Resist the spell of the wizards of technology

I once had a colleague who was lazy, rude and full of prejudice. But Reg, as I’ll call him, kept his job for a reason other than our employer’s almost inexhaustible tolerance. Reg could perform feats on the clunky publishing system of that era that no one else could. When he placed his stubby fingers on the keyboard, he transformed from sleepy schlub to computer archmage.

Reg, naturally, didn’t teach anyone else how to type in the complex instructions that were more akin to coding than the intuitive commands of modern apps. It would have eroded his competitive edge in the workplace. His latitude to disappear to the pub for two hours every lunchtime would have diminished accordingly.

There’s a little Reg in all of us. The temptation to become a wizard, rather than share our expertise, is always strong. It’s a problem CTOs and other IT-savvy executives wrestle with at the big banks and insurers I cover as a reporter.

Some of these organizations use over 1,000 technology systems, many of which cannot communicate with each other. This suggests that there must be several thousand Regs dealing with it. But this group of colleagues is troublesome for future “tech champions”. It’s convenient to view technology challenges, such as systems integration or cloud migration, as largely mechanistic. In reality, however, confusing human culture can be just as important to success or failure.

The impact of an error can be serious. In public interviews, CEOs typically say their primary concern is serving stakeholders. Privately, they admit that something more specific keeps them awake at night: fear of a massive systems breach. This is more likely when anti-piracy controls are weakly implemented.

During the pandemic, hacking-as-a-service has become a criminal enterprise on the dark web. Ransomware is temporarily attacking disabled parts of a US pipeline company and the Irish health service. The business damage from these hacks is an order of magnitude greater than the low-level user data thefts that were commonplace before. Ignoring restrictions on the use of personal devices has also become commonplace among employees at highly regulated banks amid shutdowns. The regulatory backlash is already underway.

Most businesses would like to have a single, flexible technology platform to store some or most of their data in the cloud. This would make it easier to monitor regulatory compliance and vulnerability to hacking while enabling smart staff to undertake data projects for business purposes. “If something is easy, people make more of it,” says Mark Jones, deputy chief executive of Man, a London-based hedge fund group that has invested heavily in IT.

But local innovation can hamper systems integration just as much as devotion to legacy technology. “Every business is constantly subject to systems fragmentation as people implement new projects,” says Jones.

The human challenge persists even among tech-savvy colleagues eager to conduct data experiments that they believe will give their company a competitive edge. An example would be tweaking the front-end of a retail banking application with the goal of increasing sign-up.

“Most people are numerical, not statistical,” warns Jones. We are prone to misinterpret data by spotting patterns that lack statistical significance.

Another human obstacle to technological innovation is the delicate task of getting colleagues to share a vision of the future. Contrary to stereotypes, CTOs and other tech-savvy executives usually have decent people skills. But the patronage of the chief executive can only get reformers so far. Staff are free to ignore what the big boss says, even in small and medium-sized companies.

The best way to “get employee buy-in,” as it’s called, is to focus on what’s right for the staff as well as the organization. Let Reg be your example. Competitive workplace advantage in IT has given him greater control. The trick is to offer this to co-workers who want to learn – preferably for the purpose of self-improvement rather than drinking at lunchtime. The catch is that the new systems must be transparent to the majority, rather than so opaque that they favor the priesthoods.

At the same time, you must commandeer internal communications to trumpet the dangers of sloppy technical practices. This shouldn’t be too difficult for now. Ransomware attacks have disrupted energy supplies and regulators are fining Wall Street banks billions of dollars for unauthorized use of messaging apps.

The final request from CTOs and other tech evangelists is the toughest because it forces them to recognize their own Reg-like tendencies. It is this: resist the temptation to become a wizard yourself. Do not hide your technological activities in the equivalent of runes and pentagrams. Build robust, easy-to-use systems and help your colleagues intelligently interpret data.

Certainly, the Wizardry Reg style reinforces the status of internal tech champions by erecting barriers to entry. But sharing knowledge in plain language is better for the organization and therefore, ultimately, for the individual transmitting it. That should still give you leeway for the occasional extended, albeit non-alcoholic, lunch break.

Jonathan Guthrie is deputy editor of the FT and responsible for its Lex column

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