Thinking Styles of IT Executives

IT professionals seem to have an image problem: Senior executives persist in viewing them as analytical, detail-oriented and introverted — generally unsuitable for high-level strategic, “big-picture” responsibilities. Over the years, the use of numerous psychological studies in workplace settings — including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as well as surveys assessing attitudes toward goals and social interaction — has reinforced this perception. A recent study, however, once again challenges this IT stereotype and suggests that organizations are overlooking a valuable source of human capital.

Two Santa Clara University researchers collected survey data from 339 IT professionals working at more than 200 companies in the public and private sector in a variety of industries. They employed the InQ — a test consisting of 18 questions, developed in 1984 by communications and psychology researchers Allen F. Harrison and Robert M. Bramson —which examines how people process information (for example, “When I read a report, I am most likely to pay attention to . . . .”). Each question is followed by possible responses, which the person ranks from five (most typical of his/her style) to one (least typical). The InQ avoids categorizing subjects by personality measurement — for example, extroversion versus introversion — but instead focuses on their thinking style. Each response is linked to one of the five styles:

  • Synthesists find relationships in things that, to others, have no apparent connection. Highly creative and speculative, these integrators readily embrace change.
  • Idealists take a broad, holistic view of things. Future-oriented, they emphasize goals and social values, eschewing details in favor of the big picture.
  • Pragmatists thrive on action. Flexible and adaptive, they use “whatever works” to accomplish things.
  • Analysts are logical, structured and prescriptive. Preferring predictability and rationality, they seek the one best method, formula or procedure to solve a problem.
  • Realists take an empirical approach, relying on what they can directly see, hear and touch to evaluate ideas and generate concrete results.

The study sample, which was not random (a majority of the participants came from California), revealed that a significantly large percentage of the IT executives had peaks in the idealist and pragmatist styles, not in the expected analyst style. These results remained the same whether the significance evaluation was done with pooled or unpooled variance. The patterns indicate that most IT professionals may be far more capable of big-picture thinking and far less riveted on technical details than the prevailing stereotype would indicate.

In light of their findings, the authors conclude that perpetuating the stereotyped view amounts to a missed organizational opportunity for IT professionals and their firms. Information technology managers probably miss out on promotions and other career-enhancing opportunities while their organizations underutilize an important resource.

The intrinsic nature of IT work, assert the authors, provides the best possible training ground for senior managers. They suggest that the IT executive is uniquely positioned to discern whether a particular initiative benefits the whole enterprise. Also, since IT reduces the transaction costs of doing business outside the enterprise so companies can out-source nonstrategic activities and focus on core businesses, IT managers have great influence over simplifying and rationalizing operations. Indeed, say the authors, the IT executive — with a cross-business view, the ability to reduce organizational complexity and a general lack of allegiance to any one business function — comes closer to sharing the CEO's perspective than most other executives in a company.

The authors believe that IT executives may be able to, and would be allowed to, more broadly serve their organizations if they were to cultivate their objectivity and leverage their systems-oriented approach outside the IT realm.

More generally, the authors recommend that all managers become more aware of the styles of thinking exhibited by their employees and how each style or blend of styles can best serve the organization.

The March 2002 report is “ ‘I Think I Am, Therefore . . . ’: An Inquiry Into the Thinking Styles of IT Executives and Professionals” by Peter S. DeLisi, director of the Information Technology Leadership Program at Santa Clara University and president of Organizational Synergies, a strategy-consulting firm, and associate professor of computer engineering Ron Danielson, who is CIO of Santa Clara University.