RANT: the Human Factor

February 24, 2012
by Dennis Drogseth

As someone who might call himself a “humanist” who has worked 31 years in high technology as of this April – I’ve developed a few areas of persistent complaint that seem to reoccur without getting much better. And having spent thirty-one years in the industry, and therefore getting old — I guess I’ve come to feel entitled to a little orneriness from time to time.

My beefs all have to do with neglecting what might be called “the human factor” in technology—and no I’m not talking about classical ergonomics. As a corollary, they typically involve high levels of abstractions and ideational debates (or whatever) that become so ornate that you need a pedigree — and not in engineering — just to follow them. These ultimately reinforce box-like thinking in an industry that has fundamentally grown by transcending box-like thinking.

These two complaints are related because the abstractions I’m referring to seem to be built around a generic sense of the human condition. One might call it “benign neglect” if one were kind. But as a result, they often seem to dissolve once flesh, blood and honest passions meet the plastic that seems to enshroud the minds of so many technology pundits.

Trying to codify a rant that could admittedly go on for many blogs -- I’ve decided to frame it with just three questions.

What is a problem?

What is a market?

What is a best practice?

What is a problem?

I would like to suggest that there are no technology problems. None. There are only human problems to which technology can be applied. That isn’t to diminish anything from advances in chip making to a trip to the moon. But in fact nothing that we as human beings address comes out of a purely technology foundation. It’s rooted in desires and needs and ambitions — whether it’s a space race, a faster computer, or a better solution for User Experience Management.

Similarly, within IT all technologies and process issues have to do with people’s feelings, their abilities to work together, and their understanding of the consumers they serve in all their human dimensions. There is no retreat from this. No book — no matter how long and theoretical — can hide the fact that effective IT organizations run as much on passions as Jeremy Lin or Pablo Picasso. And if they don’t — as in so many cases — they’ve created a sterilized environment where the broader human capacity for contribution degrades.

What is a market?

I’m going to claim that there is only one foundation for ALL markets, and that’s human sensibility. (I couldn’t think of a better term to combine desire, preference, interest, taste, need, etc.) So I suppose I’ve exposed my 19th Century roots. When is the last time you’ve heard the word “sensibility” applied to anything, let alone high tech?

So I’ll take one step back and substitute “problem set” for “sensibility” in the area of service management software. Which is how I consciously approach it at EMA, all the time realizing that there are many habits of mind (“sensibility”) that really do come into play, as well.

Once you begin to go down this path, you see that markets — which are almost invariably defined in terms of “things” inside and outside of IT — pretty quickly get very boxy and may carry a stale odor about them as soon as they get framed. In my experience, anything you can size as a market is already dead.

This has been especially true in service management software, where real growth has consistently come from cross between conventional market seams. While I suspect it will be a long time (or probably never) before CMOs or investors give up their slide-rule thinking for a more fluid view of life, these boxy market definitions can cause real damage in how products are understood and developed.

One example close to my heart is the CMDB — which I’ve always said, like the “Holy Roman Empire” which wasn’t “holy, Roman or an Empire” (Voltaire) — isn’t about “configuration management” and it’s not a “database.” And as the CMDB/CMS evolves towards a modeling system for reconciling trusted sources into cohesive service management system — the old-fashioned boxiness behind the original market thinking is still hindering its growth.

Another area has been the extreme innovation in network management solutions to address applications flows to support application performance. The new APM juggernaut (albeit not as EMA defines it) only goes further in throwing mist over the eyes of the beholder here. I remember a call with an investor who initially asked me “Is company X a network management company or an application management company?” After explaining how the network can provide oceanic insights into application flows, including latencies directly reflective of user experience, for 25- minutes, the investor came back to me with the same, boxy question. Apparently, for his own slide-rule thinking, it just had to be one or the other.

Of course these are just two out of hundreds of examples. Maybe thousands.

What is a best practice?

I’m going to keep this one very short because otherwise it could be very long. Based on EMA consulting and research, including plenty of my own dialogs, the biggest issues that confront IT organizations in undertaking a strategic initiative have to do with communication and politics. And yet I know of no “best practice” recommendations for IT that seriously consider that premise, let alone leverage it as a foundation for their work.

Instead what emerges are over-elaborate definitions of “things” and “processes” that can make your head spin. I would suggest that anyone trying to edit ITIL have a few strong drinks and then read aloud from the books at a local poetry slam and see how it goes over. These byzantine debates are not reflections of real intelligence — they are flights from reality in my opinion. Even when, as in ITIL’s case, many of the core ideas can be quite useful.

My first rule for best practice based on my own experience is “abhor the generic”. All guidelines, data points, and simulations will invariably fall short — and usually fall far short — of your environment in its full technical AND human dimension. Start with an understanding of the politics of what you’re doing, and then with the individual personalities you’re contending with, as much as with any of the guidebooks you’re served with. And don’t worry over much about what worked best in IT organization A or B if it doesn’t also include a flesh-and-blood road map to the very real world that you inhabit.

I have plenty of other rants – like “why can’t an industry that’s been faulted for decades for too much complexity just stand up to the fact and make simpler, more deployable tools?” — but I decided to pick probably my most concerning, underlying theme. I am consistently awed by the time, intellectual energy and dollars lavished on ornate “systems” to solve what in the end turn out to be human problems, by creating a false edifice built around the “things” in technology rather than the human beings those things serve.

It is perhaps a cultural and psychological habit of mind endemic to high tech as it’s been in the past, with its rather academic enclaves or “tribes.” But that’s beginning to change, with the “consumerization” of technology. Which doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that IT becomes a commodity.Far from it. It means that IT must finally come to grips with its human roots.

Dennis Drogseth is VP at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA).

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