Comment: The great IT make believe

I am seemingly alone when saying this, but information technology (IT) is not the complex and mystical field it pretends to be. IT specialists aren’t that special either. We seem to have gone beyond the one-time caricature of the inept “geek”, even if such jobs still tend to attract people with off-beat personalities and disconnected world views. The fact is that the world of business relies fundamentally on their contribution and has therefore suppressed its better judgement to the point where it has withered away.

At this point only the most loyal and open-minded reader will still be on this page. But there are things that really need to be said and bypassing this issue will not make the problems go away. My premise is that IT is too important to be left in the hands of its current masters. This, I contend, is the reason why technology has not lived up to its true promise over the years; why processes have become faster without becoming fundamentally more powerful; why the ROI on technology spend is nowhere near what it could so readily be; why, indeed, since the world economic crisis GDP growth has been so sluggish.

The first issue is the intellectual level of IT skills themselves. Although some computer languages are very ornate and seem mathematically sophisticated, they are, after all, just based on binary code and are seldom that difficult to learn. It does not require a degree in mathematics to be competent in SQL, Java and C++. Moreover, it will surprise many employers to learn that many Masters graduates in computer science will have done little or no hands-on programming/coding. This is because so few of their teachers possess that capability. Although knowledge of Hungarian as a second language will generally not impress an interview panel, it is, in fact, many hundreds percent more difficult to learn that language from scratch to fluency than Java. Yes, it requires a different kind of mind to learn a foreign language, but the demands are far greater on the intellect. This is especially so with Hungarian as it has 35 distinct cases to learn, compared to English, which has largely abandoned cases altogether.

What we are also dealing with here is the phenomenon of the “learned ignoramus” – a person who, in spite of advanced skills in a narrow sphere of technical capability, is still ignorant about such matters as geographical issues, historical issues, current affairs and even scientific know-how outside their sphere. Spend a day stuck in a lift with such a person and you will need months of psychiatric rehabilitation. Yet such people are commonplace and, although not possible to quantify, the world of IT is full of them. So why do we leave all the key developments in a business to people who do not know which is further west, Bristol or Edinburgh? (It is Edinburgh by the way.)

Another reason to question the societal reverence for dislocated IT know-how is because of the coming age of AI “superintelligence”. The guardians of AI will have a huge potential capacity to manipulate populations through misinformation. This will be extremely difficult to counter unless AI is a shared capability and those in a wide variety of technical fields and levels of management have advanced AI capabilities.

Whatever has got us into this mess we have certainly compounded it by paying IT well above their market worth. They slunk into this powerful position in the early days of wide-scale computerisation by being in short supply and then by job hopping from one employer to the next for a raise each time. But, as more IT professionals were produced, their market value did not decline. This was partly because we were by then convinced that the words “computing” and “guru” were almost one and the same. Thus, even website developers using WordPress for all their projects were able to charge twice the rate of a language teacher, even though the intellectual level of their activities was little more than that of a typical 18-year-old school graduate.

IT is also a heavily male profession – so most of the rewards gained will not be evenly divided across the workforce according to merit. In the EU, 84 % of those employed in information and communications technology (ICT) are men. At its lowest concentration is Bulgaria with 66%, but travel west to the Czech Republic and its proportion rises to 93%, making it virtually an all-male club.

There is a way out of this Plato’s cave, but only if the corporate world is prepared to change the whole way that they handle IT requirements. Currently the IT professional controls the gateway to computerised processes; they do not want to let users in and ruin their mystique and market value. But that is precisely what needs to happen. The user must gain a greater level of computing skills at a programming level and push the IT specialist out to a largely advisory role. Then, and only then, will the potential power of IT to transform modern business life finally happen.

In the next newswire I shall be looking at another controversial area of reward – CEO pay.

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