How far can you get by delegating your IT strategy?

Your MBA course may have a large amount of IT content, but there is much more to IT than knowing what technologies are available. Practical involvement is at least as important as academic study, and you will soon reap dividends, says John Yardley

There was a time when many successful business leaders boasted about how technophobic they were. I don’t mean technophobic in the sense of never using a mobile phone or the Internet, I mean just being proud of the fact that they had no idea how IT worked. They were so successful, they were living proof that knowing how things work was clearly not a prerequisite of knowing how to make money.  That was down to others.

Yet look at the world’s most successful entrepreneurs today and you will see how much things have changed – Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison,  Mark Zuckerberg and of course, the late Steve Jobs – these guys are not old-school wheeler-dealers; fundamentally, they are engineers. But we should make it clear what we mean by engineers. There are still a large number of people that think the person that comes to repair your washing machine or car, is an engineer. Not so. The repair man is better described as a technician.

An engineer is trained to design things, not simply to fix them. People like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Wosniak, Masaru Ibuka and Sachin Bansal were all engineers that designed things.  Of course, the concept of an engineer varies around the world and in some countries, engineers are afforded more status than in others.

And while much of engineering is concerned with the design of physical things, an ever-greater proportion is ‘soft’.  The engineer’s aim is often to abstract the physical machine from the process, but designing the process is just as much an engineering task. More than anything, the development of the microcomputer has catapulted software development to one of the most significant branches of engineering. And the overall result is what we call Information Technology – because the raw material is now information (or data) rather than mild steel.

Another engineering system

Business is just another engineering system – each organisation has inputs and outputs and does something in between to make the outputs more valuable than the inputs. It is generally much easier for an engineer to turn his or her hand to business than an accountant, lawyer or a marketeer might turn his or her hand to designing a computer. But it is not because the accountant, lawyer or marketeer are stupid. It is simply that they tend to exclude themselves from a complete section of the business that they either consider beyond their capabilities, unimportant or even more sadly, beneath them. And the result is that non-engineers in business tend not to be very creative people. Sure, they can come up with some very creative ways of avoiding taxes, selling a product or  improving efficiency, but at the end of the day, the engineers prove you can make more money coming up with a great new idea than you can by exploiting an old one.

At the other end of the spectrum, highly creative people such as artists and musicians have no problem in creating something new, but often fall short when it comes to monetising it. And somewhere in between are the scientists.

There were two main reasons why in the past the money-men could afford not to dirty their hands outside their core business. First of all, and even more so than today, success came not from what you know but who you know. The Internet has changed all that. Never has it been easier to connect with the right people without belonging to their ‘club’. Second, IT forms a much greater part of any service or product than did anything else 50 years ago. There are very few industries that have not been massively affected by IT.

Now if you are studying for an MBA, you may feel quite satisfied that you have done the IT module, but does that really help you to guide a business in today’s IT dominated world? I think not. You can read a recipe for making bread, but that is a world apart from baking a loaf.

To get a feel for IT, you need to first write a computer program.  That does not necessarily mean writing a program to play chess, but it does need to do something real.  A good place to start is with a spreadsheet like Excel or Google Sheets. Most spreadsheets have an  in-built programming language which the large majority of spreadsheet users have no idea even exists. Yet they contain many of the elements that are essential to programming, notably the ‘IF’ statement.

Beyond this, PCs all have a way for users to write general purpose programs and if you get the bug, you can start playing with products like Arduino and Raspberry Pie.

Practical involvement provides greater insight

However, my point is not that one needs to learn how to program a computer, simply that practical involvement provides much greater insight than academic bookwork. And many of those students that come from a non-IT background somehow feel that either they need not know how things work or are incapable of learning.

That said, in the field of IT, programming does have a special place and it is surprising the number of people that make a living in IT without ever having programmed a computer. The reason programming is such a useful skill is that the most successful businesses compete because they have systems in place. I don’t necessarily mean computer systems.  I mean sets of rules by which the businesses are run. In IT parlance, we call these algorithms – a set of well-defined steps in which to achieve a goal. These steps can be constantly tuned to keep the business ahead of its competition, but the crucial thing is that it can be replicated at will. So the business becomes quickly scalable according to market conditions. And nothing gives a better insight to algorithms than computer programming. Furthermore, great is as creativity is, the world runs on legacy businesses. While it may be true that Elon Musk can make a lot of money from new cutting edge products, Jeff Bezos has made a lot of money from systemising the age-old process of buying and selling.

Most businesses have a core product or service and in order to effectively run that business it is important to understand all about the technicalities of that core business. Engineering and scientific undergraduate courses always involve a significant amount of practical work, which requires patience, skill and some research abilities. The great thing about IT is that you can get that practical experience without a massive investment in equipment.

Appreciate the options

When you attain a position in a company where you have to make decisions about IT strategy, some practical experience will greatly help your appreciation of the options. Not because you have the knowledge to choose the options but simply because you will gain the respect of those that do. Ultimately, you may have to delegate the task to someone who specialises in IT, but without some practical understanding you won’t know what questions you should be asking, and therefore what and who to delegate to.

And this applies just as much to every other aspect of the business. If you end up working for a brewery, I would recommend you go home and brew some beer. (I am not sure what I would recommend if you work for a nuclear power company though!)  The ability to ‘roll your sleeves up’ and ‘get stuck in’ transfers to every aspect of business.

Never let anyone tell you it is too complicated or beyond you. Any subject can be reduced to the level that anyone can understand it, and once you do, your confidence and decision-making ability improves with it.

So, to summarise, your MBA course may have a large amount of IT content, but there is much more to IT than knowing what technologies are available. If you invest the time in understanding IT rather than just passing the IT module, you will soon reap dividends. IT is rather like English. If you work somewhere for which English is not the first language, then for sure you can get someone to translate for you. But you will command more respect, and have far better control of your task – whatever it is –  if you invest the time in learning that language. So it is with IT. And IT is easier to learn than a foreign language.

Dr John Yardley is Managing Director of Threads Software.  John  began his career as a researcher in computer science and electronic engineering with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he undertook a PhD in speech recognition. In early 2019, John founded Threads Software Ltd as a spin off from his company JPY Ltd to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub.

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