CXO

Video: Does IT need more social scientists and fewer technologists?

Gartner researcher Tom Austin believes that IT has too many engineers and not enough social scientists. This episode of CIO Sanity Savers evaluates Austin's perspective.

You hear a lot about the need for IT pros to become more business savvy, but Gartner researcher Tom Austin takes that thinking even further. He suggests that the future of IT lies in an emphasis on people and not technology. In an interview he even went so far as to say, "The problem with IT today is there are too many engineers and not enough social scientists." This episode of CIO Sanity Savers evaluates Austin's perspective on the three categories that will define IT over the next 10 years -- operations, solutions, and end user support.

For those of you who prefer text over video, you can click the "Transcript" link underneath the video or you can read the original article that this episode was based on: Sanity check: Is IT no longer about technology?

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

74 comments
elisabethmontgomery
elisabethmontgomery

Yes, more social science valves need to be turned on in IT. There is much more going on in any given situation than how you communicate: its opening the doors of your perception to others and difference, which requires interest, patience, and a broader base of historical/metaphorical understanding that the liberal artist can bring.

dkelly
dkelly

Yes there is a huge argument for including people other than IT "specialists" in IT projects. Diverse teams provide diverse possibi lities,designers are very well placed to take on the role of bridging the abyss betweeen the social and technical, they have been doing so for a very long time, capably finding their way through extremely complex problem solving processes.... they are generally not phased by a seemingly insurmountable problem, indeed in many cases the harder the problem is the better, and this kind of thinking applied to IT can bring huge benefits. Design thinking... is a term first coined by Tim Brown of Ideo in a Harvard Business Review article, where he outlines and advocates including "design thinking" in new and unexpected places. The thinking was very succesfully put into practice by David Kester, Chief Executive of the UK's Design Council who has done some amazing work on this line with Ideo. Its described in the BBC radio4 program "In Business" which you can listen to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jv9n0 you can find Tim Brown's original Harvard Business Review article "Design thinking" (that coined the phrase)here: http://web.me.com/deatkins/CIC/Seminar_Schedule_files/HBR-Timbrown.pdf Einstein said quite rightly "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" ... the more diverse and inclusive IT teams become, the better the results will be for all.

reddyworld
reddyworld

Totally agree, the evolution of IT will attract more business centric graduates,hence making a currently seamless intergration, more seamless.we, the technical bunch will stay play an integral role...but if we don't become business savvy, then we actually can't contribute anything effectively.

kbetts
kbetts

I couldn't agree with you more. "Customer" "User" is the operative here. I don't mind doing teck work as a user, but why do I have to?

dbecker
dbecker

As one who was in the 99th percentile of vocabulary among United States college students while I was in college, wrote and published a book, been an IBM Mainframe Systems Programmer, has developed PC utilities and programs in such areas as the Washington State Occupational Information System and the Spokane County Library System, been a Systems Analyst for a computer vendor to support customers, written technical manuals, managed IT projects up to $750,000 successfully, built and maintained websites for myself and others, written resumes for others [they always got the job], been a manager for a misfortune 50 corporation, I am unimpressed. It's like that line in the movie, "Office Space", where the Systems Analyst finally declares in frustration, "I'm a people person, Dammit!". The only reason I can see for social engineers to add yet another layer between the beleagured customer and the overworked tech who's had his resources stripped from him and has to work with nothing to do the impossible [most of the time we succeed, but probably shouldn't because it makes management even less responsible for their bad behavior], is to assist in building empires for bad managers and directors. The Gartner Group has built an entire business on the premise. [You can tell that I am a persona non Gartner.] Pretty much Gartner just makes stuff up and the worst of it is that Congressmen listen to them! People lie and managers and directors lie, mostly, it appears, for practice. Here's the deal: If managers were both competent and honest, we wouldn't need to hire the social scientists [so called -- we all tacitly admit that it isn't science, it black arts wherein under the same circumstances, doing the same things with the same resources, you can expect wildly divergent results]. We need social scientists because by the time the management steals the money, plays the favorites, persecutes the competent, the whole system is so screwed up with lies and deceptions that you need a "people person" to sort things out, just like in the movie. "Yeah... well I need you to come in on Saturday and work all day..." because I didn't do the work and didn't plan ahead. For companies like John Deere, this doesn't happen. They don't need social scientists. Maybe people should look at success in amazement and do some studies. As sure as death, hell, taxes, revenge and fury of a woman scorned, there is good reason for the dis-integration of systems and services in IT and it has nothing to do with the idea that Technologists need a translator and a buffer between them and their customers. With the good folks here who actually work in the real world [unless they were too competent working for nim nulls who fired them], I don't perceive a problem. Successful contractors and staff IT people who have made applications and infrastructure work for decades. What do you suppose the real problem is? Management wants to cheat, that's what. They made some bad moves, so they need an expendible resource to explain away their foolish incompetence. IT technologists are easy prey. Management is rewarded and continue to learn nothing about how to manage. Do you wanna tell me about the competence of the staff at Enron a la "The Shredded Truth"? I'm underimpressed. Mostly, it is because management refuses to listen to technologists because the technologists aren't telling them what they want to hear. Worse, they don't see technologists as adding anything to their career as the managers climb the corporate ladder until they reach the pinnacle of worthless emptiness. I suspect that we are coming closer and closer to the day when either businesses and management will have to choose to be honest, forthright and competent or suffer utter and complete failure.

john.jelks
john.jelks

. . .THAT's where the social scientists should be sent. Any savvy IT engineer, especially those who have worked in varied consulting environs, already knows that HOW one deals with projects and people (style) is as important as getting effective results.

JesusPresley
JesusPresley

As I am affiliated with no faith I still agree with this in the context of the discussion. We're asking for business men to be the buffers / translators between need and solution. This is a wide gap to traverse; especially for the type of person that doesn't have one foot planted firmly on either side. It's just not enough to look good in a tie in the project meetings. You actually have to know, understand, and dare I say Love the technical aspect of the business. Wanting some soothing words is one thing. Filling a technical body with 'People Friendly' people is an entirely different proposal. We sometimes forget that it does take the kind of person who forgets his social skills when giving consideration to a problem as well as the solution. This is the type of person who has given themselves over to their work, their trade, in a single minded pursuit of the craft. And, in doing so sometimes starts picking their nose subconsciously in the meetings. Often, in meetings, we think of the budget that must be maintained and spent in order to gain more budget dollars in the next quarter. Political maneuvers take precedent over all else because one manager was bested at the company picnic tug of war by another, and now it's time to stick it back to the man. Empire building, when all else fails, where one manager conquers a disparate group(s) for consolidation purposes in order to gain more political currency with which to spend in said meetings. What is most often overlooked is The Forgotten Stakeholder: the end user. And, forgive me if I start sounding like I'm reading from the 'CTO's for Dummies' book but this is the body of people that take support calls from the clients that call in with problems. They need their phone systems up, hunt groups working, and client computers plugged in, turned on and finding USEFUL information on the company's' internal web site. Conversely, your external clients, the ones that are willing to do this research on their own, because the above is such a frustrating process that they've abandoned all hope of resolution from the company that are dealing with. They need the web servers up as well, the search algorithms returning results about your company that are germane to their discomfort. THIS is service, and without it, you and your organization need not bother worrying about whether or not the 'People Friendly' people show up to the meetings or not. I'd like to site one of Tom Austin's quotes, "It?s not the technology that counts. It?s the people." The people he is seems to be referring to are the ones you see in the project meetings that fold their arms, roll their eyes, and want to move on to the next agenda item when they hear news that falls outside of their wants; forget about needs for this exorcise. These are the decision makers. They know what they want but have no idea how to let go of control long enough for someone to give it to them. The people he should be referring to are the consumers of the critical information that your organizations hold for a client. Ultimately they are the ones footing the bill so that last latte you bought at Starbucks won't be your last latte. Given, there are excessive and sometimes seemingly useless comments from end users. But, I find that their problems are due to lack of usability, even though they may not be able to voice their problems in a manner to which we need them handed to us. The Rule behind this: No comfortable person will complain about discomfort. AKA: give them what they need and (I promise) they will shut up. Take Google for example. They provide a rock-solid service, and yes, they mostly give it away for free: search, mail, docs, blah-blah-blah. And, somehow they've made a business out of this. Not just any business, one of the most successful in tech history; at a time when it would have been thought impossible before it happened. Why? One would venture many guesses. A few possibilities might be that they hire the best engineers out of California's best comp-sci research departments. Another might be that these engineers have poured their lives into their research and that has borne a unique and useful end result. That end result might be useful to others. And their CTO's stand back while Urs H?lzle, the man that refined the Google Cluster (for example) pursues his dream. Afterwords, they all go laughing to the bank. And everyone gets what they want. I would like to close by offering up a book title that I've just become aware of, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. I haven't gotten to it yet but I did hear the author on a radio interview and it fits this discussion perfectly. The very suggestion that CEO's (or any 'executive' stakeholder) should be coddled during a meeting by 'People Friendly' people is the cancer of our business. So, my friends, I have to respectfully disagree with Tom Austin. I say have security walk all of the sales men to the door and thank them for their time. Put them in a cab and send them across town. Let professionals do what they do, use the (educated) BA as the abstraction layer. Tell the executives they need to ask for their solutions. Then they need to go back and focus on our heath care and 401K's, without picking over our solutions like they were selecting a tie from the online Neiman Marcus catalog. We are the brains behind the brain that runs your organization, we get it, and we will deliver your solution, without your technical opinion. Anyone who feels compelled (enough) to see this all the way through need only take a six month sabbatical to pick up a development, quality assurance, platform engineering, or project management contract in Des Moines, Iowa. This social experiment is not only old hat, it's been long going on in the mid west. It has a strangle-hold on the technology community altogether. And as a result, it's killing IT to the point of it being nearly useless. I assert this is already a failed experiment.

dbecker
dbecker

The administration thinks I should be a people person, but they keep coming to me to fix things anyway, in spite of my lack of people skills. HR doesn't seem to know what I do, but my customers don't care because I get results, although I'm beginning to think the whole organization is sick and can't be fixed. And I don't care because organizations per se aren't that interesting. I suspect the organization would like to find a way to get rid of me but realize that there would be inconvenient deaths involving failed systems.

jkameleon
jkameleon

It's called "problem domain knowledge", and it's always been more important than knowledge about the technology of the day. Bank IT staff has to be familiar with banking business, medical IT staff with medicine, and so on. It had always been like this, and it always will. So... with IT people even more business savvy than they already are, why would anyone need business people for?

richard.wilson
richard.wilson

So let me get this straight... IT (remember that stands for Information TECHNOLOGY) needs to be less technological, or in this Gartner clown's own words, "suggests that the future of IT lies in an emphasis on people and not technology." What the hell? Did I miss something? That's like saying my oven needs to focus less on cooking my food and more on playing me music. Sounds stupid doesn't it? So does this.

mmurray49
mmurray49

Dang! Now my secret to success is out!

reisen55
reisen55

And not low paid drone units from Bangalore et al who do 'the job' on the cheap but do not turn out, for the most part, QUALITY work. We need a mindset in AMERICAN management that values our own talent pool and the fact that quality work comes at a price. We do not need to be fired, RIF'd or 'workforce adjusted' just because our salaries are higher just because we LIVE in America and, therefore, have this little cost of living thing built into our lives. WE NEED RESPECT from our employers.

stephanisat_z
stephanisat_z

As a consultant for the past ten years, one of my offerings has been applications training. During that entire time I have been the primary trainer for an IT services company that is now offering a total managed services package. They hire me not only to be their trainer, so that the end users will know how to use the new services, but also as the "translator" of sorts. I am somewhat of a go-between for the least technical end user and the IT team. The social skills aspect of IT, while not always appealing to the IT geek, is extremely important. Many end users are resistant to change, but being able to relate to them during each stage of implementation, including training, usually leads to fewer headaches for all parties involved, especially for the Help Desk.

beckycollins1
beckycollins1

My IT work has always turned into a project about change, conflict and communication. So I returned to school as a major in Human and Organizational Systems.

dogknees
dogknees

We need more technologists in business! It's not just an issue about IT, it's about rational thinking and the ability to analyse a problem and synthesise a solution. Think about coming up with an effective filing scheme. It's not an IT problem. It requires the same skills as designing a physical paper based filing system. Something any professional in any line of business should be capable of. I overheard an interesting conversation on a bus about 20 years ago. They were involved with a university, and were talking about how to help people with learning disabilities succeed at university. We don't want professionals who aren't capable of learning things for themselves. We want the brightest and the best doing this stuff.

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