Business managers often find themselves bamboozled by technologists and their managers. After spending a lot of money on IT or Engineering, they still don’t have what they want. Here are nine ways a business manager can ask questions to improve relations with the technologists.
If you’re a business manager, you are dealing with a wide range of people and problems. Some of those people are technologists. And, no doubt, some of the problems you deal with are related to technology.
Let’s acknowledge right away that a key problem with technology is that it keeps changing. For example, just when you thought you had a grasp of what it takes to implement a computer program to support your sales staff using a centralized computer system, the systems moved out onto the desks of each of the sales people. And just when the PC-based systems seemed to be manageable, the sales people started carrying smartphones around in their pockets and asking for their information to be delivered to these devices.
Add to that the shift to “cloud computing” and “virtualization,” and you find yourself running fast just to keep up with the terminology, let alone the management issues involved in successful IT implementation.
However, if you’re an experienced manager, you know that there are certain principles of management that apply no matter what you’re dealing with. After all, people are people; organizations, even technical ones, are made up of people; and you have a strong grasp of how to listen to, influence, and manage people. But somehow, the technologists seem to be getting more difficult to manage.
Here are some principles and ideas you can use to interact more successfully with technologists – and their managers, whether they are in your organization or outside of it.
1. Have confidence that you are capable of understanding what’s happening in technology. While there are shifts going on that are causing a lot of turmoil in the IT and Engineering worlds, none of the underlying technologies are so sophisticated that you can’t grasp their significance. After all, you have dealt with much complexity simply by being a business manager. People are much more complicated than machines.
2.When a technologist or a technical manager communicates with you, it’s OK to insist that things be explained in terms you can understand. If the person explaining things to you refers to acronyms and terminology you haven’t heard before, ask her to explain what they stand for and what they mean. It does not diminish you to admit that you’re not a specialist in the technology area being described. Keep asking questions until you get an explanation that clarifies things to your satisfaction.
3. Ask questions that clarify the significance of the technology. A technology is significant if it (a) displaces some other technology, (b) makes some existing activity or product a lot cheaper, (c) enables information-gathering or analysis that was previously impossible or too expensive, (d) creates a tool that will vastly improve a person’s efficiency at doing something, or (e) creates a material or process that will lead to a wide range of new products or services. The technologist should be able to explain to you which of these is about to happen, and how it could impinge on the business activities that your organization is engaged in.
4. Ask whether there are competing technologies that could displace the described technology or make it irrelevant.
5. If someone is suggesting that you make a large investment in a new technology, ask whether there are lower-cost alternatives that will suffice for an interim period. Evaluate the risk of being left behind relative to your competitors. Also consider whether you may have more options in the future if you wait before committing to this investment.
6. Expect software development to have a highly variable cost or time to complete, because it is hard for technologists to predict what it will take to develop a piece of software. Software development is not yet a stable engineering discipline the way, for example, building construction is. Every major software development project includes a significant amount of experimentation, because there is not a “reference manual” that tells software people how to make each component. In addition, when you put together a bunch of software pieces, it requires a lot of testing to make sure there are no major malfunctions in it. And even with a lot of testing, there are no guarantees, because there are just too many possibilities to test them all.
7. Get in the habit of asking technology managers to commit to showing you a working prototype of anything you’re asking them to build. Particularly with software, it is normal for your idea to evolve after you see a working model. So it’s best to ask to see the working model often, having the implementation done in small stages. If it’s not going the way you want after, say, 8 demonstrations or 6 months, you can call the whole thing off, or start over in a different direction.
8. Don’t ask Engineering or IT to work overtime for extended periods. You wouldn’t do that with Accounting or Legal without expecting a lot more errors to result. The same is true for development work. And the result of development errors can be disastrous when the product or service you’re developing is delivered to external or internal customers.
9. Develop trust between yourself and your IT or Engineering managers by learning about their challenges and opportunities, and by teaching them about yours. The more you can understand each other, the better your cooperation will be. Invite one of their staff people to sit in on your staff meetings or be resident in your area. Send one of your own staff people to become familiar with their activities. The less mystery there is about their decisions, the more trust there will be.
If you’re not getting what you want from IT or Engineering, consider the possibility that at least half of the problem is on your side. You can take action to develop a good working relationship with the technologists. And while you’re at it, you’ll probably find that they actually want to understand what you’re dealing with as well.