Technology Jeopardy: Beat the Odds of Project Failure With a Single Question

The important question, which is rarely thought of, is ‘What do people need to do their best work?’

big question mark
Credit: Jamie Eckle

People are always asking me, “What can we do to help people do their very best work?”

Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. But I really do wish someone who stewards workforce computing for his or her company would — and I'd be over the moon if it were someone who really wanted to know the answer.

Spend a million bucks on security? Sure! Two million on a sales force automation system to get better reports and more predictable forecasting? Of course! Another million or so on private cloud automation to speed up provisioning? Sign me up! But how much would you spend to understand how technology impacts the most powerful driving force in your company: the intrinsic motivation of your people? The what? Yes, exactly.

Think about it. When was the last time you rolled out a technology that earned you and your team the rousing applause and admiration of people in your company closest to your customers? When was the last time the sales, customer service or product management teams thanked you for a new technology because it made their working lives better? If you can think of one instance, you’re doing well. More likely you’ve experienced something along the lines of trying to force the whole organization to move to server-hosted virtual desktops and encountering what one IT decision-maker called “truculence” — ferociously cruel actions or behavior. If that’s the case, you probably failed to ask yourself the most overlooked question in technology strategy: What do people need to do their best work?

The pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying high performance in people for 40 years. He notes in his book Flow, "Many of the challenging, complex activities we must undertake are so badly designed that instead of producing flow, they produce anxiety or boredom.” He suggests, "Whenever a new technology is introduced, it pays to ask the question: How will this affect enjoyment of the work?” I submit to you that it’s worth asking the same question about policies and “guidance” around workforce computing in your organization. Do they facilitate creativity and people doing their best work, or obstruct it?

The reason it’s worthwhile to ask that question is that an organization’s workforce is a valuable but poorly understood asset, one that isn’t as easy to replace as a data center. And consider this: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the job to have in 2016 will be industrial/organizational psychologist. Complexity is up. People are burning out faster. Executives trying to drive change are running into more resistance. Technology investments are failing.

At Forrester, we have a keen interest in employees’ state of mind because there is a very close correlation in the psychological research between great customer experiences and contented employees who are happy because their psychological needs are being met. They’re not being micromanaged, they have access to the information and resources they need to provide great service, they’ve been chosen for their jobs because they have a passion for service, they believe in the values of their employers, and they’re committed to developing themselves, among other things.

We’re seeing a pattern unfold as our research follows companies making the greatest gains with their efforts at improving customer experience. The ones leading their industries made deliberate investments in technology to make richer, better information available to customer-facing employees when and where they could use it to help customers the most. Notice I said “help customers,” which is not the same as marketing to them. Helping customers means acknowledging them, recognizing what they’re trying to achieve, and meeting that need better than your competitors do. In other words, helping people do their best work on behalf of your company’s customers.

Know what else is cool? I’ve presented this research to audiences full of infrastructure and operations pros, and they got it immediately. Many have come up to me and asked when we’re going to have more cognitive science-based research that we can share so they can use it to go to work on their executives with it. Stay tuned for more research from me, along with my Forrester colleagues Megan Burns and James Staten. This is going to be big.

David K. Johnson is a principal analyst at Forrester Research serving infrastructure and operations professionals.

This story, "Technology Jeopardy: Beat the Odds of Project Failure With a Single Question" was originally published by Computerworld.

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