Opinion by David Johnson

User-centric computing: No more lip service

What should IT be paying attention to above all else? How about our organizations' potential for human effectiveness?

Opinion by David Johnson

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Change and confusion reign in the technology world today. Consumerization, mobility and virtualization are disrupting the vendor landscape to an astounding degree. As an analyst at Forrester Research, I field between 90 and 120 inquiry calls every quarter from industry leaders trying to make sense of all these disruptions, which gives me a very good sense of what's missing. Gradually, new insights are emerging. There's one in particular that I think is most important.

The people calling are smart and almost always well informed about workforce computing technology, as well as compliance topics, because that's what they're being asked to look after by their leaders. But they're almost never informed about the human aspects of workforce computing -- the conditions that are necessary for the employees of their organization to be as effective as they can be, and how technology actually affects that. This is important because without this knowledge, we have no way to know how the technology and policy decisions we're making will affect the way people work, and that will have profound effects on innovation, productivity and business results.

As it turns out, this is not news to the scientists who study human behavior at work. In fact, the basic principles of when and why people do their best work has been well understood for more than two decades. Here's the kicker: What science knows is counter to the way most organizations operate. Theresa Amabile of Harvard Business School makes a compelling case in her book "The Progress Principle" that people are happiest when they have meaningful work and can make daily progress. Her research shows that this "inner work life" is a function of:

* Emotions: Examples: The joy we feel when we solve a complex problem, the disappointment we feel when a VP rejects our strategic plan, the gratitude we feel when a co-worker helps us with a favor, or the anger we feel when a co-worker betrays our trust and takes credit for our work.

* Perceptions: Examples: How we perceive things like the competency of our leadership, the viability of the company strategy, the value of our work, and the ethics of our co-workers.

* Motivation: Our grasp of what needs to be done at any given moment and our drive to it at that time. Example: Engaging, interesting and meaningful work are more effective motivators than financial incentives.

Amabile's work shows that, of these three, motivation is the most important, and her work echoes the earlier work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on motivation. Csikszentmihalyi's research was the first to explore a concept called "Flow" -- the state of optimal experience. In Flow, we are fully engaged in our work and we lose track of the passing of time. The more complex the work, the more effective a state of flow is for multiplying the results. Software developers and engineers will likely recognize this concept from their own work experiences, since they were likely experiencing Flow on those evenings when they totally lost track of time and ended up skipping dinner and going home at 2 a.m. after writing amazing code.

For our minds to reach a state of Flow, there are several prerequisites, but the most important for IT folks is the idea that if our clients are going to achieve Flow, they need to have autonomy and a sense of control over how the work will get done. The policy choices we make as an IT organization directly affect the sense of autonomy that these workers feel. Take engineers, as an example. Engineering of all kinds, software included, is a creative activity. Engineers need to have the freedom to experiment with different tools and approaches to solving problems, but when we constrain them to using a terminal, for example -- a very common scenario for offshore engineering -- or lock down their workstations, they lose the sense of autonomy so essential to reaching Flow. Making matters worse, the latency effects of server-hosted desktops (e.g., virtual desktop infrastructure) on a transoceanic scale can be enormously disruptive to concentration and Flow.

The point I want to make is that the human effectiveness potential of our organizations may be the single most important factor in our long-term business success, and yet we're sacrificing it to other priorities -- in part because the core science of what people need in order to be effective is getting lost in a sea of misinformation, rhetoric and technology marketing. As technologists, we think of the end-user experience as something we can monitor and get reports on, but we're missing the point. The end-user experience is a mosaic of emotions, perceptions and motivation -- all enhanced or eroded by our choices as leaders -- and technology choices play a defining role in information work. We have met the enemy, and he is us!

Are you a CIO or a senior leader who wants to make a lasting difference? Study the human behavior science of the inner work lives of employees in organizations -- Amabile's and Csikszentmihalyi's work are great places to start -- and educate yourself on how your decisions and approach to leadership and technology influence effectiveness and your people's drive and ability to do great work.

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

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