Laiserin's Lemma—High Hopes

Nearly every week I get the same call: CAD/IT ManagerA is leaving FirmX "because senior management provides no support." Next, it's ManagerB leaving FirmY for the same reason, followed by ManagerC exiting FirmZ. Where do they end up? "C" soon finds work at "X," where "senior management is really committed to technology." Ditto for "B" landing at "Z," and "A" joining "Y." What is it about the senior management-versus-technology management dynamic in AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure businesses that successively raises and dashes such high hopes on all sides?

Used to be, this was a "generation gap" problem: senior management was a chronological generation and two or three professional generations removed from their technology management folks. It was and is difficult for both sides to manage a direct report across such a great divide in age and outlook. However, that gap has narrowed, disappeared, and occasionally reversed, as the pioneering cohorts of CAD/IT managers grow long in the tooth.

The clashing and dashing of high hopes has often been the result of "technophobia" on one side confronting "technophilia" on the other. Whether these labels were justified or misperceived, folks often hunkered in the bunker with belligerent and/or defensive mindsets..." those Luddites will never approve what we really need," versus"those geeks always want new toys." This, too, is changing, as the emerging generation of senior management has had enough hands-on techno-experience along their career path to have a meeting of the minds, if not a Vulcan mind-meld, with their technology managers.

Part of the problem in many organizations is structural. In firms without a true CIO—a chief information officer on a par with other "C-level" executives (CEO, COO, CFO)—technology management too often is shunted to a lowly position on the command and control totem pole. Even more troublesome is a continued bias in some quarters towards having the technology folks report through the CFO—Chief Financial Officer—as if computers and communications were merely another avoidable overhead cost to be managed, like paperclips and postage. There's more than one letter's difference between "delegate" and "relegate."

Ultimately, I think the differences in expectation and perception on both sides boil down to cultural issues. To succeed, practice and business managers must balance their attention across many interests. If technology accounts for only five percent of a firm's operating costs, it's difficult for senior-most management to justify allocating more than five percent of their mental bandwidth to the subject. That works out to roughly twenty minutes per day. Technology managers rarely get to spend twenty minutes on anything other than the nuts and bolts of keeping systems running and getting the firm's work product out the door.

Finally, technology management in AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure industries provides one of the most asymmetrical feedback mechanisms imaginable. If the job is done to perfection—"six sigma" reliability, unlimited bandwidth, seamless support, and leading edge applications—no one notices. But, wait for the least little glitch, no matter how remote and beyond staff's control (such as cable-chewing squirrels in the South or Midwest), and it's time for CAD/IT heads to roll. Major system upgrades are seen as divestments of present resources rather than investments in future effectiveness. And on it goes.

Is there a more sympathetic or empathetic path for technology managers and senior managers to follow towards mutual enlightenment and firm-wide benefit? Or, is this one of those relationships that is inherently doomed to miscommunication, like the apocryphal mother-in-law joke?

Let me know what you think.

Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business

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