IT Failure and the Dehumanization of the Workforce

Posted 03-22-2013

IT Failure and the Dehumanization of the Workforce

By Frank Wander

It was serendipitous. By leading five turnaround transformations across four corporations, I discovered the root cause of IT failure: The industrial era dehumanization of the workforce has bequeathed management practices that are incompatible with the emotional, cognitive and collaborative underpinnings of IT today. 

It became clear to me that unsuccessful information technology organizations and projects were failures of corporate management, not of IT processes and technology, and certainly not due to the IT workers. Most of the workers were competent, dedicated professionals, toiling in cultures where the social chemistry was corrosive and ate away at the fabric of the organization. What else could possibly explain our profession’s unbroken track record of failure, one that might be unrivaled by any other industry.   

Consider how long failure has been with us. The first modern, IT mega-project was the development of IBM’s OS-360 mainframe operating system in the early-to-mid 1960’s. When the OS-360 was finally introduced in 1967, a year late, its budget had skyrocketed to more than $500 million, more than four times the original $125 million estimate. By then, the OS-350 had become a threat to both management and the company. In fact, Frederick Brooks, the endeavor’s project manager, noted in his book The Mythical Man Month: “The product was late, it took more memory than planned, the costs were several times the estimate, and it did not perform very well until several releases after the first.” To anyone in IT, this sounds like it was written yesterday, not 50 years ago.

So, when we examine failure today, we see little has changed. For nearly 60 years, IT projects, especially mega-projects, have failed at alarming rates. A recent McKinsey Quarterly study of 5,400 large projects ($15 million or greater) revealed that their collective cost overrun was $66 billion, while 17 percent of the projects actually threatened the viability of the enterprise itself.

No other human endeavor has endured such a track record of repeated failure, with an inability to discover how to get it right. With trillions of dollars of collective experience spanning six decades, how could this be? How did we get here? Why is this problem so persistent in the face of thousands of pundits, robust process frameworks, and maturity models?

Everyone has an answer, but no one has a solution. Until now, that is. A humanizing workplace movement has already begun, so this will change.

A Pattern of Toxic Behaviors

I didn’t see the problem during the first turnaround. Nor did I see it during the second. But by the third, a clear pattern of toxic behaviors and practices was evident. The workers were wrongly regarded as interchangeable parts—nothing could have been further from the truth. They were, in fact, assets, because the institutional knowledge they possessed had been acquired over many years at great cost, and had high productive value. Yet, even today, human capital is often accorded zero value in traditional corporate America, because it isn’t tracked. Human capital accounting still doesn’t exit.

Culture is also an enormous lever of productivity, and one that had been ignored. Consequently, we continue to intimately architect our networks and systems, but often leave the culture to chance; we should be intimate with this, too. Often times, corporate cultures are toxic to productivity; sometimes, even highly toxic. 

IT Failure and the Dehumanization of the Workforce

During the fourth turnaround I began to extensively read books and research papers on emotion, neuroscience and social psychology, so I could understand why our leadership practices were toxic, and why my turnarounds had worked. By the end of the fifth, my understanding had deepened further, and my research continued, culminating in my just-released book, Transforming IT Culture.  

We must re-humanize work. I know people will scoff at that statement and say “It isn’t going to happen, at least in my lifetime.” I disagree, as I see human understanding of workplace humanization taking root beyond the universities. There is an awakening. Meanwhile, employee engagement levels remain at all-time lows, so an incredible waste of human capital occurs as long as this situation persists. Gallup says the lack of engagement crisis costs hundreds of billions of dollars a year. (I think its numbers are low.) Leaders are seeking an answer, and it is coming. 

Professionals in IT are craftsmen, not machine parts. If you look back prior to the industrial era, you find skilled craftsmen who took great pride in their work. They ingeniously handcrafted their products, controlled the quality. They were highly skilled workers who started as apprentices and learned to perfect their craft over many years. They worked in craft shops, small cohesive companies that provided flexibility, cared about their craftsmen, and had engaged workers who were valued and grateful for their employment. It was so “un-industrial.” This is not to suggest there were no hardships, or that some owners didn’t take advantage of workers. Certainly, that existed. But the owners and managers deeply appreciated what it took to learn a craft, and highly valued their apprentices and experienced journeymen. These workers were engaged, and the relationship between management and their craftsmen was far better than the management and worker relationships of today. 

IT is a profession, and a highly complex one, where hyper-specialization and long time-to-competency is the norm. The professionals in our business are modern craftsmen, turning out piece work, but the difference today is that hundreds of minds contribute to the final product. This is collaborative craftsmanship. The construction process is a magnitude, perhaps several magnitudes, more complex, as these professionals are not just co-workers, but co-creators. Their collective intelligence, creativity and emotion are all baked into the final outcome. 

If the social environment is supportive, the craftsmen can deliver a great outcome. If it isn’t, the bonds needed for co-creation don’t exist, so failure is too often the result.  

Management has yet to adapt their practices to this new world. In fact, our present management practices stem from the roots of the modern industrial corporation, where “human resources” were just another raw material used to run the manufacturing plant. Consequently, this is a blind spot—and a costly one. It is time to embrace our workers, and learn to run the human infrastructure with as much care and insight as we use to manage our computers and networks. It will happen, and like the industrial era, it will transform the world. 

For companies to prosper, their professionals must be appreciated and allowed to flourish. Today’s winning companies, like Google, understand this. These insightful companies have re-humanized work, and own not just the present, but the future. As for the dehumanized companies, they can change or slowly fade away. 


About the Author 


Frank Wander, a former CIO, is founder of the IT Excellence Institute, and author of 
Transforming IT Culture: How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department that Outperforms (Wiley, 2013).