Leadership

Tech skills: The problem's not the staff, it's the bozos in charge

Evidence is mounting that technologically illiterate managers are causing more damage to corporate productivity than a shortage of IT skills among staff.

Lacklustre IT skills among staff are often blamed for hampering corporate productivity but evidence is mounting that managers who are clueless about tech are causing greater damage to UK plc.

US firms are using IT to boost their productivity more effectively than UK companies, according to studies cited by the recent Technology Insights 2012 report by IT industry skills body e-skills UK.

The report references two recent papers: "One such study undertaken by the LSE [London School of Economics] found that, 'US multinational firms are on average 8.5 per cent more productive than UK domestic-owned firms, and that almost all of this difference is due to the higher productivity impact of their use of ICT'," the report said.

"Further research by the Office for National Statistics also concluded that over 80 per cent of this productivity advantage is explained by better use of IT."

Dr Jonathan Liebenau, reader in Technology Management at the LSE, said the findings demonstrate the importance of managers knowing how to maximise returns from computing technology.

"A British manager would ask their employee: 'Do a nice spreadsheet of this so I can understand the data and make some managerial decisions about it'," he said.

"What does the American manager do? He doesn't do 1,000 times more, he just asks for two per cent more effort. He says, 'Do a spreadsheet and build me a little model so that we can have a dynamic demonstration of alternatives'. It's little things like that that make the difference.

"It does make a big difference if the manager knows what question to ask. It's not just, 'What's the output on last month's investment?' but, 'Can you sit down with me and we'll do a dynamic model that allows me to play around with different kinds of inputs for the coming quarter'."

Other statistics support the idea that it is not access to IT that is slowing UK productivity gains. Britain placed eighth on the most recent technological readiness international competitiveness rankings by the World Economic Forum.

Liebenau said the UK's relatively ready access to IT reinforces the argument that the gap between US and UK productivity stems from "a managerial failure more than a problem of skills shortage among employees".

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

35 comments
lebotse
lebotse

What can you say about staff being mooderated down because of lack of resources?

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

have a degree (perhaps even advanced) in management rather than IT, and have very little actual technical experience.

Messier
Messier

Catch phrases like "Any device, any where, any time" are sold to executives as panaceas to cure all ails, without any thought put into how these ideas are going to be implemented .... in a sustainable way, which leads to chaos! Staff are terrified to hear "I'm from IT and I'm here to help.", when they need help today, not 2 years from now when the BA has completed the needs analysis and spend $70k of your budget on a business case. Leadership has to be two pronged; A strategic path to the future, with goals, direction, funding model and an eye towards sustainability, and a path to the present where immediate staff needs can be addressed in a timely manner, not bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape. Staff need a representative as a "middle man" who can "speak both languages, but can't do either job"; is educated enough in each area to be supportive but can also call "BS" when appropriate. A representative who can look at the issue and help in determining if it is a process issue, a quick fix system issue or a larger system problem that will need time and resources to address (in which we now know the new "bread slicer" has failed in delivering what was promised). A representative who can assist the innovators and keeners to be on the edge, but not fall off - to retain sustainability. Leaders need to have staff they can trust to make decisions, and give them the ability to do so. If you're a good leader - you do already.

Sagax-
Sagax-

Now, as in the past, a translator is needed. Financial people do not speak IT, and IT people don't speak Financial. And so it is with Operations and Marketing. God only knows what HR is talking about. Thus, someone in the IT department that is conversant in the language of the non-IT departments enables better understanding of the needs and capabilities of the involved departments. After all, knowing whether a widget or a gadget is being requested helps a lot.

floydfan1982
floydfan1982

I have found that managers are perfectly willing to drop a system that works for something that is unproven; heck, we lost one of our systems before we had a replacement. Just because the manager told a Tech Consultant what they want the system to do, they assume that it will be delivered that way. When it is rolled out it provides almost none of the requested functionality, requires a full-time tech to maintain it, and the manager makes decisions based on the specified functionality rather than the delivered functionality. That doesn't make for a happy campus.

jelabarre
jelabarre

I think the USA is likely the leader in management technical cluelessness. I can tell you the management at IBM is most definitely clueless.

jime2000
jime2000

The same can be said about any field of work. Too many chiefs and not enough indians. Just because you hold a higher title doesn't necessarily mean you're smarter or better than those below you. As a General Foreman, I've learned to work with my employees and take into consideration any idea(s) coming from them. Not only do things run smoother, but the work environment itself is so much more pleasant for everyone involved.

waynesreed
waynesreed

I believe what you are describing is accurate. Technology skill/talent not a magic wand and cannot solve everything. This is true everywhere. That said, there is a real opportunity for those of us in IT to build the bridge across the gap between those managers and the systems we put in place and manage. When we take the time to understand the needs of the business we support then we can be the champion of the best solution. This means that we ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers, then we paint a picture of the solution. This also means helping to identify the non-electronic technology (processes and procedures) that are necessary in connecting the human to the technology. The fantasy of running data and infrastructure systems as some kind of "perfect highway" and letting the business leaders learn how to drive on them is a bad approach. Real leaders in IT are fully engaged in the business and looking for the full solution, rather than just bringing in some magic "black box" and expecting everyone else to figure out how to adapt.

lfelipe
lfelipe

Starting from our CIO who was wrapped up in PMI 'packaging' of 'deliveries' without fully understanding the mechanics of the technology to our current new Administrative manager (after our CIO left) who has no idea how IT even works (not her fault). I am in SysAD h-e-double-hockey-sticks. Management buys into technology in an Ad-hoc, sometimes really stupid way, and of course asks us to make the whole mess work. What's even worse, is that we are at one of the worlds 'Preeminent public univiersities'! If the public only knew.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

There is no connection between the people who generate the real product that the consumer sees and the ones at the top who make the business decisions. Whether the service tech in the consumers home to the cashier at the local Walmart/Target store, the controllers and managers have no idea how to do anyone elses job but think they know everything about you and how your job should be done.

alienviewpoint
alienviewpoint

Don't know about the UK; but time and time again there is no requirements analysis. Instead they "management" buy stuff based on a magazine or slick sales guys or something anothe CIO told them. Then after the Tech tells them "uhh taint going to do that" the mistake is typically painted red by buying more of the product and better yet yearly maintenance fees. Then "they" blame it on lack of technical skills as why it doesn't work like they thought. Happens all the time.

Dr. Engineer Jim
Dr. Engineer Jim

You got that right, but not all are that bad. Many Technical Management Problems are caused by difficult, awkward scheduling requirements and other situations beyond the control of Technical Management and Staff.

neptune138
neptune138

It appears to me that the U.S. manager is more clueless than the British manager in this article and also does less. Personally, I think having a good balance of technical and soft non-technical skills makes for a better manager. This would be a good topic for further and deeper discussion.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

Here are two examples of how bad mgmt appears to work in the eyes of managers. One is the regression to the mean. Most of the work you put out will be normal (average). Some of it will be below average and some will be above average. Regardless, chances are after one of these deviations, then next work done will be closer to the average. If the manager rewards me for work done well, the next job is not done nearly as well (on average). On the other hand, if he punishes me for a bad job, the next job will probably be better (on average) regardless of the punishment. But in the manager's mind, punishment worked. Example two is the standard inventory system rewrite done every 4 years or so. Folks complain that the inventory system is bad and needs rewriting. Of course, the computer system itself is NOT bad. If you put in a number, the computer never changes it. But since people don't keep the numbers up-to-date, the inventory counts are out of whack so they blame the programmers instead of the process. How it looks like a fix is that once the new system is done, in order to implement it they will do a hard count of inventory and get the numbers right. Thus the numbers will be correct once the new system is in place and the idi0t manager will think it's because the programmers finally built the system right instead of because the company finally decided to actually count their inventory again. For extra credit, apply the inventory example to the American political process where we throw out the current bums every 4 years and elect new people who will turn into bums in 4 years.

darcyi
darcyi

To generate a spreadsheet showing them the alternatives -- doesn't the manager have Excel? Did they not use it in their ivory towered business schools? I find it frustrating when I generate reports with pivot tables in them. I'm told that nobody knows how to use them -- program the thing from top to bottom using charts and macros so the tech-illiterate baases don't have to touch the keyboard.

Analyst A.
Analyst A.

Reasons to that are numerous but two of them are rather disastrous: 1 - Technical illiteracy 2 - Wide-spread competence ceiling That's why companies like SpaceX, where efficient management eliminates these phenomena could make wonders

sissy sue
sissy sue

...falling for the latest fad. "Every new application should be built in SharePoint, and ITIL is going to save the world."

MarkWAliasQ
MarkWAliasQ

I constantly see businesses being strangled because of unnecessary, purchased, decision making and inaccurate solutions being provided by unqualified pen pushers based on short term cost savings. Don't get me started.

Steve__Jobs
Steve__Jobs

I point the finger of blame, for the RBS/Ulster Bank fiasco, at the management who thought that experience didn't count and didn't know how to properly validate the outsource level of competence.

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

US management is mostly technically illiterate, so the UK must be in really bad shape.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

turned ouyt to be crap at managing. I've always maintained I'd rather have a competent manager as my manager than a technically gifted incompetent one. They don't need to be technically competent, that's what people like me are (well should be) employed for. Most managers in IT who aren't technically competent or managerially competent, are MBAs, finance guys, even (he shudders) sales and marketing people.

JJFitz
JJFitz

Your post is spot on. As an IT Director, I spend most of my time listening to users express their business needs. I do not automatically suggest a computer based solution if there is a better non-computerized fit.

Messier
Messier

Staff don't want to know how to make the big monster ERP system work, they want it to give them the business support they need to do thier job. Supporting the business areas is one of the largest failures of many IT groups - they want to tell YOU what THEY think you need. They want you to love thier new system as much as they do. You're assigned a BA who is clueless about what you do, does a quick analysis and presents a solution (and a bill) - then disappears to solve the next probelm. Embedding support in the business area, so they understand your business need is vital to success. As you said, identify the "system" issue; technology, process, procedure - where is it?

Messier
Messier

Agreed, but to a limit - we can't get to the point of "analysis paralysis". We need to be able to support immediate needs, with strategies in place to allow the analysis process to flow and maintain the growth and sustainability of the "system".

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

We just keep sending them back to D.C. because we don't want them around!

Slayer_
Slayer_

That way you can make reports on which items are probably going to need a manual recount based on their age. You can also then demonstrate to management the real problem.

jonrosen
jonrosen

Rather like the age old one of 'military intelligence'... putting the two words 'outsource' and 'competence' should never be used together in a sentence unless 'lack of' proceeds the term competence. They are almost always mutually exclusive.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

Since many companies, or at least the larger ones, keep telling of larger profits... granted, the workers aren't quite as lucky, but who said workers are people? Workers are merely costs to keep down. Can't get much more simple than that analogy...

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

I too would rather have a good manager regardless of the technical ability. A good manager trusts the abilities of his/her staff. The MBAs are a frightening kettle o' fish, regardless of the staff being managed, if they have no experience, only education.

Messier
Messier

The IT Directors I work with ALWAYS suggest a computer based solution will cure all your ails - now go find the funding for us to implement it for you. AND, they push thier favourite platform instead of looking for best of breed solutions. Spending time with the users to determine what business outcome is desired and THEN looking at the current process to determine how to get there is the only way to bridge the "Us vs Them" gap.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Most of the time , IT isn't defining needs, it's defining can haves. We need all this, yesterday, for a total outlay of a 100 bucks, is the need we get... Embedding, aligning, IT learning the business blah, blah blah. I've been hearing that for decades, nothing fundamental has changed, that's say to me it's not a reason, it's an excuse. The only way to fix this is to get rid of this business versus IT split. That will take 'both sides' and there are pople on both sides that find the split useful.

Messier
Messier

There was a document I produced that the boss kept sending back for changes; "I don't know what it is, but I'll know it when I see it." He signed off the 5th version .... an exact duplicate of the first one.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

than a spanking-new MBA whose management experience is limited to case studies in his degree courses. Cub Scouts usually have better management skills...