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Entangling Alliances: Strategies for Partnering with Non-Technical Allies

by Paul Agnew

Turmoil and tension ruled the day. In the aftermath of revolution, his time at the helm at an end, the chief executive returned to the privacy of personal life. In his farewell remarks, the leader warned his colleagues to "steer clear of permanent alliances." He alerted them to be wary of close partnerships with others, despite apparent shared interests. He cautioned them to beware of pacts and agreements that bind respective parties in entangling relationships.

George Washington's words were sage advice in a era characterized by massive change, political turmoil, and shifting loyalties. However, today too many information systems professionals behave as if we were living at the end of the eighteenth, not the twentieth, century. They act as if Washington's warning was meant to apply for all time and in all circumstances, even to the life and politics of today's organizations and enterprises.

Are you hesitant to form new working partnerships, even around shared interests? Are you doubtful of the value of the contributions of less technically oriented colleagues? Do you suspect their motives, perhaps even deride their abilities? Are you cynical about the value of cross-functional teams? Do you feel increasingly inclined to go it alone in a world filled with those who "just don't speak my language?" If your answer to any of these questions is "yes" or even "sometimes," you may want to question your position, rethink your options, and reevaluate your need for strategic alliances.

Information systems professionals know that change is the only constant in today's organization. Information technology is at once the instrument of change and the means by which your organization responds to change. As an information professional, you preside over both the cause and the effect of much of the barely controlled chaos that seems to envelop most organizations from time to time. And that goes with the territory. While managing information technology is a major part of the job, when we behave as if technology alone is the solution to information management problems, we program ourselves for failure.

A Case in Point
Consider this case: a large manufacturing organization decided to transform its traditionally structured, coast-to-coast sales force into a telecommuting, home-based juggernaut. This was to be massive, mandated change. All the best technology - including some of their own - was thrown into the mix. The potential benefits were readily apparent: closer contact with customers; on-the-spot availability; single point of data entry; increased efficiency in communication; savings in time, effort, and office space. The project was bound to be a success.

But there was one nearly fatal oversight. Although the organization undertook an extensive training program in the mechanics of new hardware and software, its perception of the required effort to learn new skills was myopic from the start. By emphasizing keystrokes and commands, the organization failed to prepare its sales representatives for the cultural and personal impact of becoming a virtual work force, dispersed over large territories and suddenly deprived of the face-to-face collegiality that had been such a central fact of their lives. It ignored the need to help sales representatives become self-directed entities, who were able to grow and maintain their own support systems. No one helped them plan or carry out the changes in home and family routines that were required to accommodate office space, office equipment, and office regimen. And no one thought to help managers learn how to lead, recognize, and reward a sales force they couldn't see except for the rare and officially discouraged staff meeting.

The results were spotty at best: dissatisfaction soared; productivity and profits wavered; customers were distinctly not delighted. Late in the game - almost too late - the organization understood its mistake and began remedial training and coaching efforts.

But by that time some key contributors - previously successful managers and sales representatives -were angry and frustrated. Several sought more satisfying opportunities with competitors. The organization lost critically important human resources, organizational memory and wisdom, and an opportunity to achieve excellence.

Why did this near fiasco occur? What might have been done differently? What went wrong?

Well, it certainly wasn't the technology. The technical choices were appropriate and the implementation impeccable. The primary missing element was respect and understanding for the human side of technological change. In its rush to technical restructuring, the organization overlooked the importance of IT professionals' building strong bonds and "entangling alliances" with colleagues who could have helped make the implementation of its information management strategy successful. These allies would have included human resource consultants, managers of learning and development, instructional designers, performance support specialists, organizational development practitioners, educators, and members of corporate communications groups.

The disdain with which some technophiles view non-technical colleagues was reflected recently in one of America's most popular comic strips - the one we swear is based on our organization and the same one many of us post on our office walls. In a series of panels, all the "non-technical" people are told they have been collected into a new department to be known as the "S. C. C. Group." One of the "non-technical" workers is impressed with the dignified sound of the new designation. She tells the boss it's a relief because, "We were beginning to feel like second-class citizens." Then she naively asks what "S. C. C." stands for.

Some technical professionals show their disdain for non- technical information in a familiar label they attach to certain kinds of skills and knowledge. They call them "soft skills:" skills including coaching, delegation, influencing, negotiation, documentation, project management, performance management, time management, team development and leadership, and often oral and written communication.

The techno-focused view of information, while not wrong, is seriously flawed. Clearly, technology can be the engine of change, growth, and profitability - and the defining difference that creates competitive advantage. What, then, is the problem? Simply this: such a view distorts the nature and purpose of information in our organizations. We all know that information is a fundamental and valuable asset. This fact has been acknowledged and accepted, if not always acted upon. Many of us have grown tired of the "information as resource" cliché. Overused and not well understood, the expression has become drained of meaning.

Just what kind of resource should information be? In his book Information Proficiency, Thomas J. Buckholtz writes that the purposes of our information resources are twofold: first, they facilitate decision making and second, they enable those decisions to be implemented. Information should be generated, accumulated, analyzed and applied to further an organization's goals and mission; i.e., to enable it to decide and to act. We need to make our information management choices in the light of these two purposes, and not all our choices are only about technology.

In today's customer-driven, process-oriented environments, information should be used to support those who serve customer needs. No doubt you've seen the upside-down pyramid model of organizational life. It turns the traditional box and line chart on its head. Customers appear at the top; employees with customer contact come next. Most employees are somewhere in the middle and executives are closer to the bottom.

Customers come first, and the most important people in any organization are those who deal directly with them. The rest of us - technical and non-technical professionals and managers on all levels - are here to support our front-line colleagues. Accountability and responsibility are being driven up and across the pyramid, to the point of customer contact.

The message is: if we're not personally serving customers, we'd better be supporting those who are. All the organization's resources need to be dedicated to achieving customer satisfaction. All our processes have to be designed and executed to meet customers' needs. Everybody - at every level of the pyramid - is an information resources manager. All information management strategies must be aimed at achieving the same goal: to provide timely, accurate, complete, and useful information to those who need it to make and implement decisions. The relationship between information technology and personal empowerment is not coincidental. Where we find one, we will increasingly find the other. Entangling alliances with knowledge managers, instructional designers, adult learning specialists, and other allies from the "soft side" of our discipline will help us build bridges between the two.

Titles often inadequately describe what our allies accomplish. Our allies impart skills. These allies help change attitudes and behaviors, rearrange organizational structures, and reengineer workflows. They can anticipate when technology-based solutions may go awry. They most assuredly could have helped prevent the near-debacle described earlier.

The majority of our allies don't think of themselves as information management professionals. They understand themselves to be change agents, educators, and skill builders. They also bear responsibility to help others make and implement decisions - to decide and act - and that puts them squarely in the information resources management business.

What help should you expect from your new allies? You will find them to be holistic thinkers, aware of the linkages among workgroups and the need for sharing information and breaking down departmental barriers. They should focus on results that empower people to meet customers' demands. And they should know how to design, develop, and deliver information in ways that help learners grow and gain competence. All this is not as simple as it may sound.

Let's look at how the scenario we described could have turned out if the technology experts had the help of the information management professionals with a human performance perspective.

First and foremost, the company would have had a better chance of recognizing it was embarking on a major organizational and cultural change, not just a technological upgrade. It would have achieved a very rare union between people who understand how information technology functions, and people who use the information generated by the technology think and work.

It is probable that a thorough front-end analysis -uncovering more than technical training needs -would have been completed early in the game. Besides detailing the need for hands-on hardware training, our new allies would also have identified and dealt with the intangible, human issues specific to virtual work forces and workplaces. Such needs include:

  • understanding the reasons behind the shift;
  • establishing mutually agreed on performance expectations and measures;
  • managing resistance to change;
  • defining and communicating clear, concise policies and procedures;
  • establishing and facilitating open, honest communication in the absence of face-to-face availability;
  • developing and sustaining trust; and
  • dealing with the paradox of the need for personal empowerment within increasing personal isolation.

Having researched the needs and characteristics of the target audiences - sales managers and sales representatives - our allies would have designed a suite of learning programs to balance three sets of learning needs: technical, organizational, and personal. The focus would have been on meeting the company's goals and the peoples' needs by providing all the training, education, and on-going support that was needed, instead of just concentrating on short-run technical training requirements.

The support solutions would have included a wide spectrum of learning resources. They could have included a self-help book about establishing offices at home, a set of job aids focusing on new task requirements, and a live simulation giving participants the opportunity to practice problem-solving and decision-making in a virtual workplace. On-line help and Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) could have been part of the mix. There was a wide range of learning resources available that could have been focused on organizational and personal needs, but they would have required close, on-going collaboration, "entangling alliances" between technologists and learning professionals.

Technology and behavioral change are inextricably linked. One without the other leaves the equation incomplete. So, whether you are considering the reskilling needs of members of your own department, intact work group, or team - or those of your internal customers- consider the promise and resources to be gained from entering into entangling alliances with your fellow information management professionals.

Here are five steps to new, more productive working relationships:

1. Get up and get out. Identify the providers of learning resources in your own organization. Get to know them, what they do, how they work, and how your needs and resources complement theirs. Let them know you respect and value their potential contributions.

2. Share your needs and your understanding of the organization's information management mission. Discuss organizational performance problems and challenges as you perceive them. Explore ways in which information systems and information technology can be brought to bear upon performance management problems. Establish the ongoing dialogue needed for successful collaboration.

3. Be patient (and this is a real challenge in our turbocharged organizational environments). Many organizational learning professionals are less than sophisticated in technologies IT professionals take for granted. Their lack of familiarity may be counterbalanced, however, by a more complete knowledge of organizational issues and political relationships.

4. Practice good teaming. You don't have to be a member of a formal, organized team to put team practices to work. Build channels of communication where none exist; refine them when they do. Establish jointly held goals, negotiate mutual expectations, manage interdependencies, commit, and follow through. Do what you say you'll do, and expect the same from others. That is how trust works.

5. Deliberately seek common ground. You are an information management professional. So are your colleagues from other - but related - disciplines. Look for what unites you, not at what separates you.

Sure, entangling alliances can be risky. Washington knew that two hundred years ago, and we should not be casual about alliances today any more than he was then. Now is the time for information professionals of all stripes to form strategic alliances so that, together, we can accomplish the total information management mission.

About the Author
Paul Agnew is president of Strategic Learning Systems, a learning resource consultancy. As an information and instructional design professional, Paul has actively participated in several technology-driven organizational restructuring efforts. He finds that technical reskilling provides only a partial answer to organizational transformation; the Critical Success Factors are often the underlying personal and organizational effects of change.

Copyright ©2007 Auerbach Publications.