IT Failure and the Dehumanization of the Workforce
Today’s management practices often fail to recognize IT workers as the modern-day equivalent of skilled craftsmen and treat them accordingly.
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).