Start Making Sense

A savvy tech pro can avert upper-management idiocy.

For many IT managers and CIOs, the biggest challenge isnt dealing with users or preventing attacks on their systems by malicious crackers, its dealing with their own bosses cluelessness.

Im not talking about the problem of selling IT to a CEO who doesnt understand the value and return on big IT projects and applications. Im talking about CEOs who think they know something about technology. Often, they make sweeping, ill-advised decisions that can set a company behind its competitors by years. Think of the pointy-haired boss from Scott Adams Dilbert comic strip.

An example of technologically clueless decision making was a recent decision by the CEO of a British cell phone company to ban the use of e-mail by employees. In September, John Caudwell, CEO of Phones4U, banned e-mail use for inter-employee communications in his company, based on the assumption that employees were wasting 3 hours a day on e-mail communications among themselves. He backed this up by stating that the change would save his company a million pounds a month.

For anyone who works in an office today, the only response to such a decision has to be "huh?".

Caudwell, as you might guess, admits to not using e-mail. That probably explains his thinking. But what about 3 hours a day spent solely using e-mail? That does seem like a lot. Now, as a technology journalist, I use e-mail frequently, communicating with technology vendors, readers, editors, sources and my colleagues. By almost any measure, I would have to be considered a heavy e-mail user.

So, for the last couple of weeks, I decided to clock my e-mail usage, turning on the timer whenever I entered the e-mail program to read and respond to messages. Guess what? Even on my busiest days, I rarely spent more than an hour specifically dealing with e-mail, and that included dealing with the large amounts of spam I receive. And if I broke it down to just e-mail to and from colleagues, the time dropped to around 30 minutes daily.

How about the efficiency of e-mail compared with other forms of communication? The conclusion that e-mail is less efficient could only be reached by someone who has no understanding of the average workers environment. Any employee knows that the amount of time it takes to send Bob an e-mail asking about his impressions on the sales numbers is much less than the amount of time it would take to call Bob or walk to his office with the same question. And thats not taking into account the very high probability that the discussion would likely be preceded and followed by polite chitchat.

Maybe the workplace culture at Phones4U is unlike that at any other company in the world. But my guess is that the decision to ban e-mail will end up costing the company money in lost productivity. Theres a good chance that the IT people at the company understood this, even if they didnt say it publicly.

Although most IT managers and CIOs probably havent had to deal with decisions this extreme, theres a good chance that many have dealt with something similar, from management killing an IT project just when it was about to show a return on investment to CEOs forcing a favorite vendors products on a rightfully skeptical IT department.

Many vendors, especially those that sell security and Internet-filtering products and services, play on the fears of top management. They send out product pitches that wont work on IT but tend to play well with upper management susceptible to any claim of lost productivity.

So what can IT managers and CIOs do? As some of eWEEKs Corporate Partners have told me, a key element of being an IT manager is to be seen as a partner of the business team and not just as the technology person. If upper management sees your decisions as being grounded in good business ideas as opposed to being classic geek techno-lust, theyll give your opinions a lot more consideration.

And you may just be able to head off a bad upper-management decision that will make your job a lot tougher.

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eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapozas e-mail address is