Don’t Blame the Engineers

To better manage technology, a generalist must know it well enough and challenge it often enough to truly understand its potential risks and rewards.

In the aftermath of the Columbia space shuttle tragedy in February 2003 and the Great Blackout of August 2003 in the northeastern United States and Canada, concerns have surfaced about whether nontechnical managers are capable of effectively managing the complex engineered systems for which they are increasingly responsible. As one experienced observer recently commented: “The moral I carry from both the Columbia disaster and the blackout is the dismal level of technical expertise of this country’s managers. … The technical side gets derided as detail.” That challenge, of course, is hardly limited to quasipublic undertakings, such as space flight and electric power; it is endemic in the private sector as well, especially in the United States, where training in management has always eclipsed engineering expertise in determining executive progress.

As a management generalist with technical experience in diesel engines, pharmaceuticals, chemical engineering, information technology and electronic payments, I believe generalist managers are more than capable of successfully managing complex technical systems. It is management’s responsibility to know enough and to challenge well enough to understand the true risks that their technical environments embody. Meeting the challenge of effectiveness demands a combination of skills, some of which appear to have been lacking in both the Columbia disaster and the recent blackout.

Preparing To Manage

Anyone who expects to be accountable for the performance of a technology-driven system has to understand the basics of the technology. Anything less is irresponsible. A variety of approaches exists to gaining appropriate competence, from intensive off-site training to part-time exposure and mentoring. Which is most appropriate depends on both the technology and the scope of the job. For example, when I was learning diesel engine skills needed to run an overseas operation, I tore down engines, spent evenings with company experts in heavy equipment and passed hours digesting the details of electrical generators. As a newly appointed chief information officer of a Fortune 300 company, I underwent an intensive one-on-one “boot camp” conducted by a leading IT consulting firm. Whatever the means, the ends are specific and unique to the managerial role: to grasp enough of the technology to understand how things work, what they cost, their inherent risks and the central factors driving value and governing choice. A further objective is to learn the language of the technology so the manager can “talk the talk.&

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