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IT is the New Foreign Service

A few weeks back, I suggested that the role of IT professional is one of diplomat between the boxes and the business. I have this picture in my head of urgent communiqués and hushed conversations, exotic locales (like the board room) and different world views all colliding in the middle of tense situations that could boil over into real conflict at any moment. As with any cross-culture experience, patience and a great deal of flexibility is the order of the day.

And there’s the rub. One of the parties to this on-going international crisis is not known for either flexibility or patience, and I’m not talking about the business folks. Built into the very DNA of the technology professional is an aversion to the unexpected and consequently, an extreme magnification of small difference. Not exactly the definition of flexible. Mix in a radical compression of the passing of time and you’ve got a recipe for misunderstanding.

We all know that the digital world is built up from the bits and the bytes, long flowing strands of 1’s and 0’s combining and recombining in a flash to create… well, what? Data? Information? Meaning? A new reality? Not exactly. At least I hope not. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to the boxes and the wonders they have wrought. I owe my livelihood for the last twenty-five years to all that.

None-the-less, it’s hard not to notice that all that 0-ing and 1-ing of the real world is clipping off bits and pieces of reality that I’d rather not lose. I’m not trying to restart that old and rather boring argument about the “brittleness” of digital sound or some such. Take a moment and look at the sleeve of your shirt or blouse. Focus on a patch of a single color. I’m guessing that because of variations in the light source and folds and wrinkles in the cloth (yeah, I hate to iron, too), that patch of color has many variations of the same color. I’m not talking 256 bit color nor the full richness of the Pantone scale. I’m talking seamless transformation, not being able to tell when it was this color then that color, because there is no dividing line. It’s all one thing, the color of your shirt. Though there are obvious differences, we know that color is one thing. Digitizing it all, and then replicating some few archetypes endlessly at lightening like speed is just not the same thing. Perhaps a trivial difference for the haberdashery, but is it still trivial as we disassemble the identities of our customers or employees into a finite set of bits and bytes and then reassemble that identity elsewhere without real connection to the original?

O.k O.k., I haven’t gone soft in the head (or at least not any softer). On the one hand you’ve got the boxes that construct models of the world using those long flowing strands of bits and bytes. No matter how many gigabytes we throw together at whatever nano-second rate, it’s still a finite number. That’s not like the reality of doing business on a day-to-day basis where there are an infinite number of decisions, judgments and pure intuition required to successfully navigate a given day. On a good day, the accounting systems do a pretty good job of representing the ebb and flow of cash through our businesses. On a bad day, either through malice or just a lack of understanding, the picture painted by the accounting systems begins to vary from the reality of bank balances, stock portfolios, and credit ratings. It’s the difference between a high quality streaming video of your daughter’s wedding and sitting in the front row as she says “I do.”
At one of my clients, the folks in the field complain about those people in the home office who just do what the computers tell them to and the complete lack of sensitivity to local realities or concerns. Conversations with the home office staff reveal a frustration with a flood of data which only partially reflects the real information they need to make informed decisions and forces them to rely on computer driven reports and analysis. The IT folks talk about users that can’t describe how they make decisions or what information is critical. This state of affairs is a combination of users not knowing (see Malcom Gladwell’s latest, Blink), and the IT folks not being able to hear or represent. It all boils down to your satisfaction with computer systems being directly correlated to how well you understand the fundamentals of your organization. In a bit of recursive irony that proves the universe has a sense of humor, as IT becomes more embedded in our businesses, one of those fundamentals may be the IT or at least how it’s used.

So before you begin editing out bits and pieces of reality to model your business reality with the bits and bytes, it’s important to have an accurate understanding of what’s critical in that daily business grind and what’s not. It’s not something you’ll get from an MBA or a reference manual. As any old hand in the foreign service will tell you, there’s no substitute for time spent in country. And that’s true whether your passport reads “IT” or “Business.”

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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