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IT: Leading Innovation & Change From The Rear?

May 12, 2010

More excitement — politics and stereotypes — at the Irish Computer Society (ICS) this week. This time, it came in the form of Prof. Joe Peppard of Cranfield University School of Management. His seminar was Leading and implementing change in IT projects: Politics and the IT Stereotype. Engaging and informative, Peppard tackled the problem of how “IT guys,” with their stereotypes and baggage, can successfully deliver innovation for an organisation.

But first they need to get out a bit more.

As the blurb for the seminar said, leading change can be “a challenge for IT professionals.” During the talk, Peppard presented academic and anecdotal evidence to caution IT guys (and gals) that we are probably the most politically inept group in any organisation. He cited the example of the lunchroom where the crowd from Marketing is usually seen yukking it up with just about everyone else in the company. And the IT crowd’s lunch? Sitting at their desks, eating over their keyboards, catching up on Techtarget or maybe a  website that has to do with one of their tech-related pass times.

Politics 101

As Peppard noted, many people in IT see themselves as above politics and choose to “opt out.” But, that, in itself, is a political decision —  one he described as either “inept” or “naive.” We all need to interact with each other in our working lives. Part of the problem is the negative connotation associated with the word politics. Peppard asked the attendees how else they would describe someone labeled as “a political manager.” Words like manipulative and self-interested were used. But citing Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization, Peppard reminded us that the original Greek word was very positive. Those who are good at politics are rarely judged as such. Instead they are called “team players” who can devise win-win situations.

Peppard had one amusing but interesting graphic. I was hoping to find it online but failed. So Four behavioral setsI ended up having to replicate one myself. Basically, there are two axes called reading and carrying. Once they intersect, we end up with four behavioural sets. Reading refers to our ability to read situations and read others, while carrying is the degree to which people are prone to politicking from its most negative sense up to its most mutually beneficial.

The animals pretty much say it all. The fox is to be avoided, the owl is the best at reading situations and working with others, etc. The sheep can be likened to a well-meaning politician who consistently gets things wrong. And the gorilla? He’s in IT, according to Peppard. He misreads personal and organisational situations. Then he compounds it by being bad at politics. He forms alliances with the clueless or powerless. Ouch.

Stereotypes 101

We all do it, and apparently there is a good evolutionary reason. Peppard said it is a challenge to overcome, because people see IT, accountants, politicians, traffic wardens or whoever in a certain light. We may not realise people in other departments have wonderful computer skills. Likewise, they may not know we have any skills other than the technical. That is an impediment if you are seeking to innovate or change. Their view of IT can be a barrier.

Another person who writes extensively about the nature of IT’s relationship with the rest of the organisation is Susan Cramm. In a blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, she lists some tips to help encourage smarter use of IT within the organisation.

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