More communicating with geeks

After my post two weeks ago, where I exhorted non-technical managers to improve their communication skills rather than distract their technical staff with improving theirs, I came across two articles this week that struck me as being very related.

First was an article on eWEEK (Where Will All the Cowboys Go?) on a strongly related subject:

Over the next five years, business will become so deeply embodied in technology—and technology so embedded in the business—that it will change the way IT is managed by an organization ... Forrester said that CEOs will now be less clueless about technology because this changing dynamic will demand from them a fighting level of technology know-how.

The basic argument, from Forrester Research no less, is that companies will become so embroiled in their IT that they will be at a competitive disadvantage if the high level executives have no understanding of it. No arguments from me there, better understanding of technology would undoubtedly allow management to communicate better with their technical staff.

Unfortunately they spoil it all in the second half of the article:

While it used to be that 100 percent of the people in IT had IT skills, this may fall all the way to 20 percent, said Cameron. IT itself will be pushed to the fringe, where there are highly fluid jobs, and the innovation and the invention will be there.

Aside from the obviously stupid assumption that the possession of IT skills is an entirely binary proposition, if only 20 percent of your IT people have IT skills, then only 20 percent of those people are actually in IT, the other 80 percent can only be described as 'support staff', or perhaps 'management'. Think about that for a minute - you have a department dedicated to IT, and yet only 20 percent of that department can actually do IT work, how productive is that likely to be? And I'm not sure how this conclusion can be related to the first part of the article, which was claiming that executives need to gain IT skills, it doesn't seem the obvious conclusion, quite the reverse in fact. I suspect this may be a case of Forrester vice-president and principal Bobby Cameron not having enough IT skills to understand the implications of his own company's research, but I'd have to purchase the report to be sure...

The second article I came across was A Security Market for Lemons, which later led me to the similar Web Hosting - A Market for Lemons:

The term comes from a paper by economist George Akerlof dealing with information asymmetry. If that's a dry sounding term, the concept is actually simple: in some markets, the seller knows more than the buyer does, or vice-versa ... Shady dealers will try and sell low-quality products at a higher price, and sellers with high-quality products will face buyers who are less willing to pay high prices because of the risk they might get a "lemon".

I don't think it's a co-incidence that the same economic theory applies so neatly to two disparate areas of IT - I think it applies generically to almost anything which is part of modern corporate IT. Let's apply it to recruitment: the buyer in this case is the manager who, as it happens, has little understanding of IT. He can't tell the difference between candidate's levels of technical proficiency, so he chooses a variety of mediocre signals to differentiate the candidates - such as their communication skills. For this job it's not in the interest of a prospective candidate to have good technical skills, he's better off having good communication skills. So the manager, over time, ends up with a set of staff who have less than optimal technical skills, and candidates, over time, become less technically skilled, because that's not what gets them hired. How do we mitigate the effects? The best way is to eliminate the disparity of information. Which, in this example, means improving the technical skills of the manager.