by Dan Tynan

IT’s worst addictions (and how to cure them)

Apr 10, 2018
AnalyticsArtificial IntelligenceCloud Computing

Are you a control freak? A data fiend? An infrastructure junkie? Your tech addictions may be bringing your company down. Here's how to go cold turkey.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Everybody has bad habits, but sometimes they can turn into compulsions.

While technology addiction is a real thing, especially for teenagers, IT pros have their own monkeys on their backs.

Whether you’re an infrastructure junkie or a Slack head, chasing the data dragon or mesmerized by the blinking lights on your network operations center dashboard, your tech addictions can kill productivity, sap budgets and stall innovation. 

An inability to relinquish control can lead to technology silos and turf wars. Overdependence on artificial intelligence can actually hurt, not help, your company. And while everyone loves shiny new toys, they may not be the most cost-effective solutions for your organization.

The first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The next step is reading our prescriptions for how to kick your bad habits and get clean again.

IT addiction No. 1: Data

Because data drives nearly every business decision, it’s easy to understand why the corporate appetite for it is insatiable. But collecting data just because you can, without a plan for how to use it effectively, can be worse than collecting no data at all.

According to surveys conducted by Square Root, employees spend more than 20 hours a week collecting and analyzing data, but more than 40 percent of organizations aren’t putting that data to use.

“Organizations are caught in analysis paralysis,” says Sarah Kampman, vice president of product at Square Root, whose CoEfficient SaaS platform helps retailers and automotive brands make sense of their data. “The information isn’t translating into behavioral changes that drive success.”

Instead of focusing on big data, companies would do better to zero in on the small data that’s more relevant to their mission. Kampman says it starts with having a single source of truth that every part of the organization can draw on.

“Collecting your enterprise data in a multi-petabyte pile will not magically transform your organization into a lean, hyper-performing data-mining company,” agrees Mike Meikle, partner in SecureHIM, a consulting firm that specializes in healthcare information management and security. “Data is valuable, yes, but knowing what to keep, how to use it and who manages it is just as critical.”

The cure: You don’t need to go cold turkey on data, but you do need to be more selective about what you do with it. Identify data that’s truly critical to business decisions, clean and de-dupe it, and discard what you don’t need, says Meikle.

IT addiction No. 2: AI

Like big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning are buzzwords du jour. The thinking goes like this: You collect a huge pool of data, run it through some machine learning models, and voila — instant business insights.

Well, not exactly. Despite what you may have read, AI is not the solution to every problem, notes Cristian Rennella, co-founder and CIO of oMelhorTrato, a financial services marketplace based in Brazil.

After nine years of having its HR department answer employee questions via live chat and phone calls, it started to develop its own AI-driven chatbot using Google’s TensorFlow platform.

It was a great success, says Rennella. The company was able to automate responses to 67 percent of all questions, and improved employee productivity by 24 percent. The AI chatbot proved equally useful for automating sales queries.

But when they tried to apply AI to marketing, it was a disaster, he says. AI was unable to easily segment the company’s client base, and conversions were 35 percent lower. 

“We learned that not everything can be optimized with AI,” he says. “We were never able to achieve the same level of success that we had with person-to-person relationships.”

The cure: Before you go all in on AI solutions, run small pilots first to see how successful it’s likely to be for each use case, says Rennella.

IT addiction No. 3: Infrastructure

Many CIOs who’ve spent the majority of their careers managing data centers and the people who run them are often unable or unwilling to let go. For them, infrastructure is literally addicting, says Chandra Sekar, vice president of marketing at Avi Networks, a cloud-based application delivery platform.

“The whir of fans and blinking lights gave people a sense of control and power,” he says. “As you’d walk past rows of servers, load balancers, firewalls and switches in the data center, you couldn’t help but keep a tally in your head. If you had more servers and appliances, you knew you were at the better company. Hardware was an addiction.”

Sekar, who calls himself a “recovering engineer,” says he overcame his addiction when he began working for companies that embraced cloud computing.  

“Cloud migration is one of the biggest trends in enterprise IT, but not all IT pros have been able to let go of their addiction to hardware appliances,” he says. “Holding onto a hardware-centric view instead of an application-centric one slows down a company’s ability to innovate and thrive.”

The cure: Think more deliberately about what apps and services truly need to be on premises, and put the rest in the cloud. This will free up CIOs to think more strategically about the business, says Doug Bordonaro, chief data evangelist at ThoughtSpot, a “human-scale” analytics firm.

“CIOs spend too much time on infrastructure, and not enough time on future-proofing the business,” he says. “They need to break the infrastructure addiction and spend more time investing in and monetizing data programs, or equipping staff with cutting-edge skills.”

IT addiction No. 4: Slack

Of all the real-time always-on business communication tools, Slack has found a particular niche in the world of tech. And so has Slack addiction.

The problem is that organizations can become so reliant on the chat tool that it becomes the dominant form of communication. People end up spending more time Slacking than working. 

Dave Teare, co-founder and CTO of AgileBits, makers of 1Password, knows this well. Two years ago he wrote a post on his company’s blog about how its increasing dependence on Slack had become more harmful than helpful.

“Slowly but surely this addiction has been killing my sanity and sapping our productivity as we simply used Slack for too many things,” he wrote.

When AgileBits first started using Slack, everyone loved it. Before long, the company’s 60 employees had created 81 public Slack channels. Any time employees had a question, Slack was the first place they went, even when better options like internal wikis and knowledge bases were available.

But the more conversations that were spawned, the less likely it became to have a detailed, in-depth discussion about anything.

“The thing is, being connected doesn’t magically enable effective communication,” Teare wrote.

Teare says he found himself trying desperately to keep up with all the Slack conversations going on in his company and growing more curt in his responses, before he finally decided to pull the plug for a while.

When AgileBits returned to Slack a few weeks later, it had established new rules: keep channels more focused, invite fewer team members to each discussion, and use it only for ephemeral chats, explains Jeff Shiner, the company’s CEO (chief eliminator of obstacles). When a discussion needs to saved or archived, AgileBits uses other tools like Workplace.

“People lose the ability to communicate properly when they rely on any form of technology as the sole means of communication,” says Jimmy Carroll, a partner and director at TetraVX, which makes communication and collaboration technology. “Things take a lot longer to accomplish.”

The cure: Create rules around Slack and other forms of corporate communication. For example, encourage employees to use video chat to resolve problems, or require them to pick up the phone and talk if an email string goes on beyond a handful of back and forth messages, says Carroll.

“But this has to come from the top down,” he says. “You need to establish procedures to protect your employees from themselves.”

IT addiction No. 5: Control

As more businesses evolve into digital-first organizations, some IT pros instinctively move to protect their turf by hoarding knowledge and establishing mini-fiefdoms. They’re addicted to having control over their domains of expertise.

You know you have a problem when your IT shop starts to resemble Game of Thrones, says Meikle.

“Each manager fights over control of their area, quickly dispatching foes who ask pointed questions about critical systems,” he says. “Your staff zealously guards access and knowledge of your fiefdom. Budgets, processes, staffing levels are all opaque and you rant about how the business customers are idiots.”

The emergence of new C-suite entrants like chief digital officer, chief experience officer, or chief marketing technology officer creates even greater potential for turf wars, as each hopes to carve out their own pieces of the technology pie.

Everyone looking out for their own agendas is a recipe for disaster, says Scott Kitlinski, CIO and vice president of managed services for Astadia, a cloud consultancy.

“They all play different roles that should fit together synergistically,” he says. “They’re better off teaming up, and whose budget dollars end up where should be a moot point. It’s really about who is going to play what role to spend those dollars in the interest of the organization.”

The cure: Give up the illusion of control and embrace sharing and transparency, says Meikle.

“You need to move from hoarding knowledge to sharing it,” he says. “Reward your staff for sharing information and assisting others. Put processes in place to create transparency in how the IT department functions.”

IT addiction No. 6: Blinking lights

Science has shown that every time your phone pings, a tiny jolt of dopamine goes coursing through your brain. But notifications are just as addictive for techs glued to dashboards, eagerly awaiting the next blinking light.

“We all have that one thing we compulsively check,” says Leon Adato, head geek for SolarWinds, makers of infrastructure management software. “It could be the NOC dashboard, it could be the performance tracker for your ‘baby’ system, it could be cloud statistics. For many, it’s the monitoring dashboard.”

Constant random notifications hijack your attention, depleting your ability to do productive work, says Prince Ghuman, a professor of neuro marketing, communications, and entrepreneurship at the Hult International Business School.

“We have a limited attention span, and our willpower is also limited,” says Ghuman, who’s co-authoring a book on digital addiction. “Every time that you give in to a notification, your willpower is being depleted. If you deplete that willpower early on in the day, you’re more likely to make worse decisions later on in the day.”

You know you’re addicted to notifications when you realize they’re keeping you from your work, says Adato. If you feel guilty about how much time you spend obsessing over dashboards, that’s a clear sign.

The cure: IT pros need to be more disciplined about how they spend their time, says Adato. Use tools that let you identify and filter important notifications from the rest, and set limits on how much time you spend checking screens instead of getting actual work done.

IT addiction No. 7: Shiny new objects

Everybody loves new toys. But when it results in closets full of unused hardware and licenses for software that time has forgotten, you’ve got a problem.

“There’s a beautiful fixation that we all have with what I call the shiny, bouncy ball syndrome,” says Ingrid Lindberg, founder of Chief Customer, a customer experience marketing firm. “What do we need to build next? What do we need to do next? What do we need to sell next? And the thing I’ve found that has the most impact for customers is, Are you actually just meeting the basics? Are you making it easier for them to do things?”

The latest hardware or software is not a panacea for solving your most critical IT issues, notes Meikle.

“Remember the business triangle — people, process, and technology?” he asks. “People and process are equally if not more important than all the hardware and software in your arsenal.”

The cure: Instead of purchasing the latest shiny object, Meikle suggests taking that money and applying it to training the people who work for you. Build a team to manage your projects. And make sure there’s a clear business justification for every major purchase.

“When you don’t know the business justification for spending dollars on an IT asset, then you need to step away from the glossy trade rags and get back to the basics.”