Abdication of Advocacy

How do we advocate for ourselves and the groups we want to promote? A friend of mine showed me an article about Information Technology support politics. As a longtime IT worker, the article disheartened me by ending in the same mistaken way so many advocacy articles do: making a plea to power holders for help. Using IT as an example, let’s talk about how IT advocacy goes wrong, and how to make it right.

Start with a quote from the first page: “When I’m recruiting support people, I don’t recruit them for their technical skills, I recruit them for how they get on with people.” So much yes. If we’re in IT support, we do two things when someone comes to us looking for support: validate their feelings, and help them find an answer. The former is more important than the latter, because Google and other search engines made knowledge much less important than the ability to find the knowledge. That’s why data science is the hottest tech job in the market right now. The issue isn’t finding data (although doing that correctly matters a lot). It’s figuring out how to shape data in useful ways. For IT support, validating a person’s feelings about a problem in turn validates the IT helper, and then both people can proceed to a solution.

IT people join doctors and lawyers in placing their value on the knowledge they have. Even now in medical school, new doctors are told to realize that in the age of internet information overflow, patients may know more about their own maladies than the doctors will. A doctor’s new job isn’t just to figure out what’s going on, but also to help patients sort through the mass of possibilities and false leads the patients found on the internet.

Well into the new century, IT as a profession still hasn’t come to terms with this power shift. The digital wild west in the working world is long gone. We IT people are digital janitors. Get over it. Better yet, leverage it. Every time I see someone rail against outsourcing, I want to say, go talk to the steel mill workers about layoffs. Yes, IT people suffer as they get replaced with automation and cheap labor, but if we truly think that an association with technology entitles us to perpetual benefits, we are exploiters who have no basis for complaining when the tables turned and we get exploited. More important than that, we miss the real opportunity to make an impact for our workplace and ourselves.

Things take a bad turn in the article once the author starts talking about how nobody likes IT because we’re naysayers. Listen, janitors don’t get to say no. Not even six-digit salary digital janitors. We don’t get to say no, because our job is to say yes.

We cannot have effective organizations if the people who maintain our resources can say no. People who keep the electricity, water, and heating/cooling working don’t get to say no. Likewise, people who keep the network and server storage working don’t get to say no. If we’re in IT and this makes us cringe, we either don’t understand our field, or our job has beaten us down because we weren’t given the resources with which to say yes in the first place.

Two types of people get to say no: people who control money, and people who manage people. Money and people are the two resources which engender veto power. No, you cannot use people for this, and no, you cannot spend money on that. Once money and human effort convert into resources, the option for saying no disappears.

Incidentally, this is why copyright and patent law is so difficult: once human effort becomes a product, it leaves control. You can’t force me to write another book, but you can copy the hell out of the one I wrote, and I can’t stop you. The law can’t stop you. The law can try to punish you, but that may take a disproportionate amount of resources to do so. So you have to make it worth the while of the law for people to come after you.

I’ll reiterate. Saying no is not the job of IT people. Our job is to say yes. So how do we control and influence the “yes”, and advocate for ourselves? We frame the needs of our clients to help them navigate problems they don’t understand. After all, they pay us to help understand!

The article unintentionally shows a great example of this problem when it talks about people who don’t understand why they can have all the shiny technology at home, but work disallows it. If the newest version of Windows runs fine on their discount computer at home, but barfs when the flashy new browser hoses their workplace’s custom website, whose fault is that? …The IT department.

Saying that in front of many IT departments would earn me a lot of hate. But consider this: if we worked so hard on our custom code for our website, and it breaks in a new browser, are we focusing our work on the right thing? We’re either a big enough business to keep up with browser revisions, or we’re a small enough business where we should use off-the-shelf code that someone else maintains. “But that’s a security risk!” Really? So why are we using someone else’s operating systems? Either we’re okay with using third-party software or we’re not.

The difference between ineffective and effective IT people is the difference between naysayers, versus those who can demonstrate to clients how to keep from shooting themselves in the foot. Again, this difference is less about technical skills and more about customer service skills.

Let’s take the website incompatibility example: I’ll show the wrong, stereotypical IT way to deal with the situation, then the right way that makes an IT person look amazing.

Joe: “Hey, I can’t access the company website from my home laptop, and I just got the laptop. What’s wrong with the website?”
IT person: “Nothing’s wrong. You’re probably using the new Internet Explorer, which isn’t compatible with the website.”
Joe: “How is it not compatible? It’s brand new!”
IT person: “That’s right. It’s too new, and not secure, so we don’t allow access via that browser. You can download an older version of Firefox if you want.”
Joe: “Too new? What the heck does that mean! Is your website too old?”
IT person: “No, our website works fine. You use it from work. We just don’t allow insecure or untested browsers.”
Joe: “Is that so? Then how come Jenny over in Accounting got a new laptop and she can access the site just fine?”
IT person: “Because she downloaded an older browser?”
Joe: “No, she hates Foxfire.”
IT person: “Then she got a different browser.”
Joe: “I saw her do it, it was Internet Explorer!”
IT person: “Then it was probably an older version.”
Joe: “But her computer was new!”
IT person: “Then maybe she found a way to use it in compatibility mode.”
Joe: “Why don’t you just fix the site instead of making us jump through all of these hoops?”
IT person: “We can’t just ‘fix the site’. We have to make sure that it stays secure so that if you download a virus, your computer can’t get into the site and wreak havok.”
Joe: “Your whole department is incompetent! No other site that I go to has a problem with the new browser.”

The sheer rage on both sides…wow. Contrast that wreck of a situation with this exchange:

Joe: “Hey, I can’t access the company website from my home laptop, and I just got the laptop. What’s wrong with the website?”
IT person: “The site still works for you at work, right?”
Joe: “Yep.”
IT person: “You’re probably using the new Internet Explorer on your home laptop, and we haven’t updated the website to be compatible yet. Rather than have the website mess up on you, we disallowed access from that browser. But you can download an older version of Firefox to get to the website from home, if you like.”
Joe: “Jenny over in Accounting got a new laptop and she can access the site just fine.”
IT person: “That’s probably what she did.”
Joe: “Nope, she hates Foxfire.”
IT person: “Really! That’d be great if she found a way to get things working. Maybe she used IE’s compatibility mode to do it. If you want, I can contact her to find out.”
Joe: “Why don’t you just fix the site instead of making us jump through all these hoops?”
IT person: “I wish we could, especially because it’s affecting an increasing number of people, but we don’t have the resources to do it right now.”
Joe: “Don’t have the resources? Can’t you just get someone to just spend a week to do a few updates on the site?”
IT person: “Normally, yes, but the guy who knows how to do it is up to his neck getting the billing system upgraded. He wants that done in the next month so that Accounting doesn’t run into any serious issues when they run a big project.
Joe: “Well that sure sucks for the rest of us.”
IT person: “It does. But at least we have a workaround. Let me know if want any help getting that up and running.”

In this version, the IT person constantly validates Joe’s concerns. No blame, no judgment, just acknowledgement of the situation and a consistent redirect toward solutions. Notice how the IT person also sets up the opportunity to find out what Jenny’s doing (which may preemptively discover another user problem) and validates a coworker’s work by talking about how overloaded the coworker is with another project.

Any department (including IT) that needs “greater integration and respect” as the article says, instead needs to learn how to advocate for itself. While lack of advocacy is not uncommon, we must understand that artificially bolstering a department into a position of greater power actually leads to abdication of advocacy. We like to think that if we just got a chance to integrate with projects instead of plod along as digital janitors, people would like us more and we’d be more effective, perpetuating an upward spiral. It’s not true.

When a bolstered department gets a seat at the planning table, everyone else knows it. Everyone else adopts a “politely listen and dismiss” attitude toward the person representing the bolstered department. The person has to work extra hard to overcome this bias, and frankly, if the department couldn’t advocate to earn the spot in the first place, they’re not capable of advocating to overcome the bias. That’s a losing situation for everyone.

Instead, the IT (or any) department needs to continually show the consequences of actions taken for or against the department. Did someone bring in their own infected laptop to work and we locked out their account? Tell the person we’re re-enabling the account and that they shouldn’t turn on the laptop at work again until they take it to someone to get cleaned, otherwise the account will lock again. Direct consequence. Did someone use departmental funds to buy a bargain non-standard computer for the secretary? Praise them for finding a good deal, but tell them that if they end up keeping that machine, we don’t have the software to rescue it if anything happens. Direct consequence. Did someone give an amazing presentation using the wireless video setup in the conference room? Then for goodness’ sake, contact their boss and praise the way that the person leveraged the technology to impress the audience and made their department look so good! Direct consequence. Making others look good makes IT look good, and it’s up to IT to recognize and advocate. That’s how IT (and anyone) earns a spot at the table for the next project.

When you provide a resource or service, don’t take credit for a success. Give credit to someone else for using the tools you provide, and you implicitly credit yourself.

The closing quote of the article inadvertently demonstrates the real problem many IT departments face: “‘The role of an IT department…needs to become more of a strategic enabler and much more involved in information management, governance of information, as well as organisational change, improvement and transformation.’ — Martin Ferguson”. This quote, while true, says nothing. Yes, IT needs all that. But how? That’s the real question, and most organizations get the answer wrong because they try to fix IT from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

IT for organizations only works when the IT department advocates for itself to optimize services for the organization, NOT when the organization advocates for the IT department. This begets the larger lesson of advocacy: don’t ask for rights and benefits — obtain them by demonstrating how we provide them for others.

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