Faster Knob Twiddling

18 December 2003

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Every year in October, I head to Camden, Maine, USA, where the POP!Tech conference ( is held at the beautifully restored Camden Opera House. I got hooked about five years ago when Cutter Business Technology Council Fellow Tom DeMarco urged me to attend, and I’m really glad that I did. (Tom is one of the conference creators, and most years he serves as host and moderator.) One reviewer described it by saying, “Pop!Tech isn’t exactly a technology conference. It’s more about life and technology’s impact on it; about ethical decisionmaking in the Information Age, and how technology and humanity continuously change each other.” Nicely put.

At that time, the theme was “Being Human in the Digital Age.” That drew me in and now every year I make the trek to picturesque Camden, which is simply wonderful — a Maine Coast postcard. Among the people I got to meet were Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems (who gave a keynote), and two of the people who created POP!Tech — John Sculley, former CEO of Pepsico and Apple, and Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and inventor of the Ethernet. During the ice-cream socials, John and Bob serve sundaes with cherries and whipped cream. John wore a red apron embroidered with the name “Mary.” While chatting with him during one of the dinners this year, I said, “Rumor has it that Pop!Tech is really a veiled trick that you and Bob cooked up to get friends to come and visit Camden.” He replied, “That’s about right, actually.”

The place that I stay at is one of the splendid bed and breakfasts right in the village. We have a regular gang of POP!Tech folks, and each year it’s become sort of a reunion. Ruby is a financier who sponsors emerging artists. Sunny is president of an executive search firm. Linda (a past speaker on Internet security) is a vice president at Symantec (the Norton Anti-virus folks). Jim heads up a group at IBM.

This year I spent a bit of time getting to know Jim. He happens to be Dr. Jim Spohrer, and he’s heading up a research team at the IBM Almaden Services Research Group. Over breakfasts, we talked about IBM’s On-Demand initiative, organizational learning, and global consciousness, of all things. But what recently caught my interest is one of Jim’s projects that pulls together a team of anthropologists, linguists, and other human science professionals. They are on a mission to study how IBM’s IT professionals work together as part of a campaign to automate corporate data centers. They are working to understand how to boost productivity by studying human interaction.

Why would they bring together anthropologists, linguists, and the like? Because, as Jim described in a recent interview, they initially believed that the job of, say, a systems administrator, resulted in “the loneliest guy in town.” On the contrary, Jim says “We discovered that 95% of that person’s job is communication, and 5% is twiddling knobs. That discovery, he said, “has made a huge difference in how IBM is automating corporate data centers. Before, we were trying to create technology that was solely about twiddling the knobs faster.”

Think about that. Most folks, including IBM, had for years been focusing on making productivity gains in IT by emphasizing the “knob twiddling.” Imagine the potential returns by focusing on the human and team communications aspects of the job — the other 95%!

This past week, I had a series of meetings with a client, one of the largest bank-based financial services companies in the nation. This company is a major player in retail and wholesale banking, investment, financing, and money management services. I’m working with the group to uncover potential productivity gains in IT. We’ll measure and benchmark their core metrics against industry stats from a worldwide productivity database to establish a baseline, effect a series of strategic changes, and then measure again. During a two-day meeting with several of their VPs, one said that the CIO has a productivity improvement target — the CIO wants a whopping 15% return.

What if we spent all our time measuring and improving the knob twiddling, where, according to Jim Spohrer, only 5% of the gains reside? Even if we doubled or tripled the effectiveness of knob twiddling, we’ve eked out only a fraction of the potential. But that’s what technologists do — we focus on the technology because that’s our comfort zone. Give someone a hammer, and the world looks like a nail.

It’s tougher for IT professionals to focus on the “peopleware” aspects instead of just the hardware and software. And yet, that’s where the IBM Almaden folks are heading, because there are opportunities for larger gains in their view, given that 95% of the gold is on that side of the river.

In a recent Cutter Council Opinion (“Insourcing: The Other Alternative,” Vol. 4, No. 7), Tom DeMarco said, “IT is change…. That’s why IT is so difficult; it consists of so much more than writing and testing code. The real and always difficult challenge of IT is to transform the organization. The new program or system is merely a vehicle for this. The hard part is not getting the software to work but rather getting agreement on it before the fact and effecting the necessary changes to the company and its procedures afterward.”

Transforming the organization is almost always about difficult conversations and negotiations. To top it off, change is hard enough when there are only two parties involved — people often approach negotiations as “dig in your heels, zero-sum games.” That is to say, “more for you means less for me” and then the negotiation tactics begin. From my experience, IT negotiations are even more challenging because there are always multiple stakeholders. This makes getting agreement more like consensus-building at the UN. It gets even trickier when we have to implement outsourcing. In those cases, we have the issue of a cross-cultural, company boundary to deal with in order to effectively manage the relationship. Sometimes this relationship is an international one. My fellow Cutter colleague Stu Kliman once said, “If you create the boundary, you have to manage that boundary.” That’s the domain of relationship management.

And what about that 95%? I thought about this with regard to my own experience. Some years ago in my practice, I encouraged our team to think heavily about how we might execute better. We focused on all those knobs. Our numbers were great, but even with lots of work, it seemed like we’d hit a plateau. We twiddled and twiddled, but were getting nowhere. In the meantime, I noticed trouble was brewing.

Sure enough, it turned out that we had a major human communication and interaction problem that was hurting performance. Even divisive energies from outside the office were damaging productivity. Something drastic had to be done, and it involved tough decisions. At the time, it was as hard as anything I imagined, but we made it through. It took creative thinking, perseverance, and stamina to finally see the solution through to its conclusion as we made several significant transformations. Two and a half years later, I’m really glad we did it.

Today, performance numbers are at an all-time high, the team is hitting on all cylinders, and relationships are thriving. Jim Spohrer was right. It had very little to do with twiddling the knobs faster and everything to do with human interaction. For all of you folks out there considering similar initiatives, go for it. Take it one day at a time, and remember that it works if you work it.

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

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