books, 2007.