Solving Technology's People Problem

WASHINGTON D.C.—Technological change is fast, but humans are a bit slower. At the SAS Global Forum Executive Conference, a common topic was change management. In order to embrace what technology can offer, leaders within organizations need to create structures that will welcome change, not shun it.

More than ever, data is used to make decisions at every turn. "What we're asking of data today is much more complex than what we asked of data yesterday," SAS Chief Marketing Officer Jim Davies told attendees. Companies are creating and adopting analytics strategies to "rely on it for fact-based decision making, not just information, as we did in the past," he said. Putting analytics in a position of power often requires plenty of change management in an organization. Getting the technology is often the easy part. The hard part is getting the "brainware" to change, as retired four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it in his opening keynote speech.

Powell shared his experiences at inculcating a technology-driven culture at the Department of State. When he came on board, he realized "we had challenges with the analytics systems," and undertook an initiative to modernize the organization and ensure everyone had a computer. Diplomatic organizations traffic purely in information, and technology helps facilitate that. Powell recommended leading by example. "When the Secretary of State is online, other people tend to get online."

On Tuesday, a panel convened that focused on how leaders such as chief information officers can lead the charge and make technology projects a success, not a failure. "Find allies across silos and tell your story in a compelling way," advised Mary Turner, CEO of Canadian Tire Financial Services. James Dallas, senior vice president of quality and operations for Medtronic, used to have all of his IT employees undergo media training so they could "communicate in the language of business, not the language of IT." Technologically, the same thing is taking place. SAS has unveiled drag-and-drop interfaces that help marketers understand complex ideas without having to negotiate the complexity of information underneath. Across the industry, easy-to-digest visualizations of data are becoming paramount.

The group also discussed the rise of "shadow IT," when other parts of the organization buy or use technology without going through the centralized IT environment. "There's nothing wrong with shadow IT, as long as the CIO is casting the shadow," Dallas quipped. There are benefits to shadow IT, like being able to test new ideas and move nimbly, but there are also concerns, ranging from data leakage to a loss in ROI if a solution that is siloed would be more successful if deployed across the organization.

When working on a project, Dallas emphasized the importance for high-level executives to find support beneath themselves. "The higher up you get, the more people talk about you than to you," he said. He likes to build walking time into site visits, and recommended stopping people to talk on their way to the restroom for short, candid answers about how the business is doing. He also advised taking advantage of the informal power structures in an organization, social hubs led by "opinion leaders" everyone trusts. Find them, he advised, and "ask them, 'What's the number-one thing you can do that will make you believe in them?'" For someone coming on board or trying to turn a division around, that advice is invaluable.

The ability of people to make a project a success or a failure has motivated Dallas to mentor those below him. "Why could a project be a success in business unit A, and a failure in business unit B? Most leaders don't fail at the what, they fail at the how. I want to see more people with technical backgrounds run businesses, and acquire the skills to run P&Ls, and large divisions, and most of all to have those leadership skills," he said.

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