Silicon and Spoon people

February 28, 2007 at 8:55 am | Posted in Technical | 1 Comment

IT departments are often marginalized, exiled to their little workshops and kept out of sight until there’s a crash, and then they are there to take the blame. Technical projects tend to be regarded with reluctance, as CFO’s grumble about the increasing costs of technical infrastructure, and end-users grumble about the learning curve and downtime. Technical staff are also often forced to exist in react-mode, since many are so low on the executive food chain that they don’t have a voice in the budgeting and planning process.

In this way, knowledge of the company’s overall strategy is accidentally compartmentalized, creating a weakness in the organization as a whole. How did this happen?  

I think I can guess, and have written a parable.

The Tale of Chips and Spoons

Back at the dawn of time, companies didn’t have IT staff, and didn’t need them, because essential business functions and processes occurred entirely on paper and tape. Computers were those big things in labs, run by guys with extreme pocket protectors, who fit into places like government encryption facilities and NASA.

When a great spoon-making corporation started to need computers, they were forced to hire one of these ultra-smart academic types who had tended to approach computing as a science, and therefore didn’t know a whole lot about working within a business structure. The computer scientist managed to leave his pocket protector at home, and entered the workplace to try to use computers to make better spoons. This was a pioneering age, and he would have to invent something entirely new to make this work. He wasn’t a business person, though, and did not think like business people at all. He thought the way a scientist is trained to think, using empiricism and experiments to find solutions. As a result, he didn’t fit into the corporate culture very well, and ended up working out of a closet in the back of the building.

His new boss had absolutely no understanding of how computers worked, and was probably uncomfortable trying to manage an employee who performs such alien work, and thinks in such strange ways. The boss had been very successful, leading and inspiring a large team of people who manufacture and sell spoons. He knew nothing about silicon, but now he must try to manage a guy who works with microchips all day long, and doesn’t fit in the drawer with the spoon people at all. He is all silicon and bits, while they are shiny smooth silver and nest side by side effortlessly.

The spoon people are united in their vision for the company, and everyone understands a direct relationship between his or her work, the lovely curving spoon they produce, and the profit they make. No one understands how the geek in the closet fits into the picture, including the boss and the geek. Over the next thirty years, the geek gets some staff to help him, and soon every person in the spoon company has a computer at his or her station. Some people have been replaced by computers altogether; but there is still a divide between the spoon people and the silicon people. They have different ways of thinking, and have not yet learned to lie together in the drawer peacefully. The moral of this story: only when spoons and microchips lie together in the drawer will we have replicators like on Star Trek, and every one of us will be wealthy and successful and drive a flying car.

The End

Yes, that was a little contrived. My point is, there is  a native disconnect between the IT shop and the rest of  most companies, which is holding all of us back, especially in the smaller companies with less IT experience. IT staff need to understand and share the vision of the company, and the whole company needs to understand how IT serves that vision. IT staff also need to be represented in the decision-making process, and in the daily business processes of the company.

There was an interesting roundtable at Temple University yesterday. A bunch of IT directors and desicionmakers from large companies with impressive networking footprints got together to discuss the value of IT. One of the key points the panel agreed upon was that IT should directly service the end-product, and therefore the company’s clients or customers. Each IT project should be related in some way with the company’s product, and their customers’ satisfaction.  Eric Dzwonczyk, senior IT director global R&D and new product development at Campbell Soup Company had a great comment: “There is there is no such thing as an IT project. They are all business projects.”

They also agreed that businesses can benefit from applying some metrics to their IT departments.  Examples of the key metrics they suggested were reduced costs, returned value, and increased revenue. 

Jazz Tobaccowalla, VP of R&D IS at Wyeth noted that since technology is intertwined with business, project managers have to get better at internal marketing.

“Remember every value is a business project. Every time it’s wrong it’s an IT project. Amongst all the metrics you put in don’t forget there’s a marketing component and relationship to IT.”

“The next 36 months will be business intelligence,” said Dzwonczyk. The challenge is figuring out how to use that information to retool how people work and enhance customer returns. Dzwonczyk noted the process could take a decade.

Tobaccowalla agreed: “The issue now is we have too much information. If we somehow parse that information out so it’s not just another dashboard that’s where the next generation will be,” he said.

I think that was a fancy way of saying that we all ought to examine our business models and find a way for our technical staff to be spoonmakers. It could happen! 

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  1. […] the unique nature of IT as a part of business. Remember, a long time ago I wrote about how all the geeky guys with pocket protectors got stuck in the closet when they first entered corporate America and never came out? I get the […]


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