If you had a magic wand and you could radically modify the way corporate IT engages itself in organizations, what would you change?
That's the question we asked Bard Papegaaij, Chief Change Facilitator at Transgrowth, and former Research Vice-President at Gartner.
Bard gives awesome answers about the need to change corporate culture when it comes to IT. He also provides insights in many other areas, such as:
Hello, this R.M. Bastien and welcome to another episode of the podcast series on radical change in Corporate IT. A few months ago, I met with Bard Papegaaij. Bard Papegaaij has spent his whole life trying to understand what makes us human stick. He started his career researching machine translation --that's computers translating between human languages-- and artificial intelligence. From then on, he went on as a software engineer, an enterprise architect, senior consultant, an IT manager, CTO and CIO for wide range of companies. And most recently, he's been working for Gartner, the world's largest IT research and advisory firm as Executive Partner and Research Vice-President. Throughout his 30 plus years of working with organizations all over the planet, he has helped individuals and organisations creating more inspiring and sustainable approaches to leadership and team development. He has published over 100 research notes on leadership, professional development and organizational culture. He has written two books on machine translation, and lately he has written a book titled "A String of Pearls: Creating Better Future From the Stories of Your Past" that is available on Amazon. I've asked Bard the usual question, the one I've have asked all the other interviewees. Bard, if you had a magic wand and you could change the way corporate IT, the IT department, serves most organizations, the way it engages itself within the organization, whether it's roles, accountabilities, anything you can think of that you think is worth improving, in order to augment the value that that function provides the organization. What would you do?
That's a very interesting question and to tell the truth, if I had a magic wand like that, I would have used it ages ago. Because for me, there is one important problem or issue with IT and the business that I've seen from the very start of my career and that is that: it's almost like IT and the business are two entirely separate organizations. IT is a mini business inside the business. IT is somewhere in the basement doing mysterious stuff that doesn't really connect to the rest of the organization. And I've always wondered why that is. I've always felt that that gap is the cause of a lot of trouble. So when I started my career, I stumbled into IT almost by accident. I actually studied language and communication and cultural mechanisms and how language, for instance, changes the way people see reality. And I found that mysterious, almost that IT people seem to live in a separate world, not just in a separate organization. And that the communication between the two parts is so difficult. And I think part of it is that we have created a separation between IT and the business. So the first thing I would use my magic wand for is to impress on people or change their minds, magically, that there is no difference. We're all in the business. It's one organization. And within that organization, we specialize. Some people specialize in finance, others in marketing, in sales, in HR and some specializing in what we call IT. But the core of it is we're one organization trying to achieve one goal. We we are on the same mission. And that is not the case right now. There's this weird dynamics going on where people that are completely embedded inside the organization, the IT people, when I talked to them and I ask: "What line of business are you in?" They tell me they're in IT. And I've always said that's the wrong answer, right? You're in insurance, you're in manufacturing, you're in bicycle repair and you specialize in the IT part of it. So why do you tell me you're a IT? Don't you feel part of the business? And they usually shrug it off, saying, "Well, I don't really talk to the business or I don't understand the business". Or even stronger: "The business doesn't understand me, and they don't appreciate me either". So one way of looking at it --and this I borrowed from a friend of mine from the Nederlands who just published a book with the beautiful title, his book is in Dutch, but translated, it says "We is more Important than Why". And for me that means that the sense of unity and belonging that people need to feel part of an organization comes before even the sense of purpose and the sense of mission. So there has to be... the social contract has to be created first, where we say "Well, we're all in this together. We're one organization and we have a mission and a purpose, and then we specialize and organize ourselves so that we all contribute in our own unique way to that single mission and purpose that the organization has". Again going back to the magic wand, I would wave it a few times and everybody would realize: we're one business and we have specializations. Then, of course, you would have to have a look at the organizational part of it. This is the way we structure ourselves. Because IT, when I started it literally sat in basements, with massive machines and people in white coats doing mysterious things. But in a way, if you look at the org charts, IT is still, in most organizations in a sort of a virtual basement. There is layers of management and layers of executives and teams, and then somewhere you have a branch that says IT. It's rarely directly into the executive group, but even when it is, it is a separate branch that is kept out of the loop of the main business. I would say organize yourself differently. Don't specialize, don't have a specialized layer of IT. Have specializations around products and services that include people that specialize in the technology part of it. So I don't like seeing an IT department. I don't understand why we still have, right. You could have a technical infrastructure group. We could have a like I said, a product or service specific group. You could have a channels group that helps you with the technical parts of your marketing channels. I think that would make much more sense, and it would pull people much closer together to the purpose of what they're doing. In relation to that, I also think that the the word, the label, IT has become tainted, right. When people hear "IT", they think about technology. They think about machines, computers, gadgets. But where's the "I" part of the label? Where's the information? But but even deeper, where's the business value association? When I hear IT, what I want to think about is what's the business value that we can create by combining information and technology in new, innovative, maybe even disruptive ways? What's the business value that we can create by taking processes, taking people, and figure out how we can make them work better together. But I've been talking to thousands, literally thousands of business people and technical professionals, and when I mentioned the word IT, they hear technology. And they can't help it. It's decades old associations. So yeah, organizationally, I would mix IT with the business so that it's no longer IT, it's just specializations within the business. And maybe that's part of the magic wand too, I would make people stop associating IT with the technology. That also goes to how we use it and how we actually create value with all this technology. And I think I had a little talk with a friend of mine who has been in the IT business his whole life and says "We still haven't solved the actual "I" part of the IT equation". And it's becoming more and more obvious and more and more important, that is that we started with this whole technology drive because there was an information problem. We were processing massive amounts of information at first, manually and slowly, more mechanically. But there is more and more information flowing around. The information is where the value is. If you look at the modern digital world we live in, the crucial factor that makes you either succeed or fail is whether you have the right information at the right time and you can do something valuable. That part of the equation is underappreciated. So here comes the third wave of my magic wand so we... I want to solve the information part. I want to provide service that enriches information, provide information where it's needed that make sure that information is the heartbeat of the organization.
It's very interesting what you're saying... It makes me think about: do you think that with the" commoditization" of technology that eventually it's the information part that will be on top? You think that could help even without a magic wand?
I'm actually secretly hoping that that we are using the magic wand but it's a bit slower than we want. When I started in this industry, and I'm talking about the mid eighties, and we looked at things like artificial intelligence and machine learning. What was always obvious to me is that we could only count ourselves successful once the technology disappeared into the background. As long as the technology is a visible part of what we're delivering, we haven't yet succeeded. And why is that? That's because visible technology takes the focus and attention away from what it should be about. And that may sound a bit abstract. But take, for instance, I have an iPad and I use it for lots of things. Very often I can forget about the fact that this is actually a computer. I use it as a book, and then I can read it like I would read a book. I can use it as a piece of paper and I can doodle on it like it's a piece of paper. The moment I need to save something, for instance, or share it with something else, all of a sudden, it becomes a computer again. And I have to think about file formats, folders, what kind of app or protocol am I going to use to to share what I've just created. And then all of a sudden the technology is visible. And I always found that very disruptive. I don't want to be busy with technology, right. Technology is not my mission, technology should be the tool.
That's a good analogy. I was thinking about a car. For example, I might tell you "Oh, I'm going to go to your place tomorrow". Usually, people don't say: "Oh, I will take my automobile and ride the streets to get to your house". You know, it's just: I get to your place, and the fact that you're taking the car is kind of of forgotten.
Now, that's absolutely correct. Technology needs to fade into the background, you know. Maybe it's a bit of a utopia though to think that it will disappear completely because you still need to, for instance, learn to drive a car. But once you have mastered the driving of the car, you do not think about the engine. You do not think about all the components that go into the car. And you certainly wouldn't, which people still do when they work with technology, you still you wouldn't dream of going to the manufacturer and say, look, I don't really like the shape of the windscreens, and maybe you could give me a square shift stick rather than a round one"... We tend to accept it because it works. And you leave it to the technologists to keep improving it and keep coming with different designs. But you're not actively involved in the mechanics of the car. You just use it. And that's where technology has been moving, but not fast enough. And now, going back to the business-IT dichotomy, why is it that business people get settled with questions about what technology to use? Settled with discussions about apps and platforms and different technological solutions where all they should be worried about, together with the IT specialist, is: what's the business value we're trying to achieve? What is it that our people need to do and how do we make that easier and better for them? That's all. I don't wanna have a technology discussion. That's the wrong discussion to have.
Bard, talking about the great divide between IT people and the rest of the organization, it came to my mind several times, and also a recurring topic from the other interviewees, that there is a knowledge gap between what IT people know and with the rest of the organization do not know. Because, you know, they've been trained differently, they went to school in different fields, and so on. What is your opinion on how can be either minimized and... I would go even further do you think that that gap is nurtured? Because it can be handy for the one who has the knowledge?
Knowledge is power, and if I have the knowledge then you don't have the power! So there's several dimensions to this one. First of all, the knowledge gap itself. There definitely is a knowledge gap, and I don't think that is in itself a problem going back to the analogy of the car. When my car breaks down, I take it to a mechanic because I don't know how to fix it, I don't even know what's wrong with it. I just know that it's not working. And I expect the mechanic to have the knowledge to fix it. In that case, the knowledge gap is part of specialization, and that's a normal part of our daily lives. And then the mechanic will come back and says, for instance "I can fix this, but you have three options". And now the knowledge gap becomes a communication gap, that the mechanic will have to bridge by telling me what the options are and helping me make a choice. And I guess this is really where in IT we are struggling. More than with the knowledge get per se. I think it's perfectly fine that a lot of business people make decisions about processes and information and even technology without really understanding the hard core parts of the technology that is involved. That would be silly, actually, to expect him to know that because you know that's what you have specialists for. Where it becomes tricky is when we need to meet each other, and we need to bridge the knowledge gap by communicating in both directions. I think IT is failing as a discipline there by not knowing what part of the gap they need to translate and bridge. It's always interesting to me to see your average IT specialist trying to communicate with your average let's say, employee or even executive, and completely miss the connection between what the executive or the employee needs to know so they can make sensible action or a sensible response, and what the IT person knows about the situation. For instance, let me give you an example. One of the trick questions I used to ask when I hired business analysts, and enterprise architects, was "How would you explain WiFi to an executive?" And then I would wait for their answer I would very often get things like it has to do with frequencies and bandwidth and modulations and packages. You know, all sorts of technical explanations. And that was always the wrong answer. Because for me, the correct answer is: "You've got a light on your monitor. When it's green, it's working. When it's red, you call the help desk." That's all you need to know about WiFi. As an executive. This, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration, but for me, IT people have fallen always, and it's because of a lack of training, not, I think, of a lack of innate capability they've always fallen for going way too deep with their explanations. And that doesn't land at the side of the receiver because most of that information is not relevant to the response required of the other side. So that's one thing: we over- explain. We over-elaborate. We give too much detail. And then the actual information is lost in the wealth of useless detail. But there's something more, and I think you're you hit the nail on the head when you said it's also about power, but I think it starts one step earlier. It starts with the fact that there is an us-versus-them. So as long as IT feels itself separate from the business and especially when IT feels itself under-valued, under-recognized and under-appreciated for the value they deliver, you will get an emotional reaction that says "Well, if I'm that under-valued and under-recognized, I need to find a way of creating power for myself. I need to find my own value and my own security." And that already... lays the seeds for jargon development, for mysterious rituals that keep the outside separate from the inside. And so you get a cultural reaction to the separation, and that is that IT becomes a separate culture. And then communication becomes a problem because even when we think we're talking about the same thing and use exactly the same words, they very often end up mean completely different things underneath. To summarize knowledge gap, perfectly fine. That's what you have specializations for because you know, you can't expect anyone to know everything. The communication gap, that is the issue that we need to solve. How do you translate between domains in a way that makes sense to both sides so that they can collaborate together even when they have very different domains of knowledge? If I had my magic wand back, I would solve that immediately. I don't have the magic wand, but I train people to do this, which is a poor substitute. But it works.
Oh, that was my next question. Because when you talk about about explaining complicated or complex things to people that don't have the education on and so on, I'm thinking about... There's a local guy here, maybe you know him. It is... he's Hubert Reeves. He's astronomer. He's very well known, and he's written, you know, maybe, I don't know, half a dozen books. And he explains, really, really complicated stuff. I mean, it's astrophysics... and lots of math in there, and so on. He finds a way to explain to you the creation of the universe, but he's, you know, he's one of a kind. He's highly talented, and he's good because he's very special. So, do you think that people, you know the average IT geek, could be trained to, you know, to use more metaphors or to link in a way that allows other people to understand what he's doing without going into the details?details?
Well, the answer is it depends, which is a typical consulting answer, right, but we need to break it down a bit. Not everybody will be as good at this as as the Masters. I usually divide people in roughly into three groups when I do this kind of training. One group is people that are really not interested in it... the über geeks. They are quite happy being geeks. They love tinkering with technology. And maybe they got there because they don't like to talk to people right. They prefer the technology over the human interaction. And no, you won't get very far with those people. But when you succeed to break the cultural barrier, even with those people and make them feel more part of the larger organization, even there, you'll see an improvement in communication. And when you then help them to at least give them some tools and guidance about what to communicate and what not, they're trainable! They just, they won't become masters and they won't become natural at it, but I never assume that people are not trainable. If they have the right motivation, they can do it. So we need to remove some of the barriers first and then help those people. Then there's a middle group. And the middle group is literally in the middle. That they can improve significantly when we remove the barriers, give them the motivation and then help them with tools and examples and training, and they will become reasonably good. And then there is the group that is actually the forgotten potentials. Because IT as a discipline doesn't pay much attention to how well we communicate, how well we influence especially, right. How well we participate in the political dynamics of an organization. There is a group of people that potentially would be great at it, but have never actually been asked to do so. And when I find those people and it's roughly I would say maybe 20% of the IT community, when I find those people and we get them inspired by it, they become really, really good. But here's the thing, like in any other part of the organization, not everybody needs to be good at something. So within the IT discipline, we should recognize the communication part of IT as a separate sub-discipline as a specialization within IT. I thought at the time that enterprise architecture would be that specialization, the bridging discipline. And I would expect enterprise architects to be expert communicators. Both directions, translating things coming from all sides of the organization into things that make sense to technologists and translating all the technology bits and pieces back into the organization. I'm disappointed in enterprise architecture as a discipline because they did a lot of great things, but they forgot the communication part. So I'd wave my magic wand to make enterprise architecture a discipline for communicators and train them to be communicators. And don't let them call themselves enterprise architects if they don't pass the master communication litmus test. Yeah.
I hope this they come soon. That's interesting, because my first reflex was.. has always been: okay it is our responsibility as IT people to translate whatever we know into a digestible discourse for whoever we're talking to and to adapt ourselves to the level of people were talking to. When we have kids they don't understand everything, and we change the language and use imagery, and so on. So it's the responsibility of the knowledgeable person. But you said something interesting. You said the divide between the two and the fact that they are not recognized as part of the rest of the organization hinders that. Or maybe it amplifies the gap. And that's interesting. It's the first time I hear that. I think it's very... Well it's different and very interesting. So it means that you not only need to train people to give them the tricks for better communicating, you also have to motivate them.
Yeah, and even stronger. I'm a strong believer in the interplay of culture and motivation. Because cultural mechanisms are a huge part of our behavior: are huge strong influencers or our behaviors. And one of the things that I know from my years of research in not just organizational culture -I've always been interested in how cultures develop in general- is that the moment you feel different from some other group, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate the differences. First internally, so you start looking for the differences because we want to be special and we'll find a way of being special. First it's in observations: you start exaggerating the differences you observe around you. But then you start externalizing those differences by creating markers of identity for your own group. And jargon, specialized language, is a very strong one. But also take the social interactions. I was taught when I was in university that IT people are not very social, that they tend to be sort of high on the autistic spectrum. And I accepted that on face value because the first organization I walked in, yeah, the IT people were in the basement and they didn't talk to anyone. And there's these old joke of: How do you know... How do you tell an introverted IT person from an extraverted one? The extraverted one looks at your shoes when he's talking to you!
I never heard that one. It's good!
That was the perception I had, too, until I realized that walk into a group of IT people when they are not being observed by outsiders and watch the interactions there. They are extremely social. They have all sorts of very rich social interactions going on inside their own group, but hardly any outside their own group if you like. And that is because they don't feel part of that other group, and they are looking for ways of strengthening their collective identity as IT people. So the motivation for people to communicate outwards starts I believe, always with finding ways of tying them back into the larger community and making them really feel part of that. And that's partially: work on them. So make them feel part of the larger organization, make them aware of the divide and find ways of dissolving that. But also on the outside organization: businesses are really very good at isolating IT people by not recognizing their value, not recognizing their contribution, not including them into strategic discussions, no even thinking to ask them about their opinion until all the decisions have been made. So they reinforce that isolation and separation. And then nobody's motivated to communicate. If you don't feel valued, why would you?
You're making me realize that that both camps I think we can call camps at this point in time...
...do have a responsibility into bridging the gap. And also, I gather from what you're saying, is that: if you let things go their natural way, there will be some sort of natural tendency for people to reinforce their own culture up to a point where after time, the difference between that group and other groups just grows naturally. Is a Is that what you're saying?
Well, that's definitely part of the dynamics of culture. Culture is a stabilizing, cohesive mechanism. The function of culture is to allow us to collaborate in larger groups than we could without it, and to sort of balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the collective. So culture is always looking for ways to strengthen itself. And unfortunately, that means that it tends to strengthen itself against the outside world. So if you allow subcultures, too much freedom and let them go inside organizations, you don't end up with single organization: you end up with a bunch of subcultures. We all know silos. And we also we always tend to think that silos are sort of a design flaw, or maybe even a purely structural issue. But silos are a cultural issue. And if you let them, they become stronger and stronger and less and less collaborative across their borders. They're very collaborative inside those borders, but they lose the motivation to reach out and connect. So yeah, that's a deep cultural mechanism. And I personally feel that we have underestimated this for way too long at the detriment of almost everything.
I love your answers. Really Bard. Is there another topic?
No, I think a lot of my core topics have have been touched on. I'm at the moment very passionate about cultural and communication issues around IT. I personally think that... Maybe there is one last topic and I'll mention it briefly because that would be another half hour at least. And that is the responsibility of the IT function for the business outcomes, but also the larger social outcomes. I have always felt that IT takes a bit of a sort of a detached approach of "Well we just build it. We're not responsible for what is being done with it", and I don't think that that is a sustainable attitude. If we disrupt the world by creating new technologies then, as a discipline, we should also share responsibility for what happens with it. I don't know how to solve this one, maybe I need a whole box of magic wands for that, but it's an attitude problem first of all. You know, we're not value free. We're not context free. When we're disrupting things, we should at least think about the consequences before we do so.
That's really interesting. So it means moving away from the order taker position to do something else. I would go even further saying, OK, now, if you're not an order taker anymore and you take a stand versus what you're being asked to do, won't it be easier to bridge the gap and then to go to the business and get more into it?
Well, honestly, if you stop being an order taker, you don't have to go to the business because you've become the business.
Yes, that's what I meant. Yeah, great.
Bard, the next question is OK, magic wands do not exist, I'm sorry. Now our listeners are thinking, okay, that's great so we know where you want to go. What would be a first step to go there?
Okay, so for the non-IT executives. I think an awareness of the value that IT people produce in their organization and the awareness that that value is under-utilized as long as we keep them separate. So if you really want to get value from both the information and the technology then the non IT side of the organization needs to find ways of including the IT part of the organization, bringing them back in the fold, so to speak, which is a cultural program as well. So work on a culture of recognition, of value, of openness and co-creation. They need to break that chain of: "we make the decisions, you deliver the services and then we'll complain about it once you've delivered it". No, it is a co creation attitude that starts there. At the same time we need to work on the IT side in breaking open their culture as well. In terms of: you've let yourself be isolated. You've let yourself become subculture and at the same time, you are confined by, you suffer from it. So let us help you break out of that. The cultural issue is an identity issue. So I think all organizations at the moment are facing this. Who do we want to be really, in this fast moving, changing landscape? Because who we were up to now may have been successful, but it's not going to sustain us into this future. And who we want to be is a collective question that everybody needs to be involved in. Yeah. My non-magic wand approach, especially towards the executives, is become aware of the cultural issues and the potential you're not tapping into and then start working --and I do have some ways of getting started with that-- start working on breaking those barriers down, becoming really inclusive and co-creative. And you'll be amazed at the results.
Thank you, Bard. It's been very different and enlightening. There was lots of material in this discussion to think about, to sink. So I thank you very much for the time you spent with our listeners today. Do you have any closing comment, recommendation, feelings, idea?
Well, first of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity. You may have noticed I'm rather passionate about this topic because I feel that there's so much potential, and we could do so much better. Then the one thing that I really want to impress on people, is when you start on this, you know, it may look daunting, it may look strange, it's unfamiliar, but there is enormous joy in doing this culture work. When you start tapping into potential that has previously been locked up inside your own organization, that you have been fighting with rather than actually tapping into, you'll be surprised at the joy that gives. And once people start understanding that they can make a contribution, that they will be seen for it, that they can actually actively participate, your business will be off and running. That magic can happen. That is maybe... that is the magic wand that we talked about in the beginning: is getting that cultural magic, the cultural dynamics right, and then the magic will unfold. So please don't think it's all difficult or abstract and vague. There's a lot of joy in going on this journey. I love fun. So go have some fun with it. That's something that I think is important. It's not all heavy stuff. It's people stuff. And that's maybe the best stuff there is.
Thank you, Bard Papegaaij for this time you spent with us. And who knows? Maybe there will be some other interview later on similar or connected subjects. Thanks.
Any time Marc.
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