Feature Story

CIO Jonathan Feldman on the Human Factor in IT

Focus on cost containment and technical 'rock stars' creates what this CIO calls 'sociopath IT'. Here's how to fix it.

“Myth: tech + human skills are rare. Truth: We structure [organizations] to prevent these people from succeeding.”

That provocative thought was posted on Twitter earlier this year by Jonathan Feldman, CIO for the city of Asheville, N.C. and an evangelist for the human factor in IT organizations.

Feldman emphasizes the importance of the relationships that he and his 27-member department build with colleagues and customers, and promotes the idea that successful IT leadership requires empowering and respecting others — from new hires to business executives to end-users.

So what is this widespread organizational approach that impedes employee success?

Feldman explains that experience and observation have taught him that IT departments too often focus much more on cost containment and on technical details, at the expense of what their customers need. They practice what he calls “sociopath IT” that turns off executives and end-users alike, sending them to pursue their own solutions to challenges they face.

Here Feldman discusses the origins of this problem, how to address it, and how an IT organization can embrace both technical skills and the human factor.

Connected Futures: Talk about your approach to IT leadership, and how it may have changed over time.

Jonathan Feldman: I’ve been working in technology since the ‘80s, and I worked with an information technology department since the early ‘90s. And I think back then, it was considered to be more or less a technology business. It was very technical.

I’ve never believed that. I’ve always believed that technology is actually about people and service. It’s not really about the bits and the bytes. Those are the means that we use, but the ends are actually extremely people-focused. And they are very capability-focused. We talk a lot now about augmented reality and other ways of augmenting humans. But it’s always been about augmenting humans. It’s always been about making the humans better off.

And I think that IT has a well-deserved bad reputation.

“Dilbert” makes fun of IT as much as it does HR and finance. I think the primary reason for that is when you don’t have IT that’s focused on the end — or in my paradigm, [focused] on the people and not the technology — that’s a huge problem.

So, my approach is people first, outcomes, process, and only then do we start talking about software, and hardware, and systems.

You disagree with people who say that technology plus human skills are rare. Why do you think people believe it’s rare to find an IT leader who has both technology and human skills?

I think that there are a lot of bright spots in the industry. If you follow the CIO chat on Twitter [#CIOchat], there are a lot of really caring and dedicated servants of the business and partners of the business that they work with.

But I also think that what I call “sociopath IT” is rampant. It’s when IT is not being customer-focused. I think it’s better than it’s ever been, but it’s still a problem.

What I find is with the right leadership, IT is actually one of the friendliest and most helpful organizations at the company, the business, the not-for-profit [organization], or the government. IT has the potential to be a game changer only if it is a helping profession. And so, if you have the paradigm that IT is there to implement servers, and to do analytics, that is inevitably going to lead to sociopath IT because we focus on the means and not the end.

But if we say that starting today, this is a customer-focused organization, a funny thing happens. The people who have no soft skills don’t want to be there anymore. And the people who actually want to be more human, and empathetic, and helpful, and courteous to the people who that matters for — all of a sudden, we turn the organization around and we’re hiring differently. All of a sudden, the organization is now open to people who have empathy, open to people who have compassion, and welcoming to those people.

"If we say that this is a customer-focused organization ... the people who have no soft skills don’t want to be there anymore."

And as a byproduct, we get more female participation in tech. I have a department that is almost 50/50 [male/female]. And I’m not talking about the administrative assistants. I’m talking about programmers, engineers, help desk personnel.

If we provide an environment where we expect that it’s all about rock star tech, and crushing it, we end up attracting these hyper-competitive individuals who together make sociopath IT. Instead, what I would suggest is that IT is a team sport and has no room for that.

In a piece you wrote a few years ago, you suggested that digital projects are a way to engage all people in an organization, not just IT people, in making the business better. Do you see digital transformation projects or programs as a catalyst for the positive change that you are looking for in IT organizations?

I think that’s spot on. I think that sociopath IT cannot execute successfully in digital. Why? Because everyone disagrees about what digital is, but everyone agrees that culture is at least 50% or better of any digital effort. So, culture means hearts and minds. “Hearts and minds” means if you are [insensitive], people are going to show you the door.

What role should other executives play in building constructive relationships with IT?

Executives can have a significant role in the way IT functions. The number-one easy-peasy thing that can really make a dramatic difference is if IT is still under finance, it means that you are trying for cost control of IT. And IT does not exist for cost control. IT should exist to do amazing transformative things. If it’s just cost control, of course, the answer is “no” most of the time. It’s where dreams go to die.

Move it out from finance. It’s not where it belongs. That’s number one.

"IT does not exist for cost control. IT should exist to do amazing transformative things."

Number two is — the CIO has enormous influence over the delivery of IT services because the [most important] things the CIO does is hire, fire, and develop. And if the CIO is on board, the organization will get on board.

And number three, take a hard look at the overall organization’s culture, because if your culture is all command-and-control and fear-based, and people’s heads get chopped off when they make mistakes, they probably aren’t going to have the motivation in IT to take risks and do all the things that IT must do in order to achieve high results.