· 4 min read · Features

Bridge the divide


HR professionals can play a key role helping senior managers to analyse their IT needs and talk to the techies. Kathy Harvey reports

The IT departments view of senior management can probably be summed up by Dilbert the fictional cartoon character beloved of office workers the world over. In one episode of the American comic strip the boss complains to the IT staff that his laptop is not working properly. Maybe we should tell him thats an Etch-a-Sketch hes holding, is the caption.

In real life, the managing director may be as addicted to email and mobile phones as the IT director, but this doesnt mean they speak the same language when it comes to analysing business needs.

Managers know they should be harnessing technology to drive their businesses forward, but the budgets are huge and the risks involved in making the wrong choices are high. The IT experts have, it seems, a system for every business need, and an expensive upgrade to follow hot on the heels of any recently installed solution. Somewhere in the process are the people who have to implement the changes.

James Champy, the US author and management consultant, argues that most managers are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of new technology. Champy, who is writing a book on the issue, claims the long-term benefits of technology are rarely clear at the outset. Doing the analysis can be a very challenging process. Even something like standardising laptops and software is not easy for a large organisation, and companies need to take a long, hard look at the detail.

And theres the rub. For many senior managers, the temptation to hand IT problems over to the experts, without asking questions first, is all too great. Changing the technology alone may deliver no value, says Champy, who has spent the best part of his career helping organisations analyse their business processes. HR directors need to get to know the minds of their senior colleagues, and seek opportunities to change their attitudes. They need to think through the issues, and ask themselves how the company can use change to deliver more value to customers.

So how can the HR director bridge the gap between the IT specialists and the managers charged with making the business competitive? HR directors need to seek out examples of good practice where companies are using technology well, says Champy.

Gaining access to competitor experience, though, is not easy. HR teams in search of training for senior managers could do worse than trawl through the business school community for case studies and an up-to-date analysis of how to tackle the problems their colleagues face.

Professor Fernando Suarez of London Business School believes the key lies in placing IT expertise at the heart of strategy-making. Technology is exploding around us, being constantly developed and redeveloped, but most managers dont understand it. Historically, Western economies have tended to employ managers with marketing or finance backgrounds, but we now need to think differently.

The MBA students passing through business schools now are actively looking for courses which will give them a strategic understanding of technology. These days, business schools have technology built into their curricula. The strategy and marketing gurus of the past have been replaced by technology-oriented gurus, says Suarez.

Recruitment is another area where HR directors can help to shape the future thinking within a business. Suarez says that companies like Du Pont, which make a virtue out of recruiting people with IT skills and sending them on management courses, have a real grasp of the need to combine disciplines. Any training has to be about helping people to establish a common language.

Managers may not understand the language of technology, but few are willing to admit it. HR directors, with experience of change management, are well placed to act as interpreters.

People at the top have not stopped to think about their own role in the process of change, says Kevin Delany, of PricewaterhouseCoopers HR consultancy. It is not sufficient to say that this box will cost 4 million. You may think you need it, but how will your staff be using it to improve the business? HR directors need to ask these questions on behalf of their colleagues, to protect the interests of everyone in the company.

In a world of competing egos and priorities, HR directors should, he argues, act as a middle man. Their role is to negotiate the smooth transition from one system to another. Unless senior managers ask the right questions, the management layer underneath them will be left with the Herculean task of making rigid systems serve competing business objectives.

Elaine Rowe, a freelance consultant and former HR director at Virgin Retail, believes no middle manager can expect to succeed in these circumstances. In retailing, people often think technology will be the coming of the gods, but something like a stock-management system cant possibly be the answer to everything.

In Virgin there were laptops all over the place, she says, and umpteen mobile gizmos for the staff. A new IT system was installed, designed to give us the information we needed to gain the competitive edge.

The reality was rather different. A lot of effort goes into making sure that systems work at the start, but not as much into the end of the process, says Rowe. Getting data out of the system isnt always easy, and there are always lots of internal customers who want information processed in different ways.

Any training or guidance managers receive, she argues, must emphasise the need to communicate across disciplines. Workshops and training programmes can be extremely effective.

At Virgin, we set up a steering group to look at business processes, Rowe recalls, and tried to sort out how they could be altered to make things work. We also ran a Cut the Crap project. This was a series of workshops involving everyone from top management to the sales force.

HR must help people set the agenda for IT to follow. If you dont take this approach you will have too many people ringing the IT team with ideas and demands, which may be conflicting, argues Rowe. And individuals may need coaching as their own role changes.

Champys experience leads him to believe that many managers are already having a miserable time coping with the day-to-day effects of technology in the workplace. Computer mailboxes are jammed full of emails, demanding instant replies and action on the part of the recipient.

The Institute of Managements latest report on the quality of managers working lives revealed that over 80% of those surveyed did not think email had reduced their workload. Many felt deluged by data and under pressure to communicate. Laptops and mobile phones encourage ambitious individuals to blur the boundaries between home and work, with only self-discipline as a buffer between the two.

I once received an email from my managing director which had been sent at midnight, says Rowe. I sent him a message back advising him to get a life.

Champy says he never takesincoming calls on his mobile phone, preferring to ring people back at a time of his choosing. The ability to see and deal with problems instantaneously will, in the long run, improve our performance as managers, but we still need time to think.

For the beleaguered executive, burdened with portable computers and instant decisions, the answer could lie in subterfuge. An Etch-a-Sketch game fits nicely into a laptop bag, and is half the weight. Your colleagues need never know the truth.