Behavioral IT® – Coping with IT Disruptions

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Summary: 

This paper was presented at AICTE Sponsored National e-Conference 2020 titled “The Role of Management Practices in Business Sustainability in an Era of Technology Disruptions”.

Technology changes fast, but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of people. It is natural for people to resist change. The real problem, then, is not technology, but the basic human instinct to resist change. The vehicle of business runs on two uneven wheels – one wheel (technology) runs at jet speed and the other (people/mindsets) at bullock cart speed. It is extremely important to address this “inertia of the human mind” to sustain businesses.

Since the problem is behavioral and not technical, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT. Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change.

Business Sustainability stands on three pillars: Environmental Sustainability, Economic Sustainability and Social Sustainability. Behavioral IT® contributes directly to social and economic sustainability, which are relatively overlooked aspects of sustainability.

ABSTRACT

For sustaining businesses in a VUCA World, or a world with Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, it is important to address the primary cause of VUCA. The culprit is the rapidly changing technology, more significantly the Information Technology. Though the primary driver of change today is IT, not many change management courses discuss how to manage IT-Driven change.

It is natural for people to resist change. The real problem, then, is not technology, but the basic human instinct to resist change. Technology changes fast, but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of people. The vehicle of businesses runs on two uneven wheels – one wheel (technology) runs at jet speed and the other (people) at bullock cart speed. It is extremely important to address this “inertia of the human mind” to sustain businesses.

To deal with the social sustainability problems arising out of Information Technology, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT (Ref.2 “Managers Don’t Need IT Skills..”). Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change. Most of what we will discuss in this paper can be classified as “Behavioral IT®” concepts.

Man has gone through a major disruption before – that of the industrial revolution. It took over 100 years for the human mind to cope with machines. We had just mastered the disruption of machines when we got another jolt with the onslaught of computers and another revolution – the information revolution.

The inertia of the mind caused us to look at the onslaught of computers as just an introduction of yet another machine (maybe super machine) and to use our old industrial age mindset to tackle this change. But is the computer a completely different animal as compared to the industrial age machine? Do we need a mindset different from the industrial mindset to tackle this revolution and the VUCA world? What is this information age mindset that will correct this inertia of the mind? This paper tries to answer these questions. Over 70% failures in IT projects indicates that something is seriously wrong.Preview(opens in a new tab)

This paper is a study of evolution of human psychology from the industrial-age to the information-age. It takes a multidisciplinary approach with major stress on psychology of change. It looks at the key features of information technology in contrast to the industrial one to draw useful conclusions as to what we need to learn and unlearn from the past to ensure a smoother change.

This paper is useful for all CXO’s, managers, heads of companies and heads of departments – in short, for all the change drivers or change catalysts in businesses. It is of course useful for students of management too.

Keywords:

People aspects of IT, Behavioral Aspects of IT, Behavioral IT, IT-Driven Change Management, Psychology of Change, IT Soft-Skills, IT for CXOs, IT for Corporate Leaders, IT Strategy, IT Disruption.

1. INTRODUCTION

Business sustainability stands on three pillars – Environmental, Economic and Social Sustainability. Unfortunately, though important, social sustainability has had considerably less attention than economic and environmental sustainability.

This paper focuses on this often overlooked aspect of sustainability. Since it is overlooked, it is not understood too. So let me start with highlighting some key aspects of social sustainability that need emphasis:

Social Sustainability talks of Sustainable Human Development, work-life-balance, wellness of people, good quality of life both at work and at home, not just for the employees but also for the family and society at large.

Moreover, since the focus is on sustainability in the VUCA world (or a world of vulnerability, uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity), it needs no emphasis that VUCA creates stress and tension, impacting health, well-being and overall quality of life.

This paper tries to go to the root cause of VUCA and explores what can be done to reduce this uncertainty, confusion, pressure, tension and stress to improve the quality of life and overall well-being.

It is no secret that the primary cause of VUCA is the rapidly changing technology and the disruptions caused by the change, which people are unable to cope with. It is also true that Information technology is the fastest-changing technology among all technologies. It is the most prominent cause of disruption and is entering almost all walks of life.

This paper looks at this technology and examines how it is contributing to VUCA, and what can be done to soften its impact.

Strangely there is a lot of euphoria about IT. IT scenario looks so very rosy that few would believe that IT could be the cause of confusion and stress. The spread of social networks and the use of electronic tools and gadgets like mobiles, laptops, PowerPoint presentations, etc. amongst GenY gives an impression that everything is hunky-dory in IT.

But if you peep into what is happening in businesses trying to implement IT/ERP projects, you can see major upheavals during IT implementations, friction and conflict among people due to overwork and fatigue, and blame game and politics due to high failures. As per researchers, there are above 70% failures in IT projects (75% as per [Ref.9]. Simply google on “IT Failures” to find more). The picture inside businesses trying to introduce ERP/IT is not so rosy. With 70% failures, it can be anything but rosy – in fact, it is miserable. IT implementations cause stress due to overwork, ambiguity, unfamiliarity and change. The high rate of failures causes finger-pointing, blame game and politics. This is a big contributor to VUCA, stress and lack of wellbeing.

The author believes that the problem is not with technology, it is with the people. People naturally resist change. Technology changes fast but it takes generations to change the minds and behaviour of humans. I call it the “inertia of the human mind”. To deal with the social problems arising out of Information Technology, you need a solution with a behavioural approach. Hence the author has coined a new term called “Behavioral IT®” to address the social issues of IT (Ref.2 “Managers Don’t Need IT Skills..”). Behavioral IT can be looked at as a new field of study, a managerial skill or/and a strategy which deals with the psychological, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of technological change. Most of what we will discuss in this paper can be classified as “Behavioral IT®” concepts.

Technology and people are two important wheels on which the businesses run, but unfortunately, one wheel runs at jet speed and the other wheel runs at bullock cart speed. While technology has changed from industrial technology to information technology, from machines to computers, human minds are still in the industrial era. Man still has an industrial-age mindset.

So how do we bring the other wheel to speed? How to overcome the inertia of the mind? We like to make rapid upgrades in Software, but what about upgrades to our minds?

Business Managers need to mentally evolve from the industrial-age psyche to the information-age psychology to successfully face the challenges thrown by IT-driven change. This paper discusses how to leapfrog into the information era by changing our machine age mindset.

Upgrading our minds to information psyche from industrial psychology will help improve social sustainability in multiple ways:

1. Since the cause of failure are people and people’s mindsets, upgrading minds will help reduce failure, reduce the overall time for transition. Fewer failures and more automation will ensure more efficiency and better processes, resulting in less stress and more free time for employees.
2. It will cut conflicts and promote collaboration, reduce stress during IT transitions, cut politics, thereby promoting corporate harmony and improving wellbeing.
3. The impact will be seen not only with the employees but their families too. Less stress and more free time would mean that employees can spend more stress-free and quality time with their families resulting in family wellbeing.
4. In the long run, increased human productivity through reduced conflicts will lead to higher profits. More success in automation would mean industrial growth, overall prosperity, a better world and happier people.

Man has already gone through the shocks of industrial revolution. Not many, particularly of the younger generation, know that man went through 100 years of turmoil of industrial revolution. WUCA is a result of the turmoil of the information revolution. A study of the industrial revolution can help us to be wiser to tackle this turmoil of the information revolution and contribute to social sustainability.

Upgrading to the information age mindset should not be as difficult as it has been made out to be. There is a subtle change required in our outlook and the way we look at this technology called IT. This paper should work as an eye-opener to see that subtle change in outlook from the industrial age to the information age.

2. EXISTING SCENARIO: TURMOIL OF THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION

Computers are proliferating business organisations and entering every walk of our life. But a closer look will reveal that man is still not at ease with this device. He is perplexed, foxed, fidgety and sometimes angry while dealing with this creature.

Though the computerisation scenario may look very euphoric, if we peep into what is happening in most of the companies trying to automate processes using computers, it will be evident that deep inside, this technology is still foreign to us.

It is not uncommon to have computerised application systems shelved simply because the people for whom the application was built or configured do not accept it, or are not too keen to use it. The same people who seem very enthusiastic when they first view the system, seem to have cold feet and seem disinterested when it comes to putting it to actual use. “This system just does not meet my requirements. This is just not the way I wanted it. You have not understood my requirements.” These are familiar words that most systems professionals have heard from the users of computerised systems. Most systems look nice when viewed as a demo, but fail miserably when implemented.

The reasons can be many: the requirements were not given or understood properly, the information requirements were drafted without serious thoughts, the system needs to be modified to meet the new requirements and the IT personnel need more time to modify the system, and so on… Whatever be the reasons, the gap between the IT personnel and the end-user, or computer technology and the consumers of this technology is very evident.

Why aren’t computers having a smooth entry into the minds and lives of human beings? Why this confusion? Why this problem of acceptance of computers after years of introduction of this technology?

The situation is not so only in developing countries, it is so even in developed countries as the problem relates to the human species as a whole. It is a problem of the evolution of human psychology.

There are two very basic problems in our perception of computers. We have made fundamental mistakes while understanding computers due to which, however hard we try to be at ease with them, we find ourselves jittery and confused.

Our mental make-up which has been shaped and groomed in the machine age is unable to adjust itself in an age of computers. The very concepts of machines that have been shaped and developed in the machine age fail miserably when applied to computers. There is a very subtle difference in the way we should look at computers. When we realise this distinction, there will be a marked difference in our comprehension of computers.

What is this subtle difference that we have to see? How should a manager now look at computers and how should he change his outlook in order to see computers in the right perspective? We shall try to find answers to these questions in the following paragraphs.

First, let us look at some historical and psychological reasons for this state of affairs.

3. THE BACKGROUND AND THE LEGACY

3.1 MACHINE CULTURE OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

For a long time, man was accustomed to doing things manually both at home and at work. With the onslaught of machines came the Industrial Revolution. The industry changed and these changes brought with them their own cultural shocks. The turmoil of Industrial Revolution cannot be forgotten. Machines changed the work culture, changed everybody’s jobs, increased the scale of operations and created a need for organizational restructure and overhaul.

Man took considerable time to adapt to the industrial culture. The idea of work being performed by machines several times faster was both exhilarating and depressing – depressing due to the changes in the work culture. As centuries passed by, machines and mechanical thinking slowly started seeping into man’s mind-set. Slowly, man got used to the industrial and machine culture. He went through the pains and emerged victorious. It took generations for man but finally, he succeeded in evolving a new industrial culture. A new era dawned over mankind and man had mastered the change.

While man was evolving to the industrial psychology and the automation culture of speed, machines too were evolving. Initially, there were mainly mechanical machines. Then came electrical machines and finally the electronic ones.

Then came computers. As the industrial culture was deeply ingrained into his mental makeup (or mindset), he thought that the computer was just another machine. Armed with his centuries’ old knowledge and the experience of handling the change brought about by the introduction of machines, he went about adopting the same old approach to deal with the introduction of computers. He thought it was just another electronic machine.

What he did not realize was that it was not just the introduction of one more new electronic machine, but a dawn of a new era altogether, a change from the industrial era to the information era. He did not realize that just as Industrial era required a new culture, new thinking and new approach, Information era also demanded that he gave up old ideas and methods and adopted new ones to deal with computers and computerization.

3.2 CONFUSION CAUSED BY THE NEW ‘MACHINE’ COMPUTER

Just as man was adapting to the machines of the machine age, there arrived on the scene this new ‘machine’ called computer to confuse him.

Man soon started to see some differences between the two machines. Whereas the old machine always did the same task, this electronic machine seemed capable of doing almost anything. Somewhere it was maintaining business accounts, somewhere preparing salaries and somewhere else controlling the factory. He had seen one machine perform one type of task. For instance, a car did the motor task. This new electronic machine could perform multiple tasks. Two computers looking exactly alike were doing completely different tasks.

There was something bewildering too about the computers. The industrial age machine did mechanical tasks which were clearly understood. You could see something happening before your eyes, as there were physical moving parts. On the other hand, computers had no moving parts. Something seemed to happen inside and yet it delivered wonders.

This new machine created by man was certainly very versatile, he thought. Man by now was immensely satisfied with machines since they did simple mechanical tasks much better than humans. So expectations of computers, the new electronic machine, rose sky-high. After all, computers were perceived as more versatile machines. The new machine would certainly cross all boundaries of human satisfaction, he thought. Man had seen computers do so many different tasks that he expected them to satisfy all his fancies.

Expectations showed clearly in businesses where people expected computers to do wonders. A manager expected the computer to satisfy his requirements immediately as he had seen so many computers do almost anything. He expected computers to satisfy all his needs and he expected quick results. He thought that his life would transform the moment the computers arrived at his premises. Moreover, as his business needs changed, he changed his processes on the fly and expected the computerized solution to instantly follow suit.

But the reality was unfortunately very different. To his utter disbelief, he found nothing happening although the computers were in place. (“It’s been ages since we brought in the automated solutions but things have not changed”). On the contrary, he was expected to go through a nightmare called “Implementation”, which he was not prepared for. The over-enthusiastic salesmen had painted such a rosy picture post arrival of computers, and reality was in stark contrast. He was surprised that his requirements were not being immediately addressed by computers. When he asked for a business process change, he was surprised that it could not be done so quickly. His ire showed on the technology folks. “Why can’t they understand my needs and my dynamic environment?” was his reaction.

When everything in the office was being done manually, the manager was so used to changing methods by simply instructing his clerk to do it differently. Since habits die hard, the manager did not change his habits and suddenly told the IT folks to change the business process and would expect the changes implemented immediately, just as he used to expect from his clerk in the manual system. When the IT department could not react so quickly to his changed need as his faithful clerk used to, he found it unacceptable.

The initial awe and respect for computers soon turned into bewilderment, frustration and finally disillusionment.

The frustration is evident in offices. When computers do not give exactly what you need, when IT folks do not understand, they are branded as “totally incompetent to deliver”. They cannot change the system immediately when you change your ways, and they ask too many awkward questions! “The computer folks keep asking me so many questions when I ask for a change. Clearly, they don’t want to do it. This computer department is a “Department of NO”.

The computer people seem to expect too much from you!

You protest, “Why do you guys (the so-called experts of the new versatile machine) expect so much from me when the old machines never demanded so much? I have been using other equipment like telephone, or an aircraft – and they never make so many demands from me. I don’t know anything about the aircraft, yet it serves me so well. It never expects me to learn the internals of the aircraft, nor to learn to fly the aircraft myself. I don’t change my ways to use the aircraft. But the IT folks want me to change my ways and learn to use the computer.”

We shall see later (in Section 9.1) the big fallacy in the above statement “I don’t know anything about the aircraft.”, but it shows that the frustration is real.

4. WHERE WE WENT WRONG – TWO MYTHS ABOUT COMPUTERS

Technology changes very fast but it takes generations for man to change his basic outlook. The main problem of acceptance of computers today is historical, psychological and cultural. We haven’t changed our outlook from the machine age to the age of computers. We have now got so much used to the machines of the industrial age that we look at computers too as just another machine.

One may ask, “What is wrong if we look at a computer as an electronic machine?” There lies the biggest problem. The basic mistake we make is that we look at the computer too as a machine of the machine age, and expect similar results. We approach computers as we would approach any other machine.

We make some very basic mistakes when we look at the computer as a machine. All the disillusionment, confusion etc. is a result of two misconceptions or myths about computers.

The following are the myths arising out of our machine age mindset are the root cause of most of the confusion 1. Computer is not a superior machine. It is far inferior to the machine age machines 2. Computer is not a Versatile Machine. 3. Computer is not a machine. There is no comparison. It is just a fuel running another machine. The real “machine” (if we are forced to compare) is the software. The following three statements, I am sure, will initially add to the confusion. But as you read further, they will make more sense.

1. Computer is NOT a superior machine. If you compare it with the machines of the industrial age, it is far, far inferior. If we look at their respective roles in terms of the human functions that they automate, the machines are far superior to the computers.

2. Computer is not the versatile machine as we have labelled it. The real “machine” which gives us the desired results is the software or the application program running inside. The computer is only the fuel running the “software machine”. Software gives a versatile image to the computer.

3. To add further to the confusion, software is also not really a machine, as it is very different from the machine of the industrial age that we know. We shall soon see how. Software is a new paradigm, and addressing it with a machine-age mindset is the third big mistake.

The root cause of the confusion is that we did not notice the paradigm change. We made the first mistake when we looked at the computer as not only a machine, but as a far superior machine. Even if we were to correct our perception and see the software as the real machine, we would still be erring (as we will see). So there is a need to unlearn the industrial culture that is so deeply ingrained into our psyche and look at software as a new paradigm.

Let us look at each of these myths.

5. MYTH – COMPUTER IS A SUPERIOR MACHINE

5.1 MACHINE AUTOMATES OUR PHYSICAL TASKS, COMPUTER OUR MENTAL CHORES

We think that the computer is very versatile and far superior when compared to other machines of the machine age. Since we are immensely satisfied with the machines, we expect bigger miracles and more satisfaction from computers. This is where our biggest folly lies. With such high expectations, naturally, there is more frustration. The computer is far inferior when compared to a machine. This may sound hard to believe, but we shall soon see how this is true. We can appreciate that the machine-age machines are far superior to man and computers far inferior to man if we look at the respective functions of man that they substitute. Whereas the machine automates the physical activities of man and is far superior to man, the computer falls far short of man and his brain in the mental functions which it attempts to simulate.

The normal machine of the machine age attempts to automate operations which man would have to do by physical labour. Machines serve our physical needs – they reduce our physical strain. Machines automate physical functions of man. A car does something which our legs would be doing otherwise. A lathe does the work of our hands.

A machine does the physical task several times faster and better than humans can do it. It is much faster, untiring and far more accurate than man. The machines have a clear edge over humans and we are immensely satisfied with the results. Machines are clear winners.

5.2 COMPUTER IS FAR INFERIOR TO THE MACHINE-AGE MACHINE

On the other hand, a computer attempts to automate our mental activities and reduce our intellectual work. It tries to automate the functions of our brain but falls miserably short of the human brain. Although the Computer does the calculations more accurately and much faster than humans, it fails miserably when it comes to other mental processes like decision-making or logical thinking. The computer just cannot do mental activity.

When there was a change in the manual work procedure in an office, all you had to do was to tell a human being and the change was effected. A human brain can quickly comprehend the changes and change the methods. Whereas in an automated process, it cannot be changed very fast. The Software machine needs to be re-configured or sometimes altered, and then it has to be thoroughly tested. The entire process is quite tedious and slow.

These are some simple facts that we have not come to terms with. The computer can post and print a thousand ledger entries in no time which a man would take days – but where a human being could detect a common sense error, the computer fails miserably. This is simply intolerable and unacceptable to our “machine-age-conditioned” minds. . This is one area where a change in mindset is necessary.

6. MYTH – COMPUTER IS A VERSATILE MACHINE

6.1 SOFTWARE GIVES THE VERSATILITY TO COMPUTERS

It is quite natural for us to believe that computers deliver some real miraculous stuff for us. But this belief can be one big source of confusion about computers. It is not the computer that does the miracles for you, but the software that is running inside and is invisible to the human eye.

As we see the same computer performing different tasks, the computer has wrongly attained an image of being very versatile. We think it is a machine which can perform multiple tasks. What is versatile is not the computer but the software. Very often we expect instant results from the computers. But in most cases, the software has to be configured or developed to suit our requirements, tested and implemented. We do not know that the real “machine” or the software may still not be ready.

We are used to seeing one machine perform one task, as in a car which performs the motor task. Since we wrongly look at the computer as the machine performing our task, we get bewildered to see the same machine performing so many tasks. We see it keeping accounts, paying your employees the salary, replacing your astrologer to give you your forecast, designing a machine, controlling a factory, and so on. This leaves the common man awe-struck and confused. This gives rise to his unrealistic expectation from the computer. He feels the computer can do anything.

With such an image of the computer in our minds, we start expecting results instantly. We expect computers to perform miracles at the keystroke. We expect computers to react and perform instantaneously. But when it does not, we get frustrated. We mistake it to be flexible also and expect it to adapt to our ways, whereas we do not want to change our ways.

This confusion will be removed if we see that it is one application software performing one job just like a machine. Just as the same fuel somewhere drives a car, somewhere a train or ship and somewhere else it drives a turbine to generate electricity, the same computer can run different programs to give different results.

6.2 SOFTWARE IS THE ‘MACHINE’, NOT COMPUTER

As we will see later, it is highly inappropriate to compare the computer with a machine of the industrial age, or even to compare the two technologies. But if you are forced to compare, the software, and not computer, comes vaguely close to a machine as it is the software which delivers the desired output.

The real ‘machine’ therefore is the software and not the computer.

The computer is only the fuel that runs the software machine. Just as the fuel in the car gives the piston the strokes one after another, the computer only kicks off the execution of each instruction of a program one after another. Just as what happens after the fuel ignition in an engine – whether it moves a motor, a railway engine, or drives a generator – depends on the rest of the machinery, what happens after the kicking off of the execution of instructions depends on the set of instructions which make up the application software. Moreover, whether a machine is running on electricity, diesel or petrol makes little difference to its user, say the car driver or the passenger. Similarly, running the same program on one computer instead of another gives you exactly the same result, maybe a little faster or slower.

These are some simple and obvious facts that most of us may know, but we do not realize the subtleties of the impact that they have on our approach to computers. A considerable amount of confusion about computers and computerisation will be removed once we start looking at the software as the ‘machine’ instead of the computer.

6.3 MORE CONFUSION: SOFTWARE IS NOT A “MACHINE”

There is more reason to add to the confusion. We said that the computer was not the machine but software was the real “machine”. The software which we have so far called the “machine” is not really a machine, at least not the same machine of the industrial era that we are so used to. It is a different concept altogether.

We are so used to the machine age that we expect computers to behave exactly like any other machines. Man has over the centuries got used to the machine of the industrial age. This is the reason why children adapt to computers much more easily than elders – because their minds are not trained to think ‘mechanically’ (or in terms of a mechanical sequence of movements or actions). In the case of elders, the mechanisation culture has seeped into their very mind-set which they need to unlearn. Software machine is different from the Industrial age machine. Therefore, we need to look at software not as any other machine, but in its right perspective.

A look at the differences between the industrial-age machine and software will help us to correct our perception.

7. SOFTWARE A NEW PARADIGM – WHY SOFTWARE IS NOT REALLY A “MACHINE”

Software is not really a machine-age “machine” as there are three fundamental differences between the machine and software. It is a new paradigm:

i. Whereas in the case of a machine, the machine is visible and the fuel is hidden, in case of computer, the machine (software) is not visible, and the fuel (computer) is visible.

ii. Whereas the normal machine automates the Physical activities of man, Software machine automates the mental processes. While the physical activity is similar in all human beings, mental processes are not uniform.

iii. Unlike the industrial age machine, software “machine” is easily alterable and flexible.

7.1 SOFTWARE MACHINE IS NOT VISIBLE

Normally you can see the machine, whereas the fuel acts behind the scene and is not visible. You can actually see the machine perform, you can see the physical movements, and thereby easily understand its operation, limitation, etc. In case of the computer, you can see the “fuel” (computer) but not the machine. In any case you cannot see any physical operation of the machine. It all happens behind the scene and you only see the result – how it happens remains a suspense to all but a few. Hence the entire operation is very bewildering, confusing and mystifying.

In case of computers, as the ‘machine’ (software) is invisible but only the ‘fuel’ (computer) is visible, we think that the computer is the real “machine”.

7.2 SOFTWARE MACHINE AUTOMATES MENTAL PROCESS WHICH IS NOT UNIFORM

We saw that the machines serve your physical needs – they reduce your physical strain. Machines automate physical process, whereas computers automate the mental process.

A car does something which your legs would be doing otherwise. A lathe does the work of your hands. The computer attempts to automate the function of man’s brain.

While physical process is the same for all human beings, their mental processes vary from man to man. While physically we all do things in the same way, mentally we work in different ways. For instance, a car has the same basic human need to satisfy, that of moving from one place to another. In the absence of the car or any other transport machine, everyone would be doing it the same way – by walking across. The computer is used for various diverse tasks, and for each task, there are umpteen different ways that different people would do it manually. So whereas the same machine can serve all humans equally effectively, the software machine has problems satisfying all. To automate the mental processes, you need a machine which is flexible to accommodate different mental styles and mental make-up.

Let me take a crude example. Imagine that different people had different body structures and different ways to move – some walked, some hopped, some walked on hands and some even flew. Imagine what would be the plight of the car manufacturer. He would have to provide flexibility in the product to provide for the different styles and body structures of individuals. People would have to tailor the car to their requirements or amend their ways – maybe change sitting positions, use body parts in a different way – to make the maximum use of the car. Cars would have to be tailor-made and no standardisation would be possible. In spite of that people who could fly naturally would say that the car was of no use – it does not help them with all their tasks.

Now because there is a standard way there is no problem. Not so for the computer. The mental functions it automates are not performed in the same way by all.

Though standardisation of procedures is now becoming a reality, one of the major hurdles to computerisation is the difference in everyone’s ways of working.

7.3 SOFTWARE MACHINE IS EASILY ALTERABLE: FLEXIBILITY

We saw that the computer is used for various diverse tasks, and for each task, there are several different ways one could do it manually. Therefore, to satisfy the varying requirements, the fundamental prerequisite of the software machine is that it should be flexible. The software machine needs to be very easily modifiable to satisfy varying human mental processes.

The software machine indeed gives you the flexibility and modifiability to enable you to change its specifications so as to tailor to a particular requirement. Not only can you perform different functions using different software in the same computer, even within the same software, you can easily change the functioning by merely altering the code. Its behaviour can be easily changed by changing the set of instructions in an application program. This is very unlike the machine-age machines where the specifications depend on hard physical objects like plugs, carburettor, steel pipes, etc. which cannot be altered or modified so easily.

But this flexibility comes at a heavy cost. A change in one character, word or full-stop can completely change the behaviour or output of a program.

Since it is so easy to change its performance, unwanted changes could happen inadvertently. Also due to the flexibility, yet another outcome is that there can be too many variations or versions of software to do the same task. The cost we pay is that there are no standard methods and procedures and no standard software.

Flexibility and Modifiability, which is the biggest strength of the software is also the greatest weakness.

8. FLEXIBILITY OF SOFTWARE ‘MACHINE’ – THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD

8.1 MERITS OF FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility and Modifiability of software, which is its biggest strength is actually a double aged sword. It is also its greatest weakness.

We saw that the main hurdles to the acceptance of computers were the three basic misconceptions in our outlook towards computers. We also saw how the software machine is different from the other machines. Moreover, we saw that to automate the mental process we need a flexible machine like the software.

As computer has to satisfy varying mental processes, it cannot be as rigid as the machines. The prerequisite is that it should be flexible, versatile and modifiable. To satisfy varying needs and mental styles, man has been able to make an equally flexible device which is the software machine.

Its flexibility and easy modifiability is the greatest merit of the software machine.

However, this flexibility is also turns out to be its greatest demerit. Flexibility of the software machine has given birth to some major problems and complexities (discussed in next section) which are characteristics of the “software machine” only and are unheard of in case of other industrial age machines. We get frustrated with computers because we have never seen such problems in other machines of industrial era.

Let us discuss each of these problems.

8.2 DEMERITS OF FLEXIBILITY – SERIOUS LIMITATIONS OF THIS TECHNOLOGY
8.2.1 A Working Program can Misfire with a Small Change

The flexibility or modifiability of the software machine has actually become a problem.

A machine cannot be changed so easily as the specifications depend on hard physical objects like plugs, carburettor, steel pipes, etc. which cannot be altered or modified so easily. So we are used to seeing a machine perform the same task consistently for ages. Machine may stop working, but when it works, it is consistent. But in software machine, it can be changed so easily by changing just one character in the program. So it can suddenly start misbehaving. A program which is working perfectly today may stop working or start giving undesired results tomorrow with a small change in the program. So whereas a machine is consistent in its behaviour, software is not.

In the versatility and flexibility of the software machine, it has lost consistency as it can be changed easily.

Although this may sound very weird, let us imagine similar thing happening in a car. Imagine a car made of components whose shape can be easily changed. The characteristics and the behaviour of the cars would easily change with the change in shape of its components. You may suddenly find your car going left when you turned your steering right or hitting somewhere when you did nothing wrong. Each day you will see your car behaving differently, probably because someone changed the shape of one component without your knowledge. You will be frustrated, particularly having seen your friend’s car working perfectly. Sounds ridiculous! But that is exactly what is possible in the software machine. A small change in the program can easily disturb a program which was working to your satisfaction. This is more common in companies having their own developed software than those who use packaged software.

So when man sees other person’s computer performing but not his, he gets frustrated. Also the behaviour of the software keeps changing (because there are so many parameters and each one alterable so easily). So when he finds a computerised system behaving differently, he gets frustrated. He only sees it as the computer machine performing, what he does not see beyond that is that it is a different software machine sitting inside.

This leads not only to frustration but also mistrust.

The following is a very common situation in most offices: All is working fine and the computerised system is running fine. Suddenly on a fine morning, there is a big goof up by the computerised system. Everyone starts cursing the computer department. Such a situation may arise on two accounts. There was a minor change in requirements and the amendments carried out to improve the system created a bug in the system leading to the mishap. Another possible reason for this situation could be that the software team thought of an enhanced version, but the new version had a bug.

8.2.2 Lack of Discipline

Because the software is so easily alterable, the user of this tool needs to exercise strict discipline not to alter it unscrupulously. In our analogy of the modifiable car, a person who is more disciplined in his use of the car and does not make frequent arbitrary changes will find his car serving him well. A disciplined user of such a car will not only minimize changes on the fly, but will also test the car well every time he makes a change to ensure that the change has been done correctly, and that the car is behaving as desired. Another person not doing so will wonder what was wrong with his car and curse his car, when actually the fault did not lie with the car but with him, with his habit of frequent modifications.

8.2.3 Innumerable machines, No Standardisation

One outcome of flexibility and modifiability is that there are innumerable variations of the same software machine. There must be so many different types of software to keep a company’s accounts. Whereas in case of machines, there are a few brands, e.g. brands of cars, etc. There is standardisation. As there are fewer variations, we know their behaviour better.

In case of other machines (say a car), all machines are mainly alike, at most there are a few standard brands (or variations). But each of them performs exactly as per its specifications.

In case of the software machine, there are thousands, almost millions of machines. In Financial Accounting software itself there must be thousands of variations worldwide. Each Financial Accounting software package made on this earth is a different machine.

8.2.4 Lack of Trained Personnel (“mechanics”)

As there are few variations in the car, there are more trained people who are trained as car mechanics. The mechanics have full knowledge of the machine. Now car mechanics have only a few brands to learn. In our analogy of a modifiable car, you would not have trained mechanics to look into any car. There would be no car experts. Every mechanic would first have to learn the car insides before he would diagnose because he would be only having the general principles and no knowledge of the specific car he is repairing.

In case of software machines, there are no standard machines and hence less trained personnel on these machines. The software personnel have the basic skill but if they were to diagnose a program, they have to first understand it and then diagnose it. In case of software machine, there is only one fully trained person, the person who developed the machine (software). He too tends to forget the details over passage of time unless he has fully documented it. To make matters worse, there are various programming languages using which software is developed and not all software developers know all languages.

Solution to the problem appears to be the standardisation of procedures. When all offices will have the same way of keeping accounts, same formats, same rules, there will be standard few software packages, tested and proven. Betters skills would be available because people would have to learn the same package.

8.2.5 Poor Man-Machine Interface

This is the most critical problem caused by easy modifiability and lack of standard software. We shall therefore discuss it at length in the next chapter.

9. POOR MAN-MACHINE INTERFACE (MMI)

I am not using man machine interface in the usual sense that HMI (Human machine interface) is used. My definition is a bit different. I refer to Man-Machine interface to mean not the input output devices but the practices, habits, processes and methods which we humans need to adopt in order to use the technology effectively.

For example, to ensure proper usage of computers, you need to ensure that the data that you feed or input to the system is error free, accurate and in the specific format desired by the computer. You cannot expect correct output if your input is not right. This principle is also called Garbage in, garbage out. It is a way that defines the way you interact with computers/software. So when we refer to “Man-Machine Interface”, we refer to the rules and practices that you need to follow in order to effectively interact with and benefit from the computers.

The following example of a machine age machine (aircraft) and how we need to interface with it to use it will make it more clear.

9.1 UNDERSTANDING MMI WITH AN ANALOGY OF AIRCRAFT

I was once discussing this issue with a friend. I said that we fail to use computers effectively because we are quite ignorant about computers. We do not have enough computer awareness. His immediately response was, “Why do I need to know about computers in order to use it? You are asking for too much from the users. When I travel by aeroplane, I do not know how it works. I do not know its internals or its aerodynamic principles but I can still make full use of the aeroplane to the best of my advantage. I may not know how my car works. But that does not stop me from getting the most out of my car. Then why do I need to know about computers to effectively use it? Why is the computer so demanding?”

His argument sounds very logical and justified on the face of it. But there is a flaw.

The argument that we do not know anything about aeroplane or motorcar is not really true. We know far more about them than we know about computers. The funny thing is that we are not even aware of what we know about aeroplanes and cars and what we do not know about computers.

We may not know anything about the internals of a car or an aeroplane, but we certainly are very clear of what is expected of us to use them effectively. We at least know that the aeroplane cannot be used unless there is a long airstrip and a big open space to take off. We know that however far the aerodrome is, we have to take a taxi and go to the airport to avail of the services of the aircraft.

We know that the aircraft benefits us provided we take the pains to get up early, labour our way to the remote airport, go through the inconvenience of security checks, etc. We know what our responsibility is, we know that the aircraft is not going to pick us up from our residence, that we have to slog our way to the far off airport, we have to check in, etc.

We know that a car can pick us up from our house and take us to the airport, but it cannot take us from Bombay to Delhi in two hours. We know that a car cannot be used effectively unless we build good roads.

We have learnt to benefit from their merits and live with their shortcomings. We are not aware of the pains we take in order to take advantage.

We are so used to the machines now that we immediately know that if we have to go to a distant city, we must use a plane; if we want to go shopping in town, we must take the car. If one doesn’t own a car, he should look for the right bus route, should walk up to the bus stop, should stand at the right bus stop and wait till the bus comes however great be his urgency. Or he should walk up till the taxi stand if he can afford it. If we have to deliver a message to a friend a few blocks away, we would rather walk up to the friend than use the car. We are now so used to these machines that we know immediately when to use which machine. We take these decisions subconsciously in split seconds.

Would you call that knowing a lot about cars and aircrafts? Yes. Because in case of computers we do not even have this basic awareness.

In case of computers we do not even know our responsibility. If we were to draw an analogy with computers, what we do is expect the aircraft to reach us to our office a few kilometres away, or sometimes want the scooter to reach us to far away towns. What is worse, we are not ready to even go to the airport and expect the aeroplane to come to our house and pick us up. If it doesn’t, we curse the “aircraft”. This leads to frustration. We don’t realise that the “aircraft” is not designed for such services. If we expect the service of a car from an aeroplane, then something is wrong with our expectation. This exactly is the scenario with computers.

9.2 WHY IT IS DIFFICULT TO DESIGN MMI?

Let us look at another aspect of Man-machine interface. While it is easier to design MMI for the industrial machine, it is not so easy in case of the “information-age machine”. The human interface with machines (as defined by us in the previous section) has not changed much over the years for industrial machines. Moreover, machines have changed very little over the years – at least what they expect of human beings has changed marginally. As a result, man has learnt (although the hard way) what are his responsibilities and what is expected of him while using a machine, as we saw in case of an aircraft. He knows under which situation it is useful and under which it is not. He knows what to expect from the machine and what he needs to do to get the best out of a machine. Man has been able to, over time and slowly, get familiar and adapt to the change that was expected of him. Unlike the computer, the same machine of the industrial age always performs the same task. As a result, we know the behaviour of the machine very well. This is schematically illustrated in Fig 1. The machine in the diagram has not changed, man has slowly changed his behaviour and lifestyle over the years to develop a compatible or matching interface.

Fig 1 is an illustrative diagram to show how man has changed his lifestyle, thinking, behaviour, expectations and attitude to suit the machine. The figure shows two parts which have to fit together. In fig 1a, because of the odd shape of the two parts, they are unable to fit together. The part on the left represents the machine of machine era and part on the right represents man. In the three figures 1a to 1c, you will notice that the part on the left remains almost the same in shape. The part on the right in each figure has slowly changed to match the part on the left so that in fig 1c, the two parts match together. Whereas machine remained the same over the years, man has changed slowly to coexist with the machine. At least the user interface of the machine has changed very little over the years, whereas man has changed his style to fill the gaps and developed a compatible interface with the machine.

Fig. 1: Note that the representation of machine is unchanged in the three diagrams whereas that of man has changed. Machine interface is standard and has remained more or less the same over the years. Man has slowly changed his behaviour & lifestyle to develop a compatible or matching interface with computers.

In fact man has got so used to the machine that he does not even realise how he has adapted to it, how he has changed his habits and lifestyle to take advantage of the machine, as we saw in the previous example of our interface with the aircraft.

In case of computers, there is no standard machine and the user interface has also changed over the years (from centralised batch processing to distributed end user computing to web based computing). As a result man has not so far been able to develop a suitable interface (Fig. 2).

In figure 2, the part on the left in the three figures (which represents the machine of the information age (computer)) keeps changing constantly and hence the two parts do not match.

In case of computers, because of modifiability of software, the same software behaves differently from time to time. So man can’t easily get used to or familiar with its behaviour. He finds it difficult to get used to the software machine because there is no standard machine. As there is no standard machine, there can be no standard protocol. Each one has to design his own interface the hard way and therefore takes more time to utilize his machine.

As there is no standard ‘software machine’, there is no standard man machine interface. Man has not got familiar or has not adapted to this machine.

9.3 REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE OF POOR MMI

We saw the MMI in case of the industrial machine in our example of the aircraft above. Let us look at what we mean by MMI in case of information age “machine” with a real example of a business process automation scenario in offices. In case of computers, we have got a new tool but we have not changed our old methods. I will take a real life example to illustrate this. The case is of a very simple application like payroll, which most companies used to start their computerisation with.

One business unit of a company I once worked with was in oil exploration business. It had rig sites at remote locations where only mode of communication was wireless and radio telex.

The accounts clerk prepared the salary manually. He used to get data related to attendance and other employee details from sites directly on wireless. Most often, the attendance came piecemeal one by one from sites. Sometimes, having sent the data, the sites would send in amendments quite late. Sometimes they never sent the data or the data sent was incomplete or unclear, and the accounts clerk used to call up the sites on wireless to get data or clarifications.

In the manual system, this did not create major problems as, in the worst case, salaries of a few employees were held up due to non-receipt of data, or lack of clarity. Most of employees got their salaries on time.

When I joined them, the system had just been computerised. Now accounts clerk gave the data to the computer operator (who incidentally was in IT department. Distributed end user computing was the buzzword then, so the computer had been shifted to the user department, but so had been the computer operator! ). In the new set up, the same old practices continued: data used to come piecemeal, there were last moment corrections by sites, some data was not available (particularly for the new recruits) for which the accounts clerk called up the sites on wireless. Salary processing essentially being a batch process, used to be run and re-run several times due to last minute changes. In a manual system it was easy to correct individual cases where corrections came in, whereas in the computerised system, all salaries had to be processed together. So even if one employee’s data was not available, everybody’s salary was stuck. Even if one employee’s particulars were changed, the salary had to be reprocessed. As a result, all employees started getting salaries late. There was a big hue and cry. There were complaints from sites that they were not getting their salaries on time. Very senior people spent time meeting and trying to analyse the cause for the delays. All that only resulted in the cut-off date for attendance getting advanced to 20th of the month! Still complaints from sites did not stop.

Nobody knew who was to blame – the sites, the accounts department or IT department. Naturally as most often happens, in such a situation, the blame fell on IT and their computerised system. Everything was fine before the computerised system, so naturally the system was the culprit.

I could easily see that this was a case of old methods being used with new tools. I will cut a long story short and describe here how the methods, procedures, responsibilities and discipline were changed to adapt to the new system. All I did was redesigned manual processes and fixed responsibilities/ target dates for different tasks.

1. Personnel department was made responsible for providing and ensuring the accuracy of all attendance data and employee additions/changes. They would give a signed paper.

2. Personnel department was instructed to give the monthly data by a cut-off date. It was made clear to them and all site employees that any changes in data coming after the cut-off date will be incorporated in the next month.

3. Accounts department was made responsible for providing and ensuring the accuracy of all financial data like loans and advances/recoveries.

4. As a part of the IT department, I took full responsibility of the accuracy of computer programs – that given the correct inputs, the programs would process the payroll correctly.

Immediate effect was that salary preparation which was earlier taking more than 10 days was now taking 3 days, with scope for further improvement. No longer did the accounts clerk have to make last minute calls on the wireless, no longer did sites insist on last minute changes.

This is a simple example where the system was made successful not by changing the system, but by changing the Man-Machine Interface (MMI). I introduced a discipline of work which had to be strictly followed by the assignees of the work.

Most ERPs fail not because of technical issues, not because the product is unsuitable but because an appropriate MMI is not put in place. “Steering a Failed Peoplesoft ERP Implementation back on Track” [Ref.7] is another real life story of why an ERP failed and how it was revived by simply designing and introducing a disciplined MMI.

9.4 NEED TO REDESIGN MMI FOR INFORMATION AGE

Man refuses to change his methods and practices to effectively use the computer. He has not been able to evolve the right protocol to use a computer. He does not know what his obligations are.

It is possible to design software and write a book on how to use the software. But no software developer designs the manual interface or writes about it. It is not possible because it differs from organisation to organisation. So each organisation has to design its own manual interface and reinvent the wheel.

It is not uncommon to see computerised systems made which look excellent on the screen, perform all functions but fail miserably on implementation. Most often the reason is that the manual system interfacing with the computerised system was not designed or suitably amended. Same old methods were used on the computerised system, and the same discipline continued as was there in manual system.

In contrast, look at the MMI we have designed for the industrial machines. We have taken pains to use technology of the industrial age. We built roads to use cars, air-strip and airports for aircrafts, long rail lines for railways, etc. We built tall transmission towers and insulated wiring to use electricity. Electricity can be very useful, but at the same time it can also kill. When this technology was introduced I am sure there must have been a great deal of resistance to use it. But now we do not complain. We make the safety provisions and use it. There are mishaps when lives are lost. We no more blame the technology for such mishaps. But for software implementation we do nothing. We do not want to do anything nor do we want to change our ways to use the technology of information age. We do not know our responsibility. We only blame the technology if it does not yield results.

Designing MMI for industrial machines is much simpler and obvious because everything is physically visible, the moving parts in a machine are visible. The “machine” of the information age is not visible and has no moving parts, hence the confusion.

10. DEMANDS OF THE NEW SOFTWARE PARADIGM

In the Payroll example which we discussed in the previous section, it will be interesting to analyse what the users of Information Technology gave in order to get the benefits which they got from successful computerisation. What they gave was their willingness to change their expectations and their thinking. They were ready to postpone the effect of last minute changes to next month. They changed their behaviour and style of working. They were willing to own responsibility and be accountable. They changed their attitude to work and brought in more discipline – no longer was there a casual way of giving data. They realised that giving accurate and timely data was most important.

Apart from these, this technology demands something more from the user for effective use. Apart from changes in behaviour, attitudes, expectations, thinking, etc., there are certain responsibilities to be shouldered when the computerised application software is developed, customized and implemented.

In a computerised system, you would need to think in advance what you want, give details specifications so that there are minimum changes after programming or customisation. In a manual operation, you would start and keep instructing your clerks to change methods wherever you notice a flaw. They themselves are also capable of making improvements in their own methods.

As testing is difficult and modification is easy, one small change in the program renders the product untested and needs re-testing because it is not very easy to see what will be the effect of the change on the rest of the program. By avoiding changes after programming you would avoid risk of malfunctioning caused by tampering a tested program.

You would need to give a detailed set of instructions, called program, absolutely error free in all respects. The instructions should have correct syntax and should have the right order so as to give the desired output until the last dot.

Once the system is in use, you need to give the data together and timely, as we saw in our example of payroll system. You need to change the working environment and the style. You need to reallocate duties and fix responsibilities. Whereas initially the emphasis was on the accuracy of posting, calculating, now the emphasis has to be on the accuracy of coding, timeliness of input data and daily checking the accuracy based on some control checks. Whereas manually you kept on posting and left the checking work to the end of the year, here you need to check the accuracy daily to ensure no work at year-end.

Computers demand that you change your working style, your thinking. In short, you need to change your ‘Industrial culture’ to ‘Information culture’. Is this asking for too much? Common perception is that computer technology asks for too much from its users. But do we realise that even other technology which we have put to effective use asks for too much and we have given it – for instance, airstrips for aircraft, roads for cars, rail lines for railway, tall transmission towers and fail-safe insulation for electricity, etc. It is only when we do so much that this technology helps us, not otherwise.

11. CONCLUSION

The problem of acceptance of computers is evolutionary. Man will evolve out of it. The evolution can be faster, the faster we correct our outlook.

We need to look at computers in the right perspective. We have to give up old methods and approach of dealing with machines and adopt new ones. We must recognize computer as an entity different from a machine, and devise altogether new and fresh methods of dealing with its introduction in our lives. In other words we have to evolve an entirely new approach towards computers, probably by first unlearning what we learnt in the industrial age.

Our encounters with computers will be far less frustrating if we appreciate the following:

Software is the machine and not the computer.

Do not expect the same result as a normal machine. Keep in mind that the software is not the same kind of machine that we know of and are so familiar with. Do not expect it to be similar to other machines. Expectation leads to frustration.

Acknowledge that computer and software are far inferior to humans, whereas the machines outperform the humans in the physical activity. Once we are clear of this fact, we will stop expecting the moon.

Acknowledge that man has changed his life style to take maximum advantage of the machines. He has got adjusted or adopted. Ask yourself what you need to do to make the maximum of the Computer technology.

Most important of all, acknowledge that humanity and the world is in a state of flux. It is in the process of change and a change is always unsettling. Soon standards will emerge or evolve and water will settle. The world is going through the turmoil of change from Industrial age to Information age. The Industrial revolution had its own upheavals, doubts, and problems. We are now going through the same phase of scepticism, criticism, and doubts with respect to the Information Age. Soon we will know what to give in order to get the most of computers. Soon we will stop complaining about giving what we have to give, as the benefits of what you get will be obvious – as clear as the benefits of electricity.

REFERENCES:

1. Prem Kamble, “What Top Executives Need To Know About Computers” https://premkamble.com/probfull/
2. Prem Kamble, “Managers’ Guide to Evolve from Machine Age to Information Age” https://premkamble.com/it2/
3. Prem Kamble, “Behavioral IT®: Managers Don’t Need IT Skills, They Need ‘Behavioral IT’ Skills” – https://premkamble.com/behavit
4. Prem Kamble, Seminar/Training on Behavioral IT – https://premkamble.com/seminarbehavit
5. Prem Kamble, CEO as a Leader of Technology Driven Change https://premkamble.com/ceoleadschange/
6. Prem Kamble, HR! Discover Your New Role of the IT Era, https://premkamble.com/hrnewrole/
7. Prem Kamble, “Steering a Failed PeopleSoft ERP Implementation back on Track”: A real life story of why an ERP failed and how it was revived by simply designing and introducing a disciplined MMI, https://premkamble.com/erprestore.
8. Prem Kamble, “Behavioral IT® – A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Address the IT Woes of Businesses & Top Professionals in an IT-Driven World”, https://premkamble.com/behavit2
9. 4 Valuable Lessons From Major ERP Fails (May 4th, 2018) – https://www.mbtmag.com/erp/article/13228432/4-valuable-lessons-from-major-erp-fails

Also See:

Behavioral IT® Model of Successful IT Implementations https://premkamble.com/behavit
Unique Behavioral IT Seminar for Top Managers   https://premkamble.com/seminarbehavit
More Seminars for CEOs, HoDs and Senior Managers by Prem Kamble   https://premkamble.com/seminarlist.htm
Behavioral IT Course for MBA Students – The first of its Kind in the World!   https://premkamble.com/behavitcourse.htm
Seminars for CIOs and IT Managers   https://premkamble.com/seminarlist.htm
Articles and Real Life Case Stories by Prem Kamble  https://premkamble.com/blog

Improving Employability Skills among Engineering Students

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Summary
I was given ready content from a US university and asked to conduct Employability Training to Engg. College students. As an industry professional, I found the content too theoretical and not effective. I created my own content and found an effective & fun way of improving employability. Instead of cosmetic improvements in presentation style, personality development, language skills,etc., I found ways to make them internally and technically stronger, so that they succeed not only in their first interview after college, but through their entire career.

Introduction

This article is about improving employability skills among youth, particularly among engineering students. It focusses on the skills required by industry, particularly the IT industry, and ways and means to develop those required skills among the students to make them more employable. It tries to bridge the gap between industry and academic institutions. This article will benefit students from any stream who wish to make a career in IT. With the IT boom, quite a few students from all engineering streams chose a career in IT. However, the techniques are also relevant to all technical streams of engineering.

Most Employability Trainings for college students focus on cosmetic improvements in presentation style, personality development, language skills, etc.

As a Senior IT professional who has over 30 years of industry experience, mostly as CIO, the author feels that these cosmetic attributes are less significant for candidates from technical streams like engineering, particularly for IT function. What is required and appeals the most to the interviewer is not his personality, not even his/her technical knowledge. Having worked with and trained several youngsters on the job, the author can vouch that the industry needs different skills.

This article presents a much better, interesting and effective way to make IT and other engineering students, more employable. The method described here not only makes them more employable for their first employment after college, but it also helps them to remain employable, skilled and relevant throughout their career.

This article tries to identify those skills and discuss why they are important. More significantly, the article not only presents a strategy to develop those skills in students by catching them young but also shows how the strategy was practically implemented to ensure that the students benefitted from the strategy.

What are the Required Skills and Why?

An Understanding of the IT Industry & the Skill Supply Scenario

To build the right employability skills of the students, we need to identify what are the most critical skills that the industry needs and understand why they are important. These requirements are driven by some typical characteristics of IT technology and the IT industry as follows:

  • Technology, particularly IT, is continuously evolving, improving, innovating and creating redundancy.
  • The field is so vast and changing, that you can never master everything. You need experts in focused areas, calling for a team effort.
  • What one learns in college becomes redundant soon enough. An IT professional needs to continuously update and upgrade skills.

Are the academic institutes doing enough to meet the industry demand? Firstly, there is a gap between the skills required and what colleges teach. In India, there is very little collaboration between academics and industry. Secondly, even if they were to teach the content relevant today, the technology itself changes so fast that it becomes redundant. So the students need to be equipped with skills to cope with the ever-changing industry requirement.

Do you need Extra Intelligent People?

I was once consulting for a software company where the CEO was keen to tone up his recruitment process to be able to recruit the best candidates for software development. According to him, the best candidates were those with extremely sharp brains, who could crack puzzles instantly, who believed that they are intelligent and the best. He asked me if there is a test to identify such people.

I asked him if you truly need extra intelligent guys for the IT industry. I wouldn’t even care to test such skills.

The Required Skills

If not the sharpest and most intelligent brains, what kind of people and what skills does the industry need?

More than testing the knowledge and skills of the people I interview, I seek for the right attitude – an attitude of learning, problem-solving, exploring, experimenting and an urge to learn by trial-and-error. In the field of information technology, there is so much to learn that you can never know all. You may need to dig, explore, experiment, read and re-read manuals to find a solution. So it is not the completeness of knowledge that is required, but the analytical ability, inquisitiveness, eagerness and ability to explore and learn.

When I interview a candidate, I give a pen and paper and ask him/her to describe in details any project that s/he has done and is comfortable with, starting from the objective, problem definition, the solution and the actual logic of the solution. The way s/he explains and argues out helps me check his/her involvement in and mastery over the work s/he has done, and his/her ability to communicate and argue with clarity. Command over language is less important for me than the ability to discuss alternatives, openness to suggestions and to explore alternatives. A person who is ready to research is a person who can look at alternative solutions and is not “fixed” to only one solution.

Even among those already working with me, I don’t expect people to ‘know’, but be willing to explore. During problem-solving, when I ask youngsters if there is a technology solution, there are some who give an instant response in ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and some who say that they need time to explore.

Those who give instant reply often do so thinking that they will cut a sorry figure if they say, “I don’t know”. They fear that it may give an impression of their lack of knowledge.

I feel happier if s/he says, “I don’t know, I need to go back and research before giving a reply”. And s/he may have to look up manuals, user groups, web articles, etc.

HUMILITY to say “I don’t know, I need to look up and explore” is another important quality required in software professionals. In IT, being able to dig, research and find a solution is more important than knowing the solution. The knowledge out there is so vast that you need to be a “seeker” and not a “know-all’. That is why the sharp people who think that they are the best can be serious failures. They may not have the humility to think that they may not know, and the vast field of IT can completely floor their ego.

S/he who gives the right solutions may not always be the one who knows the best solution, but the one who has the attitude to find the right solution.

It is possible to develop these skills in extremely ordinary people. I have been able to get extraordinary results from ordinary people [Ref4:Extraordinary Results…].

Strategy to Cultivate the Required Skills?

Now the most important question – how to develop these skills which will not only make them employable first time, but will help them to remain employable and ensure their place in their organization.

 

I myself got complete clarity on this recently when I was asked by a US-based firm to conduct employability training in colleges in India. I was asked to deliver training to students at a very short notice. When I said I needed time to understand requirements and prepare, as I had mainly trained corporate managers and not many college students. I was told that there is no need to prepare as they had ready content with PowerPoint slides prepared by a reputed US university. All I had to do was pick the content and deliver lectures.

I was not so happy with the US university’s content. I found it too theoretical and not so relevant to the engineering students. Something told me that IT folks needed something different. I was forced to brainstorm and create my own content for the training.

I sat for two nights to brood over the topic. It was during this period of contemplation and examination that I had my ‘eureka’ moment. I had found a different method far from the usual window dressing, and it was a fun method too! The method focused on making them internally and technically strong so that they impress the interviewer by their brilliance rather than by their personality.

This article is based on content and processes that I created then, and later improved upon as I delivered the lectures. Although it is best suited for IT stream, the same can apply to other engineering streams too [Ref5:Employability Training].

My General Content

I prepared some content for my training which is discussed in this section. But the real crux was not in this content, but my training strategy which is discussed in the next section. It is easier to build skills, but changing attitudes requires a strategy.

In my content, I explained the different specializations and avenues available to both IT and non-IT students. I covered the top technologies in demand in the market. I also explained the real skills and character traits required by the industry as discussed above.

There are always some students who feel they made a mistake in their choice – they realize that they chose the Engineering/IT field out of pressure from their parents or peers against their choice. It is important to address the dilemma of such students too. They are at a point of no return – they are not in a position to change their stream and waste 2-3 years of their life.

My content had ways to help them find alternative paths, avenues and opportunities available for such students within the IT industry. For instance, if they did not find technology interesting, they could choose customer-facing jobs like customer support. I had a project manager who was not so good at technology. The company was thinking of retrenching him before he got into my team. I shifted him to customer support and he turned out to be excellent in customer relations.

“Just-Do-IT” – A Strategy of “Bootstrap Learning”

The key differentiator about my training was not the content described above, but the learning strategy, which is described in this section. I call it “Just-Do-IT” strategy using a technique which I call “Bootstrap Learning”. This strategy makes them excel throughout their career, not through cosmetic changes but by developing internal strengths.

So what is the Just-Do-IT Strategy?

The strategy is based on my following lessons learnt over 30 years in IT profession:

  1. In the field of IT, you learn more by doing than by reading.
  2. Anybody can learn by just doing it. All you need is interest and dedication.
  3. When you have learnt it yourself the hard way and actually completed projects, your confidence and skill will be evident in interviews, irrespective of whether you have command over language or not.

Just-Do-IT strategy is to take up simple and small projects to start with and simply start building solutions on your own as a hobby. You could start as early in your student life, but not later than, say, the second year of engineering. The technology itself is so interesting that once you start, there is no stopping, you will be drawn to it like a magnet.

It is best if you can take up real-life problems and try solutions. Now it is so common to develop mobile apps for real-life problems. If you cannot think of a real-life problem, then take up imaginary or test cases and develop applications to solve problems. Simply reading about technology does not help.

There are two reasons to just do it.

Firstly, almost all tools to start experimenting are available free of cost on the net. All you need is a laptop, or a tab or smartphone, (which is not uncommon with students these days). Moreover, there is so much content freely available on the web to help you learn – manuals, references, tutorials, examples of code, ready downloadable code which you can use to build solutions. These days you can start building mobile applications for real-life problems.

Secondly, a nice thing about IT technology is that the equipment does not break down or get damaged if you do trial-and-error, because you would be experimenting with the software and not the hardware. At worst, you may get wrong results, or the computer may go into a loop and hang, but it never gets damaged by your experiments with software. Hence I encouraged students to experiment to heart’s content without fear.

The key to “Just-Do-IT” is to do as much hands-on and self-learning as possible. You may take the help of friends and online support-groups, but just do it. It becomes a fun way of learning.

I have trained several fresh graduate trainees very effectively by on-the-job-training, by straightaway getting them started on simple do-it-yourself projects [Ref1:From Trainee to..]

Whenever I had to train people on new technologies, more than just reading or classroom training, I asked them to work on a project, which could be a real-life problem or a test case. [Ref2:From Bench to…] has a real story of how employees who were “sitting on the bench” (a term used for techies who were unassigned and idling) were turned into an expert group on a new forthcoming technology.

We saw what “Just-Do-IT” strategy is. But what is Bootstrap learning strategy?

“Bootstrap Learning” is a term I have coined for a learning methodology where you start with an extremely simple project to solve a very simple problem and slowly add complexities to your projects (like computer operating system bootstraps to load the bare minimum code first and then starts loading more complex code into memory). I made an expert out of a trainee in a very complex technology called Computer Telephony Interface (CTI) by asking him to start with a very simple application for a call-centre. Call centres use advanced phones with login facility and plenty of buttons with advanced features. I asked for a simple software to login into a phone, make a call and close a call – that’s all – no other advanced features. (The success story is available at [Ref1:From Trainee to..]. There is another success story of self-learning using real-life projects at [Ref 2: From Bench to…2]).

Bootstrap Learning is an effective method to learn in a phased manner, which will eventually turn out to be much faster than other methods.

This has another advantage. It helps students get familiarity with different areas of IT. They can try different technologies and decide which one truly interests them. They can overcome the dilemma of choosing between such vast options of available technologies/skills by identifying their passion, strengths/weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

Implementing the Strategy

I knew that giving them a pep-talk about the advantages of self-learning and ‘Just-Do-IT’ strategy wouldn’t help to get them to actually do it. So the question was how do I push them to really doing it and implementing the strategy?

To initiate them into doing it, I employed two techniques. One, I gave them group projects related to different to each group and asked them to search the net to find out what are the free resources available, references, tutorials, tools, development tools, etc. They had to identify a project title and present their findings to the class. This provided an opportunity to plunge into the web and start exploring available tools.

Secondly, and most importantly, I asked some students to come forward to present and demonstrate any technology project they had done outside the academic curriculum out of interest as a hobby.

I asked them to take the stage and make a full presentation stating the objectives of their project (very important), the problem description, the solution and detailed demo with explanation of their solution. Some students had done wonderful work out of interest and as a hobby, all by themselves without any help form college.

These presentations had triple benefits.

Firstly, the students could build confidence, conversation skill, presentation skills and public speaking skills through their presentations. They learnt how to explain their projects in simple language and to answer queries.

Secondly, they got new ideas during discussions.

Third, it encouraged the rest of the students to overcome their self-doubts and to just do it. Seeing their friends, who were not extra brilliant, doing projects, they got the confidence to say “I CAN do it too”. They also got ideas for their own projects.

I asked students to take their college projects too very seriously and never miss an opportunity to “do-it-yourself”. In group projects, there can be a tendency to let your partners do it while you relax. They must get involved. I discouraged them from buying ready projects available in the market.

I feel sure that students who have done such ‘hands-on’ projects by self-learning would shine out in their interviews and would impress the interviewers.

The Benefits

A person who has started on practical problem-solving with self-learning will have high clarity. Such clarity will automatically help him/her to answer questions very confidently in interviews. And the confidence will impress any interviewer. A company would be too willing to hire a person who can be an instant starter, as the company would not need to wait to train him/her. The interviewer also gets the confidence that the person will learn new technologies in future easily.

As already mentioned, the biggest benefit for the candidates is that it will not only help them get the first job, it will help them throughout their career to adapt to new technologies and remain relevant.

Related Readings:

From Trainee to Expert
From Bench to Centre of Excellence
Success Story of Hobbyist Programmer
Extraordinary Results from Ordinary People
Employability Training for IT/Engineering Students
We Have no Control on our Actions
All Articles by Prem Kamble

 

  Copyright 2020 Prem Kamble

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IT Euphoria – A Reality or Delusion?

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Turmoil of Information Revolution?

It may not be apparent, but we are right now going through the turmoil of the Information Revolution, just as we went through the turmoil of the industrial revolution. In this post I have not only tried to bring you face to face with this turmoil, but also explored ways to avoid the turmoil.

Almost hundred years of Industrial Revolution (between years 1740 to 1840 approx) dramatically changed the social structure of the world. Industrial revolution resulted in overcrowding of the cities and breakage of the old form of family. Though some were optimistic about the new means of production and increased wealth, there were serious concerns that the social and environmental effects of industrialization might prove disastrous. The century was characterized by hot debates, skepticism, protests and violence due to poverty, disease, environmental issues and moral issues arising out of the change. This is called the Turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. Many of us, particularly among the younger generation are not even aware of the 100 years of turmoil and upheaval that the world went through.

The people who went through the turmoil were unaware that they were going through the turmoil. It is only when the dust settled that the world realized what had happened. Similarly, today we are unaware of the turmoil of the information revolution. On the contrary, there is an overall euphoria about IT, a lot of excitement and expectation from IT. But this euphoria is a delusion or a mirage. Take a closer look in corporates trying to introduce technology, you will find that the picture is not so rosy. There is stress, upheavals, resistance and organizational politics because of IT.

As per research, there are 70-80% failures in ERP implementations, in spite of the fact that the best proven ERP products are being implemented by the best world renowned consultants. I believe IT itself is disruptive in a sense – implementing even the simplest software solution disrupts or unsettles people and people resist change. And I can say this having worked on IT in businesses for over 30 years in global markets, including so called advanced countries. I think it is a problem of mindset change, which takes generations.

Where is the Turmoil?

Not all tend to believe when I talk of a turmoil. I was once talking to a class of students at a leading Management Institute and one young student said “Where is the resistance and turmoil that you are talking of? We see technologies getting adopted so easily. The example he gave was of adoption of facebook, twitter (and social media in general) by untrained common people. So, he said, where is the problem of lack of training and where is the resistance to change that I was talking of?

I think this is the root cause of the myth or delusion – the fact that IT appears to be so easily accepted by the younger generations gives us a false impression that everything is hunky dory in IT. The fact that youngsters adapt so easily to the technology gadgets, powerpoint, facebook, etc., they are likely to fall into a trap of believing that they are IT savvy. The reality in the corporate world is different. Being extremely proficient with using latest smart phones and laptops for PowerPoint presentations or MS Word is certainly not what it takes to be an IT savvy manager. There is a lot more for a manager to know – not only about technology, but also knowing how to pull the right strings to successfully manage technology within his or her department. The manager needs to successfully manage the people and their behaviour under IT-Driven Change.

Is IT Euphoria a Myth?

Is IT Euphoria a myth? If it is, what is the cause of the myth?

We are comparing apples to oranges when it comes to IT adoption in businesses and IT adoption with respect to social media. The scenario is different when it comes to implementing business process automation involving several people and departments. Whenever multiple teams are involved, there is need for management of change. And most IT projects in business which involve business process automation involve multiple teams with conflicting objectives.

Facebook implementation and ERP implementations in companies are two very different things.

Difference Between Adoption of Social Media and IT Adoption in Businesses

Let us look at the difference between the issues of IT adoption in social media and businesses and why IT adoption is such a big issues in businesses.

  1. Facebook users are voluntary. There is no compulsion. So people join at their own will, only people who are interested join and they too participate as and when they want, not compulsorily on a regular basis. In companies, those who have to use it have no choice not to use it and they have to use it compulsorily for all transactions. They have to use it for transacting business. Facebook will be deemed to be successful even if 1% of the possible users use it, whereas an ERP in a company cannot succeed unless 100% of its expected users use it. If even one invoice, which is supposed to be raised using the ERP is raised manually or outside the ERP system, the ERP system is rendered inaccurate and unreliable which can lead to complete failure.
  2. Use of Facebook does not involve a process and is not dependent on others. An individual does an atomic activity like posting a comment or uploading a photo, etc. which is an independent activity not dependent on any one else’s activities. Whereas in ERP, it is a team activity. Other people are affected by your accuracy and timeliness of usage. For instance if a new employee record is not added accurately and timely in an ERP, the employee may not be able to mark the attendance, the transport department may not be able to provide transport to the employee and so on. The business processes are long and distributed over several people. When there are interdependent teams involved in implementation, there are management problems and challenges.
  3. There is more need of managing change, regulating and guiding. There are more managerial and organizational issues in ERP implementation.
  4. ERPs are not so user friendly systems like web based applications meant for masses. ERPs were not designed to be so user friendly as they were not designed for masses.
  5. There is no fear of loss of job, power in case of facebook. In businesses, the sword of loss of job or loss of control always hangs on their necks, rightly or wrongly. This results in organizational politics, inherent resistance and stress.
  6. Facebook does not need master data. ERP needs a huge, accurate master data to be first created which is an extra burden and extremely painful activity. Often errors in data misleads people into believing that the system is misbehaving and the blame game starts.

In a nutshell, when people are involved in a collaborative, interdependent process, there is bound to be disruption, resistance and stress. It is not so easy as using facebook or twitter.

How to Avoid the Turmoil? Introducing Behavioral IT® !

Managers need to equip themselves to overcome this turmoil of the Information Revolution. There is a major confusion as to what managers should know or learn about technology. I believe that managers need not know IT, they need to know Behavioral IT®. Behavioural IT is a new skill which I have defined which encompasses just that what Managers need to know to manage IT-Driven Change and to succeed in using IT without having to know the technicalities of IT. Google on “Behavioral IT” to know more about Behavioral IT skill, which can help managers and their companies to reduce the turmoil of Information revolution.

Change Management Needs a Change

The only thing that is constant in this world, they say, is Change. And the maximum impact of change is on humans. Or perhaps humans are the slowest in adapting to change (remember “Who Moved my Cheese”?). The funny part of Change Management is that the concepts of Change Management themselves need to change. True to our reputation as slow adapters of change, we have resisted change in the concepts of Change management too.

Why does change management need to change? We can find the answer if we ask ourselves a simple question – What is one single factor which is the largest contributor to change? No prizes for guessing – the most powerful change agent today is technology – particularly, Information Technology (IT). IT is not only the biggest driver of change, IT itself is changing at the fastest pace. As a result, change management now has a new meaning and connotation – it is mainly IT Driven Change Management.

Change Today is mainly IT-Driven Change

So our principles of change management need to change with IT taking the driver’s seat. Though the basic principle is still the human psychology of change, managing IT driven change needs further focus on the intricacies of IT related change. To begin with, special attention is required to understand what has fundamentally changed, what have people understood (or rather misunderstood) of this change, what are their frustrations and fears with respect to technology? You have to be an active part of the IT driven change to understand the impact of it on people and how people cope with it. On the face of it, it all sounds the same, but there are strategic and subtle differences in the way you manage IT Driven change.

This opens up a completely new specialized field for HR Consulting –IT Driven Change Management. This also provides a new IT-Age role for HR departments the world over.

Managing IT-Driven Change

I have effectively used HR in bringing about IT driven change in my companies. In fact in one of my previous assignments, I devised along with a HR professional (who had an inclination for training and development) a workshop to prepare our company for a major IT implementation. The workshop was designed to help the participants in mentally preparing them for what was to come, removing their major misconceptions and setting right their expectations. No wonder, the implementation was a resounding success with total and close co-operation between the IT department and the user department. In fact the two worked so much hand in hand along with full support of the top management, which was also a part of the workshop, that there was no chance of a failure. For devising this workshop, I remember I had several detailed discussions with the HR person to apprise him of the real fears, misconceptions and paradigms based on my experience of having implemented several IT implementation projects.

I will be happy to work with HR folks, IT folks or senior management folks who would be interested in such a change management workshop. You may write to me by clicking here

There is one more reason why this IT driven change needs a special approach different from the one followed so far. This change is more hidden. Unlike say in the industrial revolution where one could see the agents of change in physical form which (to some extent though not fully) made it easier to comprehend change. This IT driven change happens due to software which is not physical, not visible, and very difficult to comprehend. It is much more confusing to the people. Hence it is important to understand the real impact of this vague animal called software on the human psyche and mentality to be an effective change manager.

We are all Experiencing the Turmoil of Information Revolution

              Image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/blvesboy/ / CC BY-ND 2.0

Turmoil of the Industrial Revolution
We are all familiar with the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution. The problems were caused by the change brought about by machines in the lifestyle, work culture, organization structures at work, the structure of family, the change in ethics and values. The change in values created heart burn and frustration – relationships which were more at personal levels became more formal. It took generations for man to come to terms with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution.
Similarly, currently we are all going through the pain and turmoil of the Information Revolution.

Turmoil of the Information Revolution?

“Turmoil of the Information revolution?”, you may ask. “What turmoil? Computers are proliferating in business organizations and entering every walk of our life. The computerization scenario looks very euphoric. So where is the turmoil?”

Just as man did not notice the turbulence caused by the industrial revolution till it was all over, we today are not aware of the turmoil we are going through. If we look more closely into what is happening in most of the companies trying to automate processes using computers, it will be evident that deep inside, this technology is still foreign to us. Man is still not at ease with this device. He is perplexed, foxed, fidgety and sometimes angry when dealing with this creature.

Implementation of computerized systems, particularly business application systems, is a major problem in most countries, including advanced economies. Most of the computerization projects fail because of poor implementation. More often, it is due to people issues and not technical issues. It is due to the way people react to computerization and how they understand or misunderstand computers. The gap between computer professionals and computer users and between computer professionals and the company top management is evident. And so is the turmoil of the information revolution.

Need to Address the Turmoil

I believe that the world incurs colossal loss due to this turmoil on account of failed or delayed implementations. There is loss of people’s productivity due to conflicts and stress.

There is a need to address this issue. In most IT forums and meets, surprisingly a lot is talked about computer technology, and about bits and bytes. Rarely do we talk of the implementation issues and methods which will make computers acceptable to people. The turmoil of the information revolution should not be pushed under the carpet but discussed threadbare and openly.

Why don’t computers find a smooth entry into the minds and lives of human beings?
What is the root cause of this confusion?

The chaotic situation is not country-specific; it is related to the human species as a whole. It is a problem of the evolution of human psychology from the era of industrial revolution to the information age.

I have analyzed and found few fundamental problems in man’s perception of computers and his understanding of computers, due to which however hard he tries to be at ease with them, he finds himself jittery and confused. What is required is an eye-opener. I define an eye opener as something which brings to fore a simple fact which always existed but was never noticed. We need to open our eyes to some common myths and misconceptions about computers and this technology. I shall discuss these in the forthcoming posts. Also discussed in my blog at https://premkamble.com/blog,  https://premkamble.com/probnew.htm

Need for IT Awareness amongst CEOs and Senior Professionals


In the long industrial history of mankind, functions like Finance, HR, production and Marketing always existed. IT function is new which has come into existence not in the industrial age but the information age. No wonder, IT is an area where there is maximum ignorance amongst the top management. Man will evolve to understand this new function as the dust of the information revolution settles.

My readers may think I am being arrogant – posing as if IT folks know everything and others don’t know anything. That is not my intention. Yes I do not know the finer points about other functions like Finance, HR, Production, Marketing. CEOs and senior managers too may be equally ignorant of all other functions – you may argue. So why am I complaining about IT alone?

There is a difference. The senior management may not know about finance, HR, Production, marketing, etc. But the good thing is that they know that they do not know about these fields. They also know what they do not know about them. Further, they know that there are other experts who know more than what they themselves do and are therefore willing to use the expertise of the experts.

In case of IT, particularly with respect to Software, the senior management does not know what they do not know and need to know. They certainly know that they do not know software and programming, but there is much more to Software Management (particularly in managing software within corporates) which they can and should know as it is not technology. What is worse is that they do not know that they do not know something which they can know.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
 
Let me explain what CEOs and non IT Managers do not know and which they can easily know.Most managers think IT management is all technology. What they do not know is that software head not only has technology skills (Fig. 1), but also has people/change management and process skills. So whereas the CEOs will readily consult the IT guy for technological advise, they may not know that they can also use their change management and process management skills.
 
On the other hand, most managers are quick to admit that they do not know technology (“I am not a technology guy, you see”). With this they may also absolve themselves of all their responsibility of automation. Technology is just 5% of what they need to know if they are part of an automation project (Fig. 2). What they need to know and can easily know is the management of change and the psychology of change brought about by automation. User Managers should know the process of software development and the limitations thereof. If they can learn this and be fully involved in the automation process, there is no reason why a software project should fail.

There are several change management issues, people dynamics and process issues related to Software management that senior management can easily know. But unfortunately, in the field of software, ignorance is rampant because it is thought of as only a technical field – whereas there is a lot more to it than technology. What is worse is that several CEOs do not even know that such expertise is available to use. They are not aware of even the need to use this expertise, because for them, automation is a technology exercise.

My Experience with the Best and the Worst CEO for Computerization


Summary: This is the story of the best CEO (and unfortunately the only one) that I came across (in my over 30 years of work as a CIO) who understood exactly his role as a business head in the IT-Driven transformation in the company. His name was Mr. S.C. Jolly, then head of Saraswati Sugar Mill, a part of Saraswati Industrial Sysndicate/ISGEC group of companies.

He knew exactly the psychology of the people undergoing IT-Driven change, and how to handle their fears and frustrations. He knew how to resolve issues and conflicts between IT Dept and User Depts and make IT a success. Read here a true story of how he resolved one such issue within minutes. I call such CEO’s “Behavioral IT” Aware CEOs.

You need such CEOs to make computerisation a success. You can read true success stories too.  Click here for a story published in a leading magazine ‘Computers Today’ and  here  for a story in ‘Times of India’

It is often the CEO who makes the difference between success and failure of a software driven transformation.

In my long career as head of IT and implementing software projects within companies, I have come across a variety of CEOs and Managers – some of them who were excellent change managers and others who were not. So, I classify all CEOs into 2 major categories – those who understand computerisation (not computers) and those who don’t. Understanding computerization for a CEO does not mean being an expert in technology, but simply understanding the psychology of change brought about by automation. How well the CEO understands this determines the success or failure of software projects.

Whenever I speak of the role of CEOs or top managers, I always remember this CEO who was the best CXO I have worked with in my career – the best at least from computerization point of view. His name was Mr S C Jolly and he was the head of Sarawati Sugar Mill in Yamuna Nagar, (a group company of the Saraswati group consisting of a Sugar mill, heavy engineering unit ISGEC, etc. where I worked as their Group CIO/IT Head and started a new IT department way back in 1985).

It was my first job as a IT Head with only 4.5 years of prior work experience, and I set up the entire IT department and was highly successful in developing and implementing complex applications (happy to share the success stories published in Computers Today and Times of India at http://premkamble.com/ct1 and http://premkamble.com/toi. The GM referred to in these articles was Mr. Jolly himself; there were no fancy designations like CEO/COO in those days!).

Mr Jolly is the best IT enabler CEO I have come across in 28 years of my IT career and 24 years as Head of IT). I hope Mr Jolly reads this. Anyone who knows him may please convey my feelings of appreciation to him. The last time I was in touch with him he was living a retired life in Delhi. (Update: This blog thankfully helped me to reconnect with Mr Jolly!! I found him, or rather he found me through this blog! He wrote to me from US where his son was residing. Read the story how he found me)

And what was it that he did best to enable successful automation? You will be surprised to know – the best thing that he did was that – in a way – he did nothing! Sounds funny? I will narrate a real story to illustrate.

What I really mean is that HE DID NOT OVER REACT. He did not react spontaneously to complaints but took a very balanced view. I was a young ‘below-30’ manager but he spent quality time with me when I used to meet him, often sharing some of his wisdom. He said that he received several complaints about computerization. Some of the users were fed up and frustrated. What was different about him (which I have rarely seen in many CXO’s I have worked with later) is that he did not immediately start blaming the computer department on hearing complaints from the IT-user departments. He said that the complaints and frustrations were not a result of any problem with technology or the tech department – they were a result of their discomfort with change and their resistance to change. Rare Wisdom!!

Let me narrate this real incident to illustrate what I said above.

My first automation project with Mr. Jolly’s company was sugarcane farmers’ accounting solution. It was fairly complex but very successful (real success story published in Computers Today http://premkamble.com/ct1). This was because the folks from the user departments were very cooperative and mature. After completion of that project, I started the automation of the most common and relatively simple application – payroll as the second project.

But unlike the first project, this simpler project provided bigger roadblocks. The HR/Admin manager was simply not able to go live with the application. As is my style, I first tried hard to persuade him and convince him that he had to play his role of driving the implementation. He had to get the master data entered and ensure its accuracy and currency. But when I realized that my persuasion was not working, and that he was more interested in playing the blame game, I set up a meeting with the CEO, Mr Jolly. And following is the scene at the meeting.

There I was sitting in front of the CEO’s desk – a clean big table with just one Economic Times lying in one corner. By my side was the HR/Admin Manager – both of us facing the CEO. And the Manager beside me immediately took off by cursing the system, fretting and fuming and blaming the system in no uncertain terms.  He seemed to have a bagful of abuses and complaints. “Our neighboring company has been using Payroll for years and they do not face any such problems. We just don’t know how to do it… (and more fireworks!).” There I was, waiting sheepishly for the worst to follow.

But I was in for a surprise!

Mr Jolly quietly listened to all that was said. To my surprise, there was no reaction whatsoever and no expression on his face. He patiently waited for the manager to finish. When the manager was done with blurting out what he had to, lo and behold, there were no fireworks from the CEO that I was waiting for. Completely unmoved by all that was said and with no emotions on his face, all that he said was, “What next?”!!

The CEO heard my side of the story. I explained that firstly, employee master data was not created correct, and secondly, dynamic changes happening to employee data are not updated timely, resulting in wrong payslips.

He reviewed the immediate steps to be taken, set targets for master data correction (which, I explained, was the primary reason for all problems) and closed the meeting in a few minutes.

And believe me, it worked wonders. The payroll application soon went live!

Next day, as I sat leisurely in front of his desk, he gave me his real words of wisdom.

“The HR Manager was reacting as he did,” he explained, “because he was uneasy under the impact of change, not necessarily because of any problem with the system.” These words were music to my ears!

“The frustration, anger and complaints of managers implementing a change” he continued, “have nothing to do with the technicalities of the change they are implementing, the root cause is the change itself . The managers themselves do not know that their discomfort is a result of their resistance to change, and have no relation with the issues that they complain about.”

And then came the golden words.

“I give them a patient hearing just to allow them to let off steam”, he said. “And quite often, I do nothing about it!!”

I have not heard wiser words than these from any CXO in over 20 years of my career after this incident. I have suffered from some of the worst CXO’s too – I have seen highly gullible CXOs who would believe the first guy who went and complained about computerization. And hell would fall on IT department. I often thought that if I had gone and complained first, hell would have fallen on the other guy!

(Update: I have now coined a term to describe a special skill required by all CEOs/Top Managers. I call it Behavioral IT® skill.  Mr Jolly’s skill is one of such skills. So you can classify CEOs into two categories – those having Behavioral IT skills and those without Behavioral IT skills. I define Behavioral IT skill as a special skill required by all CXOs, Department heads and top managers to manage IT-Driven Change (which is the biggest driver of organizational change today) and to succeed in an IT-Driven Corporate world. “Managers do not need IT skills, they only need Behavioral IT skills.”  Click here to know more about Behavioral IT™ and click here for top management seminar on Behavioral IT.)

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Challenges of being an in-house IT Head

Recently, as a head of in-house Applications Software group, I was asked a few questions related to my job. Given here are the questions and my responses.

public-domain-photos.com Managing large scale software development, implementation and operations, can you give a gist of key challenges and how do you approach your implementations?

Everybody thinks that computers are smart and can do anything. But we, as software professionals, alone know that under the hood we are harboring a dumb, adamant and yet most powerful creature in the world (the computer) which can bring your world crashing with the silliest of mistakes. Computer software is like a glass house which needs to be handled with extreme care. A small change in a comma or a full-stop in a million-line code can crash the system or lead to completely erroneous results. For this dumb and powerful guy called computer to be faithfully serving you right, you need to have a very disciplined process where not even a small mistake is allowed. Now since the world has a very different image about computers, you run a great risk of being completely misunderstood and sometimes hated for your “over cautious and strange ways”. The big challenge for the IT guy is to continue to do the right things in the best interest of the company, even if people misunderstand you and you have to be the “bad guy”. In other words, you cannot be a nice guy and do the right things for your company.

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clip_image001[1] How does business and software development unit collaborate?

Software development and implementation is a very collaborative activity and needs perfect teamwork between the business and IT. The IT person who programs the computer does not know the business process and the business expert who knows the process does not know how to speak to the computer. In such a scenario, it is imperative that both collaborate and create automated processes. It is like two people doing rock-climbing, where both reach new heights by pulling and supporting each other. Having developed and implemented several solutions which are being used successfully by several internal customers, in itself, is a proof of the collaboration.

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clip_image001[3] What do think are the biggest challenge in a internal software development scenario?

Having worked both in internal software development scenario and also in software companies, I can say that internal software development scenario needs very specialized skills which are very different from what a software development company needs. It is a great balancing act between the pressures of your internal customers, senior management expectations, the dumb guy that is computer (as I explained above) and your own staff members who are ready to quit and join a software company at the drop of a hat.

Developing software in the confines of the computer department is relatively easier part of the job. The real challenge comes in implementations when you want to make the software work in the heated environment of personal preferences, attitudes, interests and fears. The people issues of implementation are unique to internal development scenarios which software companies rarely experience. Making it work and sustaining continued error free operation is the challenge only in internal IT.

Creating a Strong Team by Using Individual Strengths

Following is quoted from my article Key Success Factors which described the key success factors behind a record that I created in a SEI Level 5 software company that I worked with – that of delivering all software projects on time to the utmost delight of the overseas customers. Using individual’s strengths in the team was one of the key success factors.

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In a team, it is important that one member’s weakness is covered by someone else’s individual strengths in such a way that each one contributes through his strengths and the team as an entity is solid. A good team is one where everyone puts in his or her strength and covers others’ weaknesses – without any ego problems, without taking pride and without belittling others.

I am sure you will ask, “With this approach, you can never help people overcome their weaknesses”. On the contrary, a good manager uses the strengths of his team-mates while slowly working on their weaknesses – so that the weaknesses are overcome without making the team-mate too conscious of his or her deficiencies. A person normally does a good job when working on the job which he loves to do. Success is a big motivator and the motivation of a job well done gives him the energy to do the other jobs which he does not like to do, and thus helps him to overcome his shortcomings too in the course of time. A motivated person can certainly work over his weaknesses better than a person, who cannot even use his strengths, can. I believe that it is the manager’s job to see that the individual’s strength is used and he feels motivated.

I have seen some people who mainly look at the weaknesses and keep pointing out errors and personal deficiencies. Nagging a person for his weaknesses makes him very conscious of himself and he cannot even use his strength. Only a very strong person, who is truly self-motivated and strongly believes in himself, can continue to perform consistently in spite of continuous nagging by his superior.

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One very important key success factor which I practiced (but did not list in this article when I wrote it back in 2002) was “Effective Client Management”, or effectively managing client expectations. I now call it the policy of being “Polite but Firm”.

Managing Client Expectations

Most of the delays in projects are due to scope creep. Scope creep occurs because the project heads are not able to say “NO” to the client requests. The client does not know what impact it has on the project, but he is certainly interested in incorporating all the bright ideas which crop up after sign-off.

The key to success, in fact one of the most important one at that, was that I was able to say “no” very politely to the client and explain to him that I was saying “no” in the interest of the client and his project, not because I did not want to do it. And mind you, I still had excellent relations with the client.

Drawing a Balance between Customer Pressures and Employee Pressures

IT arena is fraught with acute shortage of skilled and trained staff. Particulalry for in-house IT, the developers may be the authors of the software developed or may have got trained on the products being used. When they leave, it takes time for a new recruit to take control of the code level details of applications which someone else has developed. With the IT job markets booming, the in house IT manager has the constant risk of losing trained persons to the software companies. He has to keep them constantly engaged and motivated to avoid the pressures of natural attrition.

On the other hand there is a constant pressure from the internal clients for continuous changes and for change responses at break neck speeds. Developers too get demoralized due to client pressures, when the client wishes, nay demands, that his requests be met instantly.

The IT manager has to draw a balance between the pressures of the internal client and the fear of loss of employees. The more the CIO lets the customer pressure pass on to his employees,  the more will be his pressure on attrition. I have seen CIOs committing aggressive dates to their internal customers either under pressure or to please them. And then they get jittery and put tremendous pressures on their staff to deliver on the promised dates as their own reputation is at stake. When the IT manager bends backwards to satisfy customer requests, he is bound to put pressure on his team to deliver on unrealistic timelines. This increases the risk of employee attrition due to undue pressures. The burnout has to happen sometime and the employee will call it quits. Then the CIOs panic and bend backwards to retain the employee when he or she puts in resignation or threatens to leave. This adds to the pressure of the CIO – leave alone the tremendous pressures he goes through if he has made unrealistic commitments to the customers.It has a snowballing effect which can break the CIO’s back. Whether it is the burnout of the IT staff or the CIO, in the long run who suffers the most? It is the company which loses out and the company’s IT plans which get jeopardized.

So in the long term interest of his company, it is best for the CIO to stand erect in front of both the customer and the employee and not bend backwards neither in front of the employees nor the customer. He should have a win win relation with both.

This requires that the IT Manager has good client management skills and that he does not succumb to pressure. He also needs to have the skills and the confidence in himself to be able to tell the customers realistic solutions and timelines. The CIO may thereby displease the customer, but will benefit the company and prevent the company’s IT plans from going haywire. If the IT Manager is too concerned with his own image and with earning brownie points, he may compromise on company’s interests. Not many companies understand this balancing that the CIO has to do for long term interest of the company.

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