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Are IT departments getting a reputation for purchasing technology...Just Because

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October 01, 2004
Technology | Investments
Michael Schubach, CHTP, - michael.schubach@thepinehurstcompany.com

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© 2004 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

As with every HITEC I attend, I gained some new and interesting insights into the technician’s world during our lovefest this past June in Dallas. In one of the educational sessions, an audience member asked the presenter, a remarkably well informed and very articulate IT professional (OK, it was me), to whom our company’s CIO reported. I looked down at all those eager IT faces and knew my forthcoming answer was going to win no fans. “He answers to the CFO.” An audible gasp arose from the crowd. How could I, poised so coolly on the cutting edge of technology, be party to such an oldthink blasphemy? I rattled off my audible-gasp rebuttal: I admitted that our formation might look and feel a bit old school but that different companies benefit from diverse organizational structures based on the situations, goals and personalities that drive the company. That was a pretty good response (noted above: articulate) but the question itself caused me to pause for an oldthink rethink.

Why do technicians abhor the thought of reporting through the accounting department? I mean for reasons other than the life-threatening tedium of the departmental meetings. This oldthink horror is based on an underlying assumption that IT is seen as a branch of accounting. That concept dates back to the first computer deployments when the only true automation was in the accounting department. Today there isn’t a single employee or guest that is untouched by technology, and most technicians feel that IT deserves its own place at the table like any other department.

But impact and organizational structure are two different issues. There isn’t an action anyone in the company can take that doesn’t have financial impact or implications; therefore, there isn’t any department that is immune from accounting scrutiny. Since everyone has to report to someone, where’s the harm in reporting to the person who is best in touch with the numbers that govern everyone’s life anyway? What feels like wounded pride tells technicians that they have been relegated to bean-counter land because no one else understands them or is willing to sift through the minutia our jobs entail.

That last thought – the one about IT being difficult to manage – isn’t exactly something I would classify as a carefully guarded secret. But far too many operations executives shy away from the management task because they don’t understand (or don’t want to) the demands of infrastructure, maintenance and eternal change. Executives who graduated from this school of thought are certainly entitled to their attitude. There are vast areas of technology that were never really intended for human contemplation. But those executives shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that the CPA on staff understands the challenge at any deeper level. Beans and bytes are not the same.

Today’s scary truism is that far too much is at stake for any contemporary executive to simply hope and pray that someone on the management team understands the IT wonks. Non-technicians need to conquer fear and dread, byte the bullet (as it were) and learn the working fundamentals of an indispensable part of their world. And on the other side of that coin, technicians need to learn to convey priorities and consequences from a business perspective and in a manner that mere mortals can understand. If that means acquiring a business perspective, then conquer that fear and dread and take a bite out of that bullet as well. It isn’t sufficient to be technically dazzling if we can’t manage to communicate the necessity of acquisition and replacement investments and do so with a firm grasp of cost-benefit economics. Technicians who can’t understand business cost limitations don’t come off as dazzling – they sound like spoiled children in a candy store. Once both these advanced skill sets are firmly in position, the organizational structure becomes what it should have been in the first place: less about comparative stature and more about leadership and communication. In such a world you could even report to an accountant and not feel bad about yourself.

IT=Disaster Prevention
There is, however, one genuine pitfall that is closely linked with being supervised by (or heavily under the influence of) number crunchers: the dreaded penny-wise-pound-foolish syndrome. I think we have all experienced the denial of funds for preventative maintenance projects because money is tight and nothing appears to be broken. One reason that the technician’s cause might land on deafer ears than the maintenance engineer’s request is because good technical infrastructure is not something easily demonstrated – until it goes bad. Newer PCs don’t turn out more coherent memos; faster desktops don’t produce spreadsheets that show increased net profit. Conventional “thrifty wisdom” leads us to believe that yesterday’s gear works until it blows up or falls over, and it shouldn’t be monkeyed with in the meantime. Taken to the logical conclusion, this philosophy results in an IT team that does little besides disaster recovery. Sadly forgotten is the concept of IT as a disaster prevention group, and the effect is unnerving and demoralizing for the technicians. Let’s not mention that the rest of the organization is lead to believe that IT is staffed exclusively with buffoons.

Another reason we struggle for funding (and someone at the conference actually suggested this to me) is that many of us seem to have developed a reputation for purchasing technology “just because.” I will grudgingly admit that technicians as a group do seem to be genetically wired to be gizmo-dominant. And while I am in full disclosure mode, I will also admit that I have been known to borrow Sir Edmund Hillary’s excuse to justify my own personal conspicuous consumption. And, yes, every year I ask for more IT money to be spent and I do not foresee any change in that trend. But I do not think any competent technician spends corporate dollars “just because.” When you begin to believe this about your organization, you either have the wrong people in place or you severely underestimate the investment that good requires.

Every technician has one or more projects that could use additional funding. And if you were to stumble across one who has everything he needs, rest assured that system users within the organization would happily provide a never-ending list of additions, requests and enhancements. But just because technicians line up annually for as much funding as they can get, it doesn’t mean that you’re turning hard-earned resources over to a band of compulsive shoppers. The technical compulsion I most often see, especially at HITEC, is the constant drive to make things work as well as humanly and electronically possible. And why do people behave like this? Just because.

Michael Schubach, CHTP, is vice president, resort technology for ClubResorts, the destination resort division of ClubCorp. He offices at Pinehurst, the site of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Open golf championships. He can be reached at michael.schubach@thepinehurstcompany.com.

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