How to Play Well with IT When You Just Don’t Understand IT

Sep 25, 2015
7 Min Read

Today’s business leaders no longer have the luxury of leaving IT to the IT department. To lead teams and leverage opportunities, it’s essential that executives cross the digital divide and embrace the role that technology now plays in their company. Dr. George Westerman, a Principal Research Scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, shares his best insights into how non-IT executives can better collaborate with the IT department.

If you were trained in a more traditional business model, the digital transformation can feel like an unwelcome phenomenon. You may find that not only do you not understand IT, but also you don’t understand how to embrace the increasing role that technology has in business.

But if you shift how you think about technology, you can improve your relationship with the IT…and the IT department. Dr. George Westerman has some important suggestions.


You don’t need to become a technology expert

Good news: It is unnecessary for you to go back to school and learn about the ins and outs of how your computers and gadgets work. You don’t even need to learn to speak tech jargon.

Westerman, who teaches a class at MIT called “Essential IT for the Non-IT Executive,” says, “We don’t teach them technology. We teach them how to work with technology people to drive value.” This should bring a sigh of relief if you’ve been thinking that you need to hit the books.

However, you do need to understand the value of technology.

Instead of focusing on “how things used to work,” Westerman feels that executives should consider two important questions: How has technology transformed your business thus far? How can technology add value to your business going forward?

He says, “You need to start thinking about what technology might make possible at your company. And you also want to think about what kinds of activities create problems with technology. If you know that, you can work with the CIO to deliver.”

For example, technology has made looking up stock fluctuations, once a complex task, into something simple. Westerman says, “[These are] new things that even twenty years ago were hard and now they aren’t.” He believes we need to understand what the ongoing digital revolution can do for your company, adding, “If you think about a world in which communication is free and unlimited, where computing is free, and automation does a heck of a lot more than just adding up numbers, it makes you rethink about what your company is about.”


Respect the IT department’s role

One of the most important ways to be IT-friendly, Westerman says, is to accept IT policies and to think twice before trying to bend the rules. He says, “Asking for lots of exceptions [and] customization leads to a whole lot of trouble down the road. Non-IT executives need to understand that standardization can be very helpful and is actually essential in many cases.”

Westerman emphasizes that while he sees the value of the movement towards citizen development—that is, end-user development—he believes non-IT executives should “combine the idea of innovation at the edges with the idea of very strong coordination and controls.”

He adds, “The way I see this end-user development happening in organizations is that it’s the IT department creating tools and framework for people to operate in—and then they can go off and do their own things.”


Be willing to let go of old ways

Some of us are stuck in the past, clinging to old-school habits like pen and paper and face-to-face communication. In the age of social media, texting, and file sharing, this can make us considered “difficult” to IT types.

It’s important to “rethink our assumptions,” as Westerman puts it. Embracing new ways of communicating with colleagues is one of the fastest ways to be perceived as more IT-friendly, particularly in a climate in which social media, mobile technology, and analytics are changing how business is being done.

There’s nothing wrong with having personal preferences, but dynamic business leadership requires that we get with the times. Westerman says it’s important to understand how technology has changed how most people interact. “Frankly there’s a huge part of the population that would rather deal with a computer than deal with a person, including me.”



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