ManagementSpeak: We want you to be the executive champion of this project.
Translation: I want to be able to blame you for my mistakes.
Thanks to reader Nick Osborn for this helpful addition to our phrase book.

An old bit of folk wisdom warns you to be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.

Those of us who have worked in the trenches of PC support have fallen into this trap. Up to our eyeballs in frustration with end-users who want to know no more about how PCs work than they do about their cars, we wish they’d become just a bit more technically literate., and actually want to know about the remarkable technology we’ve put in front of them.

And what do we do when we get our wish? Complain about those irresponsible power users who insist on loading lots of non-standard software packages onto their computers, making support a nightmare while creating huge numbers of undocumented departmental applications we “just know we’re going to be asked to support”.

As the White Queen said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” So do we, Alice.

So you’re a PC analyst and you think you have problems? Let’s take it up a few levels and see how the same situation plays out at the executive level. CIOs have griped for years that company executives don’t want to understand technology, don’t want to know about it, don’t view it as a strategic resource, and don’t want to understand why IS costs so much. We’ve begged senior executives to become more technically literate.

Well guess what, sports fans … we got our wish. According to a recent A.T. Kearney survey, the vast majority of CEOs feel comfortable dealing with technology issues, most have a working knowledge of the ones in use within their companies, and nearly half spend up to a half day each week learning about “relevant technologies”.

Life just isn’t fair. After years of CIOs believing business knowledge is more important than technical literacy, along come these “Power-User Executives” (PUEs) running in the opposite direction. (And does this mean an EIS must sport a PUE GUI?)

I’m guessing quite a few companies have PUEs with a better handle on how technology can advance their business strategy than their Technically Illiterate CIO (TICIO).

PC analysts can give TICIOs some good advice on how to handle this challenge.

When a PC analyst interacts with a power user, the analyst has to simultaneously respect the power user’s knowledge – business and technical – and to demonstrate dimensions of expertise beyond what the power user knows. “What you’re doing with Excel is really very good,” you might say. “Have you considered converting it to Access? This looks like it would work even better as a database. You could turn it into something that’s really cool, and that the whole department could share.”

CIOs need to do the same thing with PUEs. Respect their insights and knowledge of technology: “You’re right – Domino would be a great tool to help us communicate more effectively with our business partners. Projects like these get complicated in three areas: figuring out the intercorporate networking, agreeing on content responsibilities across the two separate company structures, and actually changing everyone’s behavior so they use it. Let’s start pulling a team together to look at how to make it happen.”

You have to both acknowledge your user’s expertise and extend it. Otherwise you’re just a bottleneck, getting between executives and the resources they need to get their projects done. And they’ll wonder how you can be leading IS when they know more than you do about technology.

Everyone in leadership manages relationships in four directions: up (to the boss), down (to staff), left (to service recipients), and right (to peers). Most of us master only two of these. If you’re focused on career advancement, you usually look up and to the right. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to actually succeed at your job you look down and left.

As CEOs gain sophisticated understanding of technology, the technically illiterate CIO will find him or herself trapped in a shrinking circle of organizational irrelevance, creating no value in any direction.