Look for incompetence before you go paranoid

I suggest that many of the problems organisations face can be traced back to a few observations

  • There are limited resources, the organisation can’t do everything.
  • Most of the important problems faced by the organisation are wicked problems.
    There is no one correct solution, or even an easy way to identify the “best” solution.
  • Large organisations are inherently “multi-cultural”.
    The different professions which make up an organisation have different world views.

Consequently, when it comes to solving a difficult problem there are on-going battles between the different sub-cultures about how to best solve the problem. Battles that can often (and sometimes quickly) decline into political battles that can get quite nasty. So nasty that people can often feel (sometimes rightly so) that people out to get them.

For quite some time I’ve used the following phrase as an alternative perspective

Look for incompetence before you go paranoid.

To be honest, the original intent was probably to suggest that the other folk know less (incompetence). My understanding of it has evolved now to the stage that, most of the time, their “incomptence” simply means that they know differently. Their different cultural perspective is showing through. They have a different way of looking at the world

The trouble is that every perspective or world view brings its own blind spots. People with a certain perspective simply can’t see things that others can. An example/technical definition of this is inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness.

An example wicked problem

An example wicked problem is the selection of an information system to support e-learning within a university. A decision being faced at my current institution. The decision has been made to go from Blackboard v6.3 to an open source learning management system – either Sakai or Moodle.

One of the reasons behind the move to an open source LMS is the reduction in cost. There are a range of perspectives about this reason. On a recent post in her blog Jocene describes one of these perspectives as held by someone at the institution.

He was a fan of the system. Apparently it only costs the university $55k per annum to run it as the CMS. Now I haven’t actually shopped around, but it sounds like a bargain to me. Anyway, we are moving away from it, apparently, to something more expensive and less familiar to the end-users

Would be interesting to hear the argument about how Blackboard is cheaper, at least on this point. I believe the $55K mention is meant to represent licence fees paid to Blackboard for using their product. Given that the open source product has no licence fees, am not sure how it can be more expensive.

Of course this doesn’t factor in support costs etc. But the support costs are going to be pretty much the same. The lack of familiarity to uses is going to be a problem, but then we have to move away from Blackboard 6.3 (it’s no longer support by the vendor at the end of next year) and even if we moved to a more recent version of Blackboard. That version is going to be as unfamiliar to the users as either open source version.

The above shows just two very different views of this problem. If you delve deeper into the different conceptions of this problem held by the various different sub-cultures at the institution you would be almost certain to find many, many more. And these are likely to create significant discussions.

Perceptual blindness

I’m willing to bet that very few, if any, of those perceptions, especially those held by people directly involved in the selection process, contain anything like the perceptions Jocene continues on with in her blog post.

I wonder if the person Jocene was talking with is able to see the alternate perspective Jocene expresses?

Paraphrased by me, that perspective sees a level of control in the position of the IT support person in their definining of what systems can be used and in their use of language to exclude non-IT people. The perspective raises the question of whether or not the rise of PLEs, Web 2.0 and social media will clash with this level of control and even turn the tables and put the control back in the hand of the “users”

Aside: There’s the old question, “There are only two industries in the world that call their clients/customers ‘users’. Can you guess which ones?
The computer industry and the illicit drug trade”.

The warlike atmosphere

For me this discussion is starting to develop into a dichotomy. On one side you have the “controlling IT folk” who are denigrating users and making it more difficult. At the other end you have the downtrodden user fighting back with the help of the liberating technology of PLEs, Web2.0 etc.

In trying to make that point I looked at the Wikipedia page on dichotomy which includes the following interesting and relevant quote

In The Argument Culture (1998), Deborah Tannen suggests that the dialogue of Western culture is characterized by a warlike atmosphere in which the winning side has truth (like a trophy). In such a dialogue, the middle alternatives are virtually ignored.

To often it appears that the differences in opinion within organisations lead to a warlike atmosphere that creates an environment where the middle alternatives, usually the more appropriate alternatives, are ignored. An environment in which there can only be one winner.

An environment where paranoia leads to the assumption that the bastards are out to get me and I better fight back. Rather than an understanding that the bastards are actually “incompetent” (i.e. they have a different perspective on the situation and that there may actually be value in engaging in a dialogue.

PLEs and universities

Each year EDUCAUSE (a US-based “nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology”) surveys “technology leaders in higher education” about their top concerns. The 2007 Top-Ten IT Issues survey results indicate that the #1 concern is “Funding IT”. This had been the #1 concern for 2003 to 2005 and “lost out” in 2006 to a combined concern (Security and Identity/Access Management) which was split in 2007.

In this type of environment, it’s not surprising that IT leaders are keen to control how and what is done with IT at universities. They have to pay for it and they are concerned about how they can pay for it. IT is expensive and the only way you can save money is to ensure that it is used efficiently and you need IT expertise to make those judgements.

There are a number of folk, including me, who have argued that the changes behind PLEs, Web 2.0 etc. are creating a paradigm change for IT departments. A paradigm change is not an easy thing to handle.

Consequently any project that seeks to introduce the use of PLEs or even simply Web 2.0 technologies into an existing organisation is going to have to deal with a likely paradigm change. A change that, according to Kuhn, only happens through a complex social process. An engaged dialogue, rather than a war.

One thought on “Look for incompetence before you go paranoid

  1. Pingback: The gulf between users and IT departments « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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