Machine like me

Machine like me

Computers aren’t very good at tolerating unexpected difference. The boxes tend to get sulky and intractable when they encounter a spike in their power curve or an unanticipated condition in the data stream. They’re a little like us that way. The difference, of course, is our ability to manage our own intractability, assuming we recognize it and choose to do something about it.
We’ve all heard about people who begin to look like their pets. Do we begin to look like, act like our professions after a while? I’m thinking more than just the geeky pocket protector of the stereotypical nerd or all the stupid “bun” and “shush” jokes that librarians have to endure. Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Blink, suggests that there’s a whole lot of mental processing going on that never makes into our conscious awareness, but yet significantly shapes how we act. Though Gladwell is, ironically enough, more explicit about his line of inquiry, there is a long tradition of examining the behavioral impacts of our unconscious perceptions in psychological, anthropological and feminist literature.
Stay with me here. I’m not about to drag you into the columnist’s equivalent of diversity training to help you better understand and accept all the difference out there. Where I’m headed is more of a journey inward. There are running debates about whether books like John Howard Griffen’s Black Like Me, or Carol Gilligen’s In a Different Voice are useful on their own terms. Whatever one’s perspective on that, these books, like Gladwell’s and others in that vein are useful in getting a peek through your own personal looking glass to the other, less conscious, side of yourself.
Now, why on earth would I suggest you do that? Well, consider the impacts to your business effectiveness if your actions, your professional personality, and other’s perceptions of you are all being influenced by your constant interactions with the computers, the chips, the software. Take a step back and think about the personalities of the entities I just mentioned.
Computers aren’t very flexible. Chips and software only do what they’re told to do (unless there’s a flaw in which case they’re even less useful). OK, they’re really good at repetitive tasks, but only if asked to perform in highly constrained environments. When there’s a problem, if they give you any feedback at all it’s usually terse and cryptic.
If you had an employee like this, you’d consider firing them.
I’m hearing more and more that the skills which make IT leaders successful as technologists are not the same skills that will make them successful in the wider organization. If we care about our careers, about having a real impact in our jobs we have to consider what that difference is.
Part of the technologist role is to play surrogate machine, to encounter the messy, analog real world, understand it at least a little bit, and then place that understanding in progressively more structured languages until the actual machines can do something productive with it. The danger in this role, is that we play it too well. We get too good at editing out the inconvenient exception, too adept at convincing ourselves that the world is exactly as we anticipate and need it to be.
One of the lessons of outsourcing is that when we become too much like the machines, we lose those qualities that make us valuable to our organizations.
Somewhere between the all-too-human world of uninformed, undisciplined assumption and the all-too-machine world of inflexible, unimaginative repetition is that sweet spot of human judgment. Our value to our organizations isn’t just a matter of how well we know the machines, nor is it solely a matter of how well we understand the business.
Both are important, but not particularly useful if we don’t develop the judgment and the patience to encounter, assess, and respond appropriately to the unexpected. And the unexpected is always out there, headed toward us like a freight train, in our chosen role of mediator between the boxes and the 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 byron.glick@prairiestarconsulting.com 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.