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.

I get bored easily.

Since my professions (writing and consulting) depend on my ability to persuade, this character defect has personal significance.

As a senior consultant of my acquaintance reminds me frequently, people rarely adopt new ideas before about seven repetitions. Seven? I’m bored by the third repetition!

Example: Last year I wrote a column or two in which I pointed out the cause of the productivity paradox: that productivity – items produced per unit of time – doesn’t apply to knowledge workers, who don’t produce the same thing over and over.

Computers can’t make knowledge workers more “productive” because the job doesn’t involve productivity in the first place. Computers make knowledge workers more effective, which is an entirely different matter. Effectiveness, of course, is hard to quantify, and even harder to turn into tangible financial benefits.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on the “True Cost of Ownership” for personal computers, and of course I assumed everyone reading it understood the uselessness of searching for increased productivity. Nope. So think of this as repetition #2. More will be on the way.

Here’s an illustration of the difference between productivity and effectiveness: Executives used to either dictate memos and letters or scrawl them on a legal pad. Either way, their secretaries typed them and handed them back for revision. After several iterations of red pencil marks, their memos entered the mail.

From a productivity perspective, this was a wonderful process – the executive probably spent no more than five minutes on the whole process.

Now, those same executives compose electronic mail, twang the magic twanger, and launch their immortal prose into cyberspace. With any luck at all, the lucky recipients read their words within the hour.

The executive has lost productivity. Even without amortizing the time spent learning to type, the memo almost certainly has required much more executive time. Effectiveness, on the other hand, has increased by a huge factor – more than you may think, actually, because secretaries, no longer called on to interpret and type executive scrawls, now handle far more important tasks.

Think about everything that’s had to happen over the past fifteen years to create this result. The technology, by itself, had only a trivial impact. Coupled with the cultural change that accompanied it, the impact has been transformational.

The branch of anthropology called ethnoscience defines culture as the behavior people exhibit in response to their environment. In business, the environment is the behavior of other people. So, to change a culture, you either change the behavior people exhibit in response to their environment, or the behavior people exhibit that constitutes other people’s environments. You change the people, or the people.

Got that?

Take our executive. (Please.) Typing was beneath him. Female executives refused to type anything because they didn’t want their male counterparts to think of them as secretaries. Personal computers were useless on executive desks because execs looked at the keyboard and freaked out entirely.

When I first got involved in rolling out PCs in an organization, I suggested creating a typing class for managers. My boss told me this was an awful idea – nobody would take it. We could, though, create a class in “keyboarding skills” which would be useful to these guys.

Think about the changes between then and now. Then: an executive using a PC is wasting time doing a clerical job and not delegating effectively. Now: an executive not using a PC is too inept or lazy to learn the basic tools of the trade. And these attitudes are reflected in real behavior – who gets hired and promoted, how work gets done, and what we all expect of each other.

In the meantime, accountants manage to tally the “True Cost of Computing” at somewhere around eleven grand a year, but can’t seem to find any tangible benefit.