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A writer’s lament

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Where’s the outrage?

Last week’s column, discussing the Not Invented Here By Me Syndrome, included a shot at Apple (“Apple’s aficionados were and are more passionately loyal than Microsoft’s customers. But in IT, Microsoft matters. Apple’s products? They connect to the IT portfolio but aren’t important to it.”

Once upon a time, a statement like that would have yielded a flood of hate mail, or at least, the KJR community being a civil lot, no shortage of kindhearted souls who would take the time to help me see the error of my ways.

Does Apple really have so few defenders? Or, if you’re among them, were you just too busy to express your outrage at my disrespect?

Speaking of outrage, here’s something that causes mine: How few IT managers and professionals (yes, some people are both) read.

The world, or at least the Internet, is chock full of potentially useful information, not that I know how many bytes constitute a chock. Last week, speculating as to why IT organizations don’t take more advantage of it, I enumerated four possible root causes: Incuriosity, fear, internal disqualification, and channel erosion. Due to self-imposed lack of space I didn’t explore possible solutions.

But identifying problems and root causes without suggesting solutions is just pointless griping.

We can’t have that. And so, as a possible solution, how about making reading, or, more broadly, idea discovery part of the job?

But it has to be about more than just discovering interesting concepts, developments, and possibilities. It has to be about more than novelty. It also has to be about utility.

With that in mind, here’s a possible program: Make everyone in IT responsible for reading broadly and deeply about some subject that is, in some way, shape, or form, related to IT’s responsibilities. Their choice. Once a year they’ll be responsible for turning what they’ve discovered into a proposal for how to improve the IT organization.

Some guidelines:

Vision: Recommendations should be visionary enough to be interesting. They should also be practical — concrete enough that you can envision what success would look and feel like. And they should explain how to move from current practice to whatever is being proposed.

Benefits: They should be clear. Don’t limit them to the financial realm, but what IT and the company would get out of the proposed investment shouldn’t be vague and mysterious, either.

Teamwork: Allow teams, but limit their size to three. More than that and when their results turn up you’ll have no way of knowing how many team members actively and usefully contributed.

Source exclusion: You should probably disallow the analyst firms as sources — not because their analyses are illegitimate, but because what they do is what you want your employees to do. Letting a contributor rely on, say, a Gartner study would be akin to a professor accepting a term paper with only Wikipedia in its bibliography.

Divide and conquer: As a practical matter you probably don’t want to wade through everyone’s proposals at once. Stagger delivery so you get a new batch the end of every month. Also, divvy up the contributions so your whole leadership team shares responsibility for evaluating them.

Outcome: Whatever you do, don’t promise to implement, just as you shouldn’t make any other promise you can’t keep.

But on the other hand, do take the contributions seriously. Some will be worthwhile. Incorporate the best into your strategic and tactical planning.

Coach: Many of the suggestions you receive will be interesting enough to get your attention, but not well-thought-out enough to work as is. That suggests the contributor has potential and should be encouraged.

Recursion: Subject this suggestion to the same process it recommends for evaluating other ideas.

Understand I’m making this up. I’m pretty sure it or something like it would work, confident it would lead to significant direct and indirect benefits, and don’t personally know of any IT organizations that has tried it or something like it, let alone demonstrated its merits.

Also understand I’m anything but a disinterested party to all this. As a writer, I of course want more people to build reading habits into their personal development. And so, if the above strikes you as overly ambitious, at a minimum take the time to distribute links to on-line content you find intriguing to the teams you lead

Perhaps append the question, “Should we explore something like this here?”

Comments (13)

  • There is a reason that so few supervisors encourage reading and exploration by their employees: FEAR. For some of the following reasons
    o G-d forbid someone other than me, or other top management has a good tactical or strategic idea. They might be after my job or a promotion.
    o Why didn’t I think of that? My bosses might overlook me when it comes time for promotion because one of my minions might be smarter than me!
    o Why didn’t I think of that? I might look stupid for not seeing the obvious.
    o I don’t want the peons to get too uppity!

    Which gets to a point in your first book: A good manager hires folks as smart, or smarter, than herself/himself – and encourages them to shine. The problem is that most supervisors are not that smart.

  • OK, what in the world is a chock when used in reference to storage measurements?

  • I did see your “shot” at Apple in your previous column, and I will admit to being a little surprised by the bluntness of your delivery. I was on the battle lines when Microsoft and Apple squared off in the GUI war. Like everyone else, I spent countless hours telling various others why Microsoft would win. I did this because I secretly hoped Microsoft would win, of course. In my mind, I had gained the higher ground by figuring out how to do a very few useful things with a DOS machine, and I wasn’t in the mood to lose that ground by switching to a new OS. The PC desperately needed a GUI front end, and Microsoft was going to provide it, no matter how badly those first Windows releases, uh, well, sucked. So, I threw my support behind the “open” and “inclusive” and “best of class” models and I prayed for the best. And, by golly, that’s just what happened. Was it worth it? Who the heck knows? I just know I can tell my still-breathing fellow geezers that I was right all along. And being right is all that matters, right? No? Dang it!

  • Bob:
    Excellent column!
    Your “guidelines” are first-class — and should be implemented by organization worth their salt.
    You are the first person to remark on this subject in my experience – since my Dad made it policy in the company he and a (rich – silent) partner bought back in 1967(an electronic instrument manufacturer). One of the first things my Dad did was to hire a real technical research librarian – the woman who had helped him when he was working on his PhD. dissertation at the University of Arizona. He made it policy that every department head had to subscribe to relevant magazines, and read new books on their subject – every year – and present to him (as President) a formal proposal for improvement based on that acquired knowledge. Everyone in the company was encouraged to take advantage of the library and the skills of the librarian to increase their knowledge about any relevant subject.
    Keep up the good work …
    Best regards,
    Marc Linville

  • Our firm does something a bit like this, on a more limited scale. I am an Architect. No, not from an IT perspective – I design buildings. Every month a volunteer gives a short mini-seminar on some aspect of professional practice. Often it ends up being more helpful to the newer employees but we do encourage topics that’ll help the firm. I think we could expand it along the lines you’ve suggested here.

  • Bob, as usual, you’re right on the money. But some reasons for your not being flamed by Apple fanboys is:

    1. The advent of Linux (including supported versions by outfits like RedHat and SuSe) has given Microsoft haters a third alternative. I’m uncertain how many IT shops are using Macs as server machines: due to their closed approach to hardware, the choice of high-end peripherals is reduced drastically.

    2. Microsoft Visual Studio has become much more “open”, in that you can develop for multiple browsers and even multiple desktops.
    a. Microsoft C# was made an open spec, and I know at least one guy who develops using VS C# on Windows and deploys on Linux using Mono (he’s in charge of IT for a large genomics/proteomics lab at a major university.)
    b. VS also allows the use a large variety of open-source/freeware tools: most developers use Git for version control rather than Microsoft’s own Team Foundation Server. Open-source tools can similarly be employed for tasks such as issue tracking.
    c. VS closely integrates with some open-source tools for Web development, notably JQuery and Bootstrap (both of which dramatically simplify development in JavaScript.)
    d. It also supports versions of the open-source programming languages R (for statistics applications) and Python.

    In other words, Microsoft’s abandoned the idea of developer lock-in (as when they tried to create their own, modestly incompatible version of Java). Apple’s entire business model, by contrast, has been based on hardware lock-in, which is OK for end-users, not a show-stopper for people running IT shops.

  • 1. I hear you as proposing that good IT shops formalize a process for investing some amount of resources into a formalized, basic research function with respect to IT. On a tiny scale, maybe replicate the process like PARC Place, Bell Labs, or Google.
    It’s hard to see how encouraging people to flex their imagination muscles within the department can be bad. Besides a morale boost, maybe every couple of years, someone lays a golden egg.
    2. I’ve been an avid Apple supporter for 40 years, but found over the years that Microsoft’s marketing techniques could not be overcome by facts and a positive user experience. Also, many of the best IT managers are political animals who didn’t see the risk vs. reward equation working out for them or the department in advocating Apple.
    Finally, the kinds of jobs most people do with the computers in corporations is either accounting or word processing, which are resistant to using new software, just because it’s easier to use.
    Even now, Apple has much better and reliable technology across more platforms for less, but it doesn’t matter if no one is listening.

  • Writing a 730 word article about the need to read more? That’s a catch-22! Turn this into a Tik-Tok video instead

  • Some people learn from reading. Many others do not. Most people learn more by engaging, i.e., doing, than by attempting to apply an abstract concept to current circumstances. I’m not disagreeing with your proposition; most of my innovations were the result of an idea I got somewhere, perhaps reading, perhaps at a conference, perhaps at a b.s. session with colleagues, or a suggestion from a customer. In many cases, the idea didn’t fully form until two or more of those sources collided in an “aha” moment. In general I’ve found that having a vaguely defined problem/opportunity is an important catalyst.

  • At one time, we tried to get staff to read interesting things relevant to our environment and report back. It wasn’t very successful. There were complaints of it taking too much time (and for staff already feeling stressed by overwork, this had some legitimacy), those that were interested/willing to read were often put off by the need to prepare a report or presentation, and those that weren’t put off by the report or presentation often were unaware of their own lack of skill in those areas, meaning deadly dull presentations or reports. And the one or two who had the skills were already writing/speaking up and didn’t want the process formalized…

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