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A grand role for IT

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue February, February 1 - February 28, 2001 | BY Howie Jacobson 

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Information technology. Information services. I've heard those phrases thrown around so much that I don't really hear the words or the meanings anymore. I just go straight into a mental image of power nerds -- people more adept at conversing with computers than with each other, let alone non-techies. Then a colleague tossed off a great line in a workshop for recently promoted IT managers on giving and receiving performance reviews: "Feedback? It's just information." Her point is that people should not feel threatened by feedback since it is just data on someone's point of view. If it is correct, then it is useful. If it is incorrect, it's simply irrelevant. Data is neither good nor bad -- it just is. She was trying to sell the idea of performance feedback as information to a techie, someone who thrives on information and builds systems to create, analyze, store and retrieve information as efficiently as possible.

I'm going to ask and answer four dumb questions:

  • What is information?
  • What information do organizations need in order to be successful?
  • How must that information be managed?
  • What does this have to do with IT?
There are two basic types of information: information about yourself (feelings, sensations, thoughts) and information about the environment (how far away that car is, what the markets are doing in Singapore, how much that bag of pretzels costs). In addition there is a special kind of information, a combination of the first two, about how the environment responds to you: feedback.

Feedback is crucial to business success. Without it, employees do not develop the skills and behaviors they need to grow themselves and the organization. Products are created without regard for market demand. Strategies stagnate in the face of changing landscapes.

Feedback by itself isn't enough to prevent these problems. We must be able to take it in. We must be aware of the feedback. Two common situations keep us from that awareness. First, many managers lack the skills to give effective feedback to their employees. This occurs all the way up and down the hierarchy. The two extremes are to provide no feedback at all (no news) or to yell and scream. No news gives no information. Yelling and screaming lead to defensiveness and armoring, rather than the openness and receptivity necessary to take in feedback.

Second, in large and complex organizations, external feedback often doesn't directly reach the person who needs to hear it. Technicians in the field and salespeople on the front lines hear directly from customers about what they like and don't like. In how many organizations does this information get effectively transmitted to the marketing and product development divisions? More common are turf battles and turrets of distrust that silo and hoard information.

Wouldn't it be neat if IT and MIS departments became the engines of feedback gathering and dissemination within companies? If feedback is crucial to current success and future development, both for individuals and for the whole organization, isn't it the most important information an organization needs to manage? Picture IT departments, currently caricatured for inept management and socially clueless employees, leading the charge in helping managers and employees be usefully honest with each other . . . encouraging and modeling productive review conversations . . . using coaches and mentors to increase people's ability to give and receive and act upon feedback.

Picture IT leading the charge in creating cultures of openness, of sharing, of two-way communication across hierarchies. Their mantra and marketing motto, as they undertake this noble task: "It's just information."



Howie Jacobson is Director of Voice for Bregman Partners, a strategy implementation and change management firm based in New York and California. He can be reached at hjacobson@bregmanpartners.com. If you have feedback on this article, please be gentle.

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