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IT’s Not about the Technology

Fast Interview: Gartner researcher Tom Austin on why your head of IT should be a cultural anthropologist and why you should think twice before you block YouTube.

A new species of Information Technologist is emerging from the primordial ooze of Web 2.0 — social scientists and humanists who focus on human behavior more than software code. So says Tom Austin, a researcher with Gartner, Inc., an information technology research and advisory firm. Austin believes that social sciences will become more important to IT Departments than IT itself. As computer systems become ever more automated and transparent, attention will shift to how to use these tools as social lubricants in the workplace. Here he explains why companies should worry less about blocking social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and more about using social networking to enhance collaboration and productivity.

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You say that in the future the true value of IT will come not from information or technology per se but from the social side.

If you start thinking about how people work, it’s not just about the exchange of information. There are social factors that govern how we work with each other and how we relate to each other. At its core, it’s not so much about rows and columns, databases, network transports, and all that gobbledygook. At the end of the day, I want to see what my friends are doing. Where are we going to get together for dinner? And is there somebody they think could help me close the deal I’m working on? It’s all about people.

So business is still fundamentally about human interactions — the same way it’s always been?

Yes, but I’m going to add one caveat. The big difference is the speed at which we establish relationships, the ease with which we can find out about people, and the distance at which we can work with people. Seventy-five years ago, we were organized into regimented, hierarchical, bureaucratic structures that were top-down driven. Information moved from office to office in days or weeks. People developed a small number of relationships in a number of communities you could count on the fingers of one hand. Today, all that has exploded — speed, distance, number of relationships, and ways of looking at the world. But at the core of it, we’re still people dealing with people.

How will IT change?

Think about the telephone for a minute. Underneath the telephony network we have, there’s a tremendous amount of technology. But we don’t care about that technology, and Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile don’t try to sell their product on the quality of the chips in one phone versus another. It’s all about helping me connect to anybody I want with family plans, free nights and weekends, and unlimited use. There are still people in IT who’ll have to worry about keeping the systems running, but now we’re going to think more about how to exploit the things we can do with social networking, expertise location, and all of the other higher-level social ordered phenomenon we can facilitate using technology.

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What disciplines will these higher-level IT thinkers come from? Humanities?

It’s not just the humanities. It’s also cultural anthropologists, psychologists, organizational theorists — people who can look at an environment and figure out, where do we let things go? Biologists are great at this. The problem with IT today is there are too many engineers and not enough social scientists. Look at the numbers of features and controls we put on how things are done. That’s an engineer’s approach, versus some of the free form approach of Enterprise 2.0 and social networking.

Why do you call social networking and Web 2.0 the “primordial ooze?”

The idea is to allow behavior patterns to emerge from that ooze from an evolutionary point of view rather than trying to predict how things should be run and controlled.

Can you give us an example of a company where these sorts of things are happening?

Let’s start with IBM. The company puts emphasis on employee contributions of ideas, collaboration, and motivating people to engage in what I call pro-social behavior. The simple way to think about this is in your job performance reviews at your company: Does management specifically look for instances where employees helped others succeed where it didn’t help the employee himself or herself succeed? That’s pro-social behavior. Too often, we have measurement and reward systems that are focused on how many transactions did you process, how many orders did you ship, and how many deals did you close — rather than who helped these other people succeed.

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It’s a more optimistic view of human nature, isn’t it?

It is, but let’s not make this sound like a completely populist, hippie type of thing where people can go off and do whatever they want. There’s a recognition that if you relax some controls — not all — you’re probably going to get more creative behavior out of the individuals than if everything is locked down. The organization gets far more flexible as well. I remember a discussion I had with the CIO of a mid-size manufacturing firm where I was explaining the value of an open wiki where employees could contribute ideas and edit each other’s ideas. One of my points was, make sure you don’t allow anonymity so people will be rewarded socially or punished socially for inappropriate behavior. The CIO said, “You know, I really get this.” Then she went on to explain how she would have to put in place workflow review and approval for everything before it gets posted to the wiki, which led me to realize I’d done a bad job of explaining this whole notion.

Will MySpace or Facebook become models for business interaction?

Count on it. Look at teenagers today. They’re teamagers. They work on projects as a group and think nothing of doing it that way. I expect to see that kind of thing percolate through the enterprise as an unstoppable force over the next two decades.

A lot of companies block access to these sites because they’re afraid of employees wasting time.

I had another client who came to me and said, “Hey we blocked YouTube. What a waste of bandwidth!” My first reaction was, Okay, did you know IBM and many other companies have technical demos and training available on YouTube? Yes, there are wastes of time associated with social interaction. Forget computers for a second — how much time do people waste chattering away in the lunchroom? I have a slide that lists 35 different ways that people socialize, and none of them mention technology.

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Who is using social networking in productive, creative ways?

Several clients of ours are using tools to help reinforce or build a social network inside the company. They use a variety of tools where employees are encouraged to create a personal page where they share not only name, rank, and serial number but also information about prior jobs, interests, hobbies, other skills they may have, projects they’ve worked on, and so forth. That becomes a dynamic and important tool for navigating through the network of people inside the company to find others who may be able to help you. In this world of the “ad hocracy” that we live in, where people get thrown into project after project, it helps to look at information and figure out, these three people I’m meeting with tomorrow who I’ve never met before. What are they like? Is there something we share in common — a hobby, a background, education, a boss we hated — that you can use to strike up a conversation?

What’s the take-home lesson?

It’s not the technology that counts. It’s the people.