IT needs to crack the code

Anthropology can connect the dots.

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It’s tough being an IT leader today. Technology is vital to business success, but technology is not the main challenge for enterprise IT. In describing the key management challenge for IT, a CIO told me what he really needed was an army of anthropologists. He was referring to the challenge enterprise IT has in understanding how the business people use technology. That understanding is crucial in knowing how to structure or shape technology so it’s easy to use and seems obvious and natural to users.

His anthropology suggestion makes a lot of sense. Anthropologists study the uniqueness of people groups, understanding them based in part on cultural context, environment and especially their patterns of behavior. In the Ebola epidemic of 2014, for example, authorities called for help from anthropologists so they could understand why people resisted doctors and medical treatment in Guinea. And some of the world’s leading businesses – Google, Intel and Microsoft, for instance – hire anthropologists to understand the gap between what companies think their customers want in a product versus what customers really want.

I think Steve Jobs was the first and best-known technology anthropologist. He was able to channel and understand from the perspective of end users and what their needs were. He was then able to build technology that was simple for users to experience instead of focusing on technology capabilities.

New technologies emerge in the IT landscape very quickly these days, and the business users need these new functionalities and capabilities. Technologists tend to deploy technology in a manner intended to shape users’ behaviors and achieve predictable results. They fall short, not understanding that human behavior and human motivation shape the successful use or failure of technology.

The importance of the user experience is well understood in the startup community. Software startups study how their customers actually use their apps. They obtain customer feedback and use it to streamline and improve the product for “stickiness,” and they monitor when people stop using an app as frequently. The most successful startups focus on product simplicity and user experience rather than building in a lot of features aimed at competitiveness but which slow down or frustrate the user.

Enterprise IT needs to move in a tighter lockstep with the business stakeholders so it can crack the code, so to speak, to design and deploy tech products that fit users’ behaviors as well as their business functionality needs. It’s a difficult challenge, but IT can learn from the academic disciplines of anthropology. As we look for ways to move IT and business conversations forward, I think we need a different set of skillsets in enterprise IT.

Enterprise IT tends to drift to being technology evangelists rather than studying human nature and human behavior in relation to technology. Perhaps we should look for a skillset in anthropology where we start with human behavior and build tech frameworks and structures from that understanding. This would result in technology fitting with users’ natural behaviors – much like what Steve Jobs did so well.

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