Cultural Impacts to IT
By David Marble, CEO, OSHEAN Inc.
We recently enjoyed our annual Member Forum, a daylong event centered on the theme of “disruption.” As I posted in an earlier blog, the word disruption, while a bit cliché, has an interesting depth that we thought would fit this audience by juxtaposing the concept of planning versus disruption. I postured that perfect planning eliminates disruption, but those of us in real-world IT know that is an unattainable ideal. We challenge ourselves each day with the task of minimizing disruptions to make our services both intuitive and invisible to our user community. Yet with each improvement we make, expectations increase. Formerly, it would be easy to find a maintenance window for an upgrade. Now, the moon must be in the seventh house and Jupiter needs to align with Mars. Even our nomenclature reveals this trend when “disaster-recovery” is replaced by “business-continuity,” reflecting our new reality demand for “always on.” Managing stakeholder expectations becomes the challenge of the day.
Our keynote speaker at the forum was Dr. Karl Aspelund of the University of Rhode Island, speaking about his work on the project, “The 100 Year Starship” (see http://100yss.org/). I had learned of this fascinating endeavor at this year’s Internet2 Global Summit in a keynote by Dr. Mae Jameson, where she described the concepts involved in planning for something as complex as interstellar travel. Dr. Jameson was the first African-American woman in space and appeared on Star Trek, the latter giving her instant credibility with the Internet2 audience—and yours truly. During her wonderful talk, I was pleased to learn of Dr. Aspelund’s project participation, and since he’s right here in our back yard, we decided to engage him upon my return from the conference.
The holistic nature of this complex problem set became evident as soon as I learned that Dr. Aspelund comes from a background in anthropology, textiles and fashion. His entry into the project began with calling Dr. Jameson and asking, “What are you going to wear?” From that simple question came a litany of issues the team had previously not considered (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=262O058qHng). Dr. Aspelund’s talk was fascinating as it quickly transcended the technical details of clothing in space—which are daunting enough—and went straight into people, identity, sociology and culture. The complexity of the task required that the diversity of the individuals making the trip be considered, their blend into a new culture created from scratch with heretofore never-encountered variables, and the development of common threads that would respect that diversity while driving the common mission goals. This, all without knowing who would be going in the first place.
During the talk, I kept my running tally of analogies to our business and was astonished by the poignancy. We in IT often get myopic about the technology we deal with when in fact, it is the people, sociology and culture of our organizations that have the biggest impact on our successes, or lack thereof. How do we show our value when we are supposed to be invisible? How do we justify spending on disaster recovery or security to finance and administration stakeholders who do not understand our language? How do we serve the research community when we have no idea what they do nor how they do it?
Our purview at OSHEAN provides a great perspective to member strategies for creating innovative or agile cultures. We can see both those who are hamstrung by conservative leadership or staffs resistant to change, and those that thrive when leadership changes or overcomes bureaucracy. I once heard a talk by famed author Daniel Pink, who had done an extensive survey detailing how much time we all spend in sales—no matter what our profession. The percentage of time we spend each workday selling an idea or promoting a cause is amazingly high. In a world where we are building 100 gigabyte optical superhighways to connect petabyte storage systems to teraflop supercomputers, we still rely on motivation and sales tactics to drive our project teams, garner budgets, inform executive management and support end users. Maybe we need to spend less time on advances in tunable optics and more time on the nature of humanity. As my wife likes to say, “just sayin’!”