In a recent meeting with the president of a Chamber of Commerce serving a community of roughly 50,000 people, I learned something I can’t stop thinking about. He was speaking of the difficulty of attracting young professionals to the area. I asked if the reason was that young adults want to live in larger metropolitan areas. No, he didn’t think that was the reason – many people prefer small communities. Did he think the reason was lack of opportunity? Not at all – the region is doing quite well economically. He let me ask a few more questions – based on all the usual assumptions –then he said, “No, I don’t think it’s any of those things. I think it’s technology.”
“Yes, technology. The business use of technology is low, though most businesses have set aside money for more automation. But they haven’t spent it.”
I asked, “And why is that?”
“Because they don’t believe their employees will accept it or even be able to use it once it is in place.”
Whether this is a genuine concern for business owners who are themselves technologically enlightened, or if this is a convenient excuse for the technologically impaired I’m not sure. I suspect the latter is more likely. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because the result is the same. Organizations that fail to invest in technology – including investment in the technology skills of the owners and executives – will eventually cease to be competitive.
Not even a decade ago, business owners could get away with not knowing how to use eMail. Frightfully, some of them still refuse to use it. Their convenient excuse is that eMail is a time-waster, which happens to be true. But if an executive is proud of his ability to use Microsoft Word, Excel, and burn CDs; if he thinks he has mastered technology because he has figured out how to produce his own reports, he is sadly misinformed. It would almost be better to be the executive who refuses to use eMail – at least he knows he is not technologically adept.
Using software applications is essential for productivity, but it does not make one technologically savvy any more than being able to use a pencil and paper makes one a writer. So what is it that these folks who never wanted a job in the IT department in the first place need to know?
Today’s business executive has a responsibility to master IT in the same way business executives readily acknowledge they have a responsibility to master finance. No president worth her salt thinks she can ignore finances because she has an accounting department. The same should be true as it relates to IT. Managers must have enough familiarity with tools to imagine their use within a proper context. Executives who insist technology can do anything – simply because they have imagined it – are no less annoying (or damaging) than executives who fear and refuse technology at all.
So what does a technology-savvy executive know?
- Basic knowledge about the infrastructure of IT – the differences between server systems and desktops (it’s not just price); the basics of scalability; the pros and cons of redundancy and general understanding of the various ways to achieve it; how the various communication systems of a company can (and cannot) work together. An entrepreneur tooling up a new manufacturing plant would participate meaningfully in equipment purchase decisions and would be concerned about how the building layout impacts quality and productivity. IT infrastructure is at least as important.
- Every executive should be able to describe the difference between a relational database and a flat database environment and be able to draw on a white board the exponential complexity of relational environments as they scale. This knowledge is as essential as the ability to forecast various margin changes on the bottom line. Executives who cannot demonstrate this knowledge seriously risk underestimating the cost and complexity of programming changes.
- Executives must understand the types of application environments available to business, and how to use them. They must know the difference between ERP, CRM, accounting systems, MRP, sales force automation, publishing environments, and office/productivity tools. They must understand the basics of integration and be competent to weigh the pros and cons. Hosted or resident? Linux or Microsoft? If you think these questions are just for large businesses, think again. Small business owners must do all the same things big business owners must do – just on a smaller scale. The cost and volume capabilities of the software available to them will be lower, but the concepts remain the same.
- To buy or to write? A home-grown application environment is referred to as a legacy environment. Most legacy environments were built using the same planning logic as rural New Mexican adobes; have another child, add another room, mother-in-law moves in, add another room, etc. etc.. Nobody wins any architectural awards for these structures. Even worse, nobody can figure out how to get to the kitchen quickly. To answer the question of build or buy, business executives must understand the pros and cons of each approach, and must be able to comprehend the differences in costs and why those differences exist.
- And finally, executives must understand how to manage their personal technology:In a world where the business cycle no longer stops for night-time or weekends (according to whose clock?), productivity is essential. In the time it takes to dictate a letter, write a bunch of numbers on paper, or ask someone to look for something, most tasks could be completed using basic office software.
- The internet is a powerful tool, and people who are unable to use search engines effectively, discern the difference between reliable and unreliable databases, or remember their passwords are cooking over a fire with sticks while others are building commercial kitchens.
- How to use wireless systems. The executive who cannot figure out how to navigate her own wireless card from one airport to the next is not only a nuisance to her IT staff, she is crippling herself professionally because she can’t stay on top of essential information. Alternatively, she is inflating the cost of her support staff by causing them to do work for her which she could easily be doing for herself.
This list may seem daunting to some. There was a time when printing more than one book at a time, farming more than 40 acres, or figuring out how to deliver products overnight was daunting too. But times changed and so did the business people of each era. Computer technology is our printing press, our International Harvester combine, our streamlined, jet-fed logistics network.
I can imagine some folks claiming that the list above is representative of what IT folks need to know. That would be entirely incorrect. Volumes of books have been written about each bullet in the list above, and each bullet represents specific areas of IT expertise. No, this list is the equivalent of expecting a high school student to know the difference between math, language arts, history, sociology, and science well enough to describe each discipline accurately and to know which discipline (or disciplines) to turn to for answers to specific problems. Most of us would be incredulous if a grown man insisted on using a math formula to answer who won the Battle of Saratoga. Yet executives do the equivalent in IT every day, with little awareness of the damage they are doing to their bottom lines.
On the other hand, leaders who are comfortable with technology can initiate intelligent conversations about how to use technology for greater profitability, can understand the problems their IT, finance, and operational staff are struggling to solve, can imagine the potential benefits of expensive investments, and can even influence an environment to go through difficult change. And when young professionals find a business with a leader like that at the helm, they frequently jump on board – even if the business is small, even if it’s located in a small town.
© 2009. Andrea M. Hill