TechWatch: Bridging Between Technology and Management

The communications gap between technology people and business people is alive and well in several dimensions. The heart of this gap is much greater than the “geeks” vs. the “suits.” It is my belief that companies that both recognize this gap, and deal effectively with it, will be much more successful.

When I was Director of Technology at Boeing, I remember the first presentation we made to a vice president of manufacturing, demonstrating one of the early personal digital assistants. The technologists saw tremendous potential in providing electronic information to the factory worker. The response was quick and concise: “We don’t need technology for technology’s sake. Show us what this will do for the business.” We techies didn’t know as much as we should have about the manufacturing processes. Our proposed scenarios missed the mark, causing him to dismiss the technology.

In another incident, the technology team was critical of management for selecting what we saw as an inferior technical solution. Management reaction was to dismiss the technologists as ignorant because there were things about the business requirements they thought should have been known.

On the other side of the coin, I have seen many jokes from the technologists about the ignorance of business people regarding technology. When asked to use the mouse to point at something on the screen, one executive picked up the mouse and held it to the screen. The laughs continue ten years later. Dilbert, the popular daily comic, features the engineer helping the boss reboot his computer by shaking it — the “lap top” is actually an “Etch-a-Sketch.” Neil Gershenfeld from the MIT Media Lab in his book When Things Start to Think ridicules executives visiting his Lab. “They have been asked to acquire some [knowledge of intelligent] agents but wouldn’t recognize one if it bit them,” he says on p. 107.

Both sides of this gap seem to be demonstrating their own form of insecurity. Both are used to being in control (whether scientifically or managerially), and change in technology or strategy represents a threat to their position of power. The coming together of business and technology represents an area where neither side has enough expertise to do the whole job. I am convinced that the key to being able to close this gap is for both sides to have enough self-confidence to be willing to look a bit silly when trying something new. This is surprisingly difficult for the egos of both sides.

A common theme of management is to blame the technology community for not understanding key elements of the business, including the future strategy. This is a good challenge to technologists. Knowing more about the business will enable a context for technology which can speed the effective use of that technology in the business. But this is not enough.

People on the business side also need to understand the potential of new technology and help build the bridge to potential futures. I heard one president complaining about the business ignorance of technologists while at the same time holding the strategy confidential to all but a few top executives because of “competitive sensitive” information. Technologists will generally not understand all of the nuances of changing strategy and business climate even with more openness than the absurd example just cited. It will take a collaborative environment to achieve best results.

My friend Wayne Alderson, in talking about labor-management relationships, says that both sides must work together in order to have a productive environment. Management has higher responsibility to bridge the communications gap, since management is in a position of greater authority, he says. Perhaps, the same must be said for the technology-management gap.
Unfortunately, this management leadership task is made more difficult by two significant splits within the technology community.

Dealing with Differences in Technology Details

One comes from the way science and technology people work. Two different technologists may agree with each other on 90% of a particular solution, but will strongly voice their different perspectives on the other 10%. To management looking for “the answer” it may appear that the technology community doesn’t know what it’s doing. I recall hearing this response from management after they observed an argument from two technologists over a particular solution:
“Even they don’t know, so we can’t look to them for answers.”

It would be useful if more people in the technology community could recognize the proper time to fight for the right answer in the 10%, and would come together on areas of agreement when presenting to management. While progress should be made here, lack of progress does not let management off the hook. Working to understand where the agreement is and trying to understand the reasons for the conflict is another task that management must perform.

Different Societal Viewpoints within the Technology Community

A second split is demonstrated in the varied societal viewpoints within the technology community. For some scientists and technologists, the goal is scientific progress pure and simple. For others, there are concerns about the often conflicting implications of this progress for society, business, job development, and the environment. Here the differences can take on a rancor that would seem to be far removed from scientific thinking.

Sometimes this conflict can be within the individual scientist or technologists. This was brilliantly portrayed in the film Trinity, which documented the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos in the 1940s. The film showed the high level of excitement among the scientists as they came closer to realizing their technological goals, followed by their stunned response to their “success” when they realized what their work had wrought. Some never worked in science again.

In mid-May I was able to observe a modern version of this split in societal outlook within the technology community by attending two different meetings on successive days.

Meeting on “Shaping the Network Society”

The first meeting was entitled “Shaping the Network Society: Patterns for Participation, Action and Change” held on the campus of the University of Washington. This meeting was sponsored by the “Public Sphere Project of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR)” and the “National Communication Association Task Force on the Digital Divide.”

The questions the international group of 100-plus scientists and computer professionals were addressing included:
– Will communications systems meet the needs of all people?
– Will they promote democracy, social justice, and a healthy environment?
– Will equitable policies be enacted?

Areas of concern were obvious from a sign in the registration area, “Question Technology,” to the
themes in the conference sessions such as the environment, privacy, human rights, labor, anti-militarism, and the digital divide. There were very few “suits” at this meeting.

Issues at the Technology Alliance

The next day I attended the annual Technology Alliance luncheon with 1400 other people in the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle. Obviously well funded with 60 sponsors, this meeting included “suits” and “geeks” in a place to network while gathering to hear from Governor Gary Locke and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The questions raised at this conference included:
– How important is research to the economic development of industry?
– How can we achieve a “tech based” economy benefiting all of the citizens of Washington State?
– How can we better attract high growth companies for the state?

The themes of the conference centered on the economy, productivity, competitiveness, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The governor pushed for his legislation to improve roads and transportation in the region, creating an environment to attract high growth business. Bill Gates promised more new things from technology in the next decade, leading to unprecedented productivity improvement. The next decade will offer more productivity improvement than any in the last fifty years, he promised.

Two different views of the world (and many shades in between) at these two meetings represent the wide divergence within the technology community. The only common theme between the two meetings was the use of technology and the Web to marshal public opinion for the cause.

Management Decisions in the Face of Divergent Views

Going back to the dilemma of management making technology decisions, this diverse view from the technology community must also be reconciled. Do environmental and societal issues have anything to do with good business? Are there unintended consequences from growth and economic development?

In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), Stevent Sample (President of University of Southern California) offers some advice. Unlike many leadership books calling for management to be decisive, Sample suggests that being open to new ideas means never making a decision before it is needed. There are many problems areas where the issues are gray, and being able to hold multiple, seemingly conflicting, views is essential.

This is the situation we are faced with in using technology in business. Both the upsides and downsides of technology are real, and we must look for choices that offer “both/and” rather than “either/or” solutions. To do this we must learn to listen to those who have a very different viewpoint than we do. It is easy to reject all of the ideas of a technologist in our office (or a speaker or writer) when he or she says something that is incorrect. It is harder, and wiser, to listen past that detail and hear the heart of something that may be very important.

I am reminded of a statement made by a mathematics professor from Cambridge University, whom I quoted more than a year ago in this column. In response to a criticism that someone labeled as “biased,” Professor Sir H. Peter F. Swinerton-Dyer Ltd said, “Even biased views cast light, albeit with rather deep shadows.”

Companies that will effectively, and rapidly integrate new technology into their businesses must successfully navigate these waters. The technology community can help this process by working at better understanding the business issues and looking for common ground in their ideas, rather than just focusing on their differences. Even when this doesn’t happen, however, management must be able to listen deeply to conflicting, biased, sometimes rancorous views from the technology community, and draw good conclusions. Don’t reject someone’s ideas because you disagree with part of what they say.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.