Becoming the ITDM (IT diplomat)

An international diplomat's insights about conflict resolution through cultural diplomacy can benefit IT leaders who are wary about venturing across the aisle to work with their business counterparts.

conflict graphic
Credit: iStock

Unless you’re deeply involved in the world of peacekeeping, you probably haven’t heard of Alan Baker. He is an expert in international law and former Israeli ambassador to Canada. He recently gave an address in Istanbul called “Conflict Resolution Through Cultural Diplomacy.”

Baker’s powerful observations prove true of clashes like those often experienced in the Middle East, but they’re especially valuable because they can be applied to just about any situational conflict.

In the human experience, the potential for conflict lurks around every corner. In the modern enterprise, with so many intersections of egos, opinions and cultures, it is an occupational hazard. According to Edgar Papke, author of The Elephant in the Boardroom, in a survey of over 4,000 executives, more than 90% of the respondents said they were uncomfortable engaging in conflict.

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the interchange between business and technology. So before anything productive can happen, conflict resolution is one of the first items that has to be checked off the list. And one of the potential roles of an IT diplomat (or ITDM) as a change agent is that of a diplomat.

Here are some cues we can take from Baker and modern diplomacy to set you on the path to heroism:

Learn the language

The general observation has been that as technology becomes more humanized, marketers don’t need to learn code, but coders need to learn marketing. It’s an issue of language. Baker speaks Hebrew when he’s in Israel, but when he shows up in Canada, he speaks English or French. Among diplomatic circles, it’s a form of respect to learn the language of the country with which you negotiate. So learn the language of business. If you don’t speak it, bring a good translator. The last thing a business stakeholder wants to hear is a litany of acronyms and technical features or sit through a sleep-inducing PowerPoint presentation — these will only deepen the divide.

Make an effort to humanize the technology and demonstrate how it translates to business value, such as customer retention, security or profitability. For example, in your next meeting with business folks, rather than starting with the usual technical details of the project, explain why the tech is so important to the business. Take a step back and reaffirm the big picture — the why. It may take some practice, but it gets easier. Also, the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in the conversations in which it’s spoken, so don’t be afraid to reach out to business colleagues on either a professional or personal level. Take some business counterparts to coffee, lunch or even a happy hour to get inside their heads, discover what drives them and grow more familiar with their lingo.

Chart the uncharted

Baker said of United Nations resolutions that they must be in line with “the genuine implementation of the aims and purposes of the UN Charter.” Buried in this statement is an important clue: a charter. The UN Charter is a sort of grand vision — it signifies what the organization is about, and everything the UN does flows out of it. So it must be with your organization. Is there a digital charter and strategy that has been set at the highest levels? In many cases, these haven’t been defined, and where CEOs do jump in and attempt to set digital strategies, those strategies are often misunderstood and are not implemented companywide.

The big opportunity rests with a technology diplomat who can bring together business stakeholders and start the discussion around defining a vision for technology — what to invest in, what to build versus what to buy, how digital will affect customers, etc. — and then act as the owner of the charter. The even bigger opportunity is for the ITDM to then work directly with the CEO to articulate this technology vision and make certain it is in harmony with the greater company vision.

Hear people out

Baker went on to say that “peace cannot emanate only from documents signed by leaders alone, but from mutual good faith and credibility among the peoples for whom the agreements are signed.” Baker knows all too well that leaders can sign treaties all day long, but nothing will come of the treaties if they aren’t accepted throughout the general population — the agreements aren’t just between politicians; they're between the people of the two countries, as well. Too many times in the modern enterprise do a group of leaders make game-changing decisions without taking their employees into consideration. This oligarchic approach is outmoded, and it’s uninspiring. It generally results in turnover, or a lot of unhappy wage earners.

Part of the peace process — and the conflict resolution process — is to listen. Now that you, the ITDM as change agent, have made connections to business leaders, learned what drives them and helped to establish a working technology vision, the next step is to get consensus from business and technology teams that are responsible for realizing the vision. The best way to do that is to plan an offsite meeting, preferably with a third party as moderator so as to demonstrate fairness (people on the business side of things may not respond well to an ITDM hosting an hours-long session to communicate his or her agenda). One of the most effective features of such a gathering is simply letting people vent their frustrations. It might be uncomfortable at first — some people can even get quite emotional — but remember that it’s because they care about their job and their place in the company. Once people can air their grievances, there is the feeling of a fresh start, and productivity can skyrocket between groups of employees.

Walk in their shoes

Finally, Baker said that in order for diplomacy to succeed, it needs to include an acknowledgment by leaders that peace, justice and mutual respect are basic values in all cultures. Mutual respect is one of those rare treasures in any company today. The reason it’s so rare isn’t because people are generally disrespectful or wake up every morning with the intention of being spiteful to colleagues. Rather, it’s that people don’t know enough about their colleagues to allow them — and inspire them — to practice empathy, and respect is often borne out of empathy. Allowing team members to express their opinions and feelings is good, but it’s not good enough. Stirring compassion for one another’s opinions and feelings is the solid path to conflict resolution.

One exercise that can be useful during engagements involving business and technology teams is called “Walk in Their Shoes.” In this activity, every participant receives a large piece of paper with images of two shoes — a sneaker representing technology and a dress shoe representing business. Business and IT people are then matched up in pairs, and they spend half an hour interviewing each other about their day-to-day activities — from things they enjoy to pain points. They then spend another half-hour discussing ways they can help each other increase the things they enjoy and alleviate the hardships. You’d be surprised what an hour of healthy conversation between two very different types of people can accomplish. 

In the end, acting the humble diplomat — and not the technology tyrant — is the smoothest path to business participation and sponsorship for today’s digital change agent.

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