Technology

Should Your CIO Take a More Crowd-Pleasing Approach?

By / Jun 22, 2020 (Enis Aksoy/DigitalVision Vectors)

Obviously, information technology requires a focus on security and the organization’s bigger picture. But a too-prescriptive approach to IT can lead your staff’s most innovative thinkers to feel stifled—and that could be a threat to more than just your network.

We’re in a world right now where the little things matter more than they once did.

With a loss of normalcy, small reminders of things as they once were take on more significance. One of those things is our workflow. We each have ways of writing, of using a spreadsheet, of editing an image, of working our way through an inbox.

But out of an interest in security and consistency, an IT department may attempt to dictate the tools people use to some degree. Tie this together with recent efforts to find ways to track employee productivity remotely, and it can feel kind of like the way people work is being overly defined by the boss.

In many cases, it’s unavoidable—people have to collaborate, after all, and your contracts may facilitate specific platforms to be used. But if an employee feels too constricted working under your infrastructure, it can create some big problems down the road for employee experience.

A recent piece from CIO got me thinking about this topic, as it discussed the ways that employee experience can often get sidelined as a part of broader technological goals, despite the fact that they’re often having to deal with the wonky interfaces that get a lot more public-facing polish.

“We know how to build systems that are delightful for people to use,” states Claus Jensen, the CTO/CIO at Memorial Sloan Kettering, in comments to the magazine. “Yet for some obscure reason, we never do it for ourselves. Show me someone who says that using the HR system is a delightful experience.”

That, of course, is all true, and the piece largely focuses on the importance of human-usable custom interfaces. But I think it’s worth discussing in this context the natural tensions that user productivity, which can favor experimentation and new tools, can have with IT deployment, which favors consistency, security, and ease of maintenance. When these two things are at odds, it can threaten the employee’s approach to productivity. Lock things down too much and it might just leave your workers frustrated.

I can think of a couple of key classes of workers you need to watch for on this front:

The power user. This is the kind of person who basically, if given their own devices, would never stop optimizing their workflow. Perhaps they test new apps frequently, looking at sites like Product Hunt for inspiration. Maybe they’ll even bring in their own devices for work purposes. These users often introduce new productivity ideas to teams and may feel most frustrated if you try to rein them in.

The innovator-by-job-description. Sometimes, the IT department just doesn’t move quickly enough for the new types of workers that stream through an organization. Think, for example, of employees who specialize in social media, a fast-moving field where new norms are emerging quickly. To simply keep up, they might need to keep changing tactics and using personal devices like smartphones and tablets. Maybe to find the right filter and to save time, they’ll rely on new apps that didn’t even exist six months ago. Or even two weeks ago. (Another type of employee that would fit under this general description is software developer.)

These are the kinds of employees that associations often want to have on their staff rolls, because they help push things forward and help innovate in important ways. They raise up everyone else because they introduce new ideas. But if they run into roadblocks with the IT department—say, via an acceptable use policy that often gets in the way of them doing their jobs by, say, limiting their ability to install their own programs on their company computer—that can prove a point of discouragement. If they can’t get access to the tools needed to succeed, they might go somewhere else that offers them more flexibility.

Prescriptive policies are dangerous to an organization’s long-term innovation if they’re too heavy-handed or get in the way of innovation. And it’s a problem that has emerged in new ways during the COVID-19 era, as employee surveillance tools have become common.

Concerns about boogeymen like “shadow IT” have long been a problem in the world of IT, as they highlight natural tension between employees, who often want to use the best and most comfortable tools possible, and the needs of the larger organization, which is often where many IT officials focus their thinking. (To underline this point, almost, The Wall Street Journal just released a study finding that two thirds of cybersecurity execs at large companies believe their own employees are one of their biggest cybersecurity threats. That’s not a good place from which to build a relationship of trust.)

But while security needs are definitely a major concern, they’re not the only ones. Another concern is employee happiness, and a major way in which employees can feel a bit disheartened is by policies that make their jobs more difficult. At a time when talent recruitment is expected to pick back up in a big way in the next couple of months, is it worth the risk?

A good tech executive needs to consider both the real-world use cases of the technology they use along with all the realistic organizational threats that come with a loosey-goosey approach to IT management. They need to meet users halfway—and help ensure that one issue does not create problems for the other.

Want to keep your employees happy? Give them the flexibility to excel.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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