‘Practiced Helplessness’ Reaches in to I.T.

A few weeks ago, veteran political commentator Vincent Browne (@vincentbrowne) spoke of the “practiced helplessness” of Irish men. In his article he said men fail to do the most basic tasks around the house and described it as:

That learnt inability to do the most basic chores, an incapacity to cook, to clean-up, to change nappies, to soothe crying babies in the middle of the night.

Browne argued that a male-dominated political system uses this to keep women at home and “away from the arenas of power and influence.” He then says this tool in the “subjugation of women” has gone on to destroy the State because politicians and senior civil servants apply this helplessness in their professional lives.

So, by failing to master their briefs, for example, politicians and civil servants took on private bank debt as sovereign debt. They were then forced to turn to the IMF & EU for a bailout that will act as a millstone for generations to come. The Economist has more here on the Irish debt situation.

While I won’t claim “subjugation” as an IT professional, I can tell of how I have seen practiced helplessness first hand in my professional life. The level of cluelessness about computers is mind boggling, and spans all levels of the organization.

In what other area of business would helpless shrugs and cheerful admissions of ignorance be tolerated? What member of senior management could hold on to their jobs if they professed to knowing nothing about marketing? Or customer service? Or finance?

And it has more to do with people who cannot use a mouse or Excel even though that kind of nonsense is a real waste of staff time, too.  It has to do with the fact that they cannot conceive of IT as an engine for growth or that IT could drive innovation or that IT could spur efficiency.

Thinking about it still brings to mind a column by economist, David McWilliams (@davidmcw), I read several years ago. I have been unable to track it down, but I remember laughing out loud when I read it first.

In the article, McWilliams talks about the latent productivity gains yet to be realized in Ireland when the current leadership cohort retires. The reason: They are absolutely useless when it comes to technology while the younger crowd behind them is well able for it.

Prof. Joe Peppard, an Irishman who is course director of Cranfield University School of Management’s IT Leadership Program, has studied the disconnect between IT and the business.

In addition to being a lecturer, Peppard is a consultant, author, company director and Fellow of the Irish Computer Society, or ICS (@irishcompsoc). He has frequently lectured at the ICS, and has been very entertaining while talking about the personality differences between those IT and the business.

In his latest talk in Dublin, however, Peppard presented a paper (PDF) that had just been published in the California Management Review.

Once again, he tackled the difficulties presented by the IT/business split. In the past, he frequently spoke of how IT guys rarely reach out to “the business.” In his latest paper, however, non-IT management is put under the microscope.

And while IT has its problems, the rest of the CxO team bears a lot of the blame, Peppard said. His research says blaming the CIO for IT failings is misplaced due to inappropriate expectations of the CIO’s role. Some CEOs recognized this failing, and spoke of the need to increase IT savviness across the management team. Peppard said IT can only do so much to drive the business forward.

Instead, it must be understood that the IT savviness of the CEO and senior leadership team are also pivotal to the realization of IT value in today’s organizations.

Image of helpless bug courtesy of solidxsnake13224 on Flickr.

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