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Truth, reality and lawnmowers: why IT needs a purpose

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By Phil Jackman, consultant, Guerrilla Working and former head of IT, Durham County Council

I am fascinated by truth and reality, and the things that we believe to be true which just aren’t. The truth is, in my view, that there is no such thing as truth. There is perception and probability. There are many things that we think are true, but which are figments of our imagination: companies, law, property ownership. They don’t exist in nature.

The problem that I think many of us face in IT is that we have so much technology we don’t know what to do with it. Yet getting people to use it is a perennial problem. There’s language we use in IT that isn’t always understood – I typed ‘cutting-edge tech’ in Google and got a whole series of lawnmowers. We talk about redundancy, meaning additional, back-up equipment, and people think about losing their jobs.

New things are happening every day – Bitcoin, drones, artificial intelligence, augmented reality. Yet, we can’t get people to press the button on a dialogue box that’s highlighted by pressing enter instead of using a mouse. There is a fundamental difference between people’s ability to use the technology and the exciting places we are going to go.

My view is that the way we think about work is just wrong. We are stuck in a paradigm where work is about control, it’s about making people do things instead of enabling and allowing creativity. The good news is that this is not just a public sector problem – it affects every single organisation that I have ever had the pleasure to work with.

I meet companies and they say to me ‘our IT is crap’, or usually something worse than that, can you come and help? Of course, but before I help you I’d like to sit down with the directors and senior managers and talk about the purpose of your company. That is a question that flummoxes every single person that I ask. If you don’t know the purpose of what you’re trying to do, then any technology will do it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

There’s a story about Toyota, about a guy trying to sell them a system. He goes through the virtues of it, the functions and the features. The Toyota guy says sorry to stop you, but can you just tell me one thing – will this help me sell more cars? No, I don’t think so, the other replies. So the guy from Toyota says then I’m not interested, because my job is to sell more cars. Whether I’m in accounts, HR or on the production line, the job of somebody in Toyota is to sell more cars and any system I buy must meet that objective.

Stephen Kelly, the previous chief executive of Sage, once said to me – actually he was standing on stage – always take the opportunity to remind everybody what is important. He started all meetings talking about the customer, the production values, the company’s values. The truth is – if there is such a thing as truth – that people don’t know the purpose of their organisation, they don’t know how they fit in and they don’t see the bigger picture. If you have one job as a leader, that is it – remind people what the purpose of the organisation is and how you fit into it.

This is based on Phil Jackman’s talk at the Socitm North 2018 conference in Darlington on 18 October 2018. 

Phil Jackman’s blog: https://guerrillaworking.com/

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