Tech-deficient managers, new work force

At a recent conference, I ran into Ken Hoffman, a savvy longtime information technology manager at a major federal agency. We are more or less the same age (at least to judge from appearances), but as a techie, Ken is much better than I at having a feel for how IT is changing our lives. Ken noted that if government program managers do not come to understand the implications of having new workers who really know computers, the government will be in trouble. That statement, I've come to understand, deserves some attention.

One of the first events that graphically demonstrated to me how some people intuitively incorporate the use of IT into their daily lives occurred the day my wife brought home from her office a next-day weather forecast, downloaded from the Internet, for the city to which she was going to travel. I was astounded, and I asked my older-generation nontechie

assistant to call my wife to find out how to access the forecast. From then on, my assistant regularly placed the Internet weather forecast in my trip folders whenever I left town.

I had also noted with astonishment how my 15-year-old used the Internet to do most of her research for school reports and how she logged on to America Online chat rooms with classmates (and occasionally her English teacher) to work together on homework assignments. And I have been frequently amazed at how my younger-generation, tech-savvy assistant goes first to the Internet for just about any information— from fax numbers for foreign hotels to book references. One time, I was looking for an article from The New York Times Sunday Magazine whose author— but not date and title— I had. I gave my assistant names of people to call who might have further information about the article. The next morning, however, I discovered that he left me a copy of article, which he had downloaded after doing an Internet search.

I have now learned enough so that when I needed to track down an address in Germany recently, I suggested he try to locate a German Internet phone directory. But like many of my generation in regard to IT, I am a slow learner.

When I spoke with Ken, he echoed the same point. For the current student population— born in the 1980s— computers are an integral part of daily life. Students use computers for information and entertainment. They are as comfortable with computers as we are with telephones, TV and radio, Ken noted. As these young people enter the work place, they expect jobs that are not only IT-enabled but where IT is integrated into the way their organization does business every day, just as it is integrated into their lives outside the workplace.

The problem, Ken said, is that "in government especially, many program officials still don't see the value of IT in general and don't see the value as applied to their business. Federal IT professionals have been swimming upstream for a long time trying to get our message across." And the way Ken described it, relations between IT and program folks in many agencies resemble the cold, over-the-fence mentality that characterized relations between IT and procurement people in the days prior to procurement reform.

"The program folks can't just throw IT over the fence," Ken told me. "They need to understand IT as a tool. We need to partner."

Ken said he sees this situation as an opportunity for Vice President and technology czar Al Gore. His leadership position makes him uniquely qualified to encourage senior program management to work with IT professionals to solve business problems as a team. And, Ken added, the government needs to send more program folks to some of the main government/industry technology conferences.

If the government doesn't embrace IT, in Ken's view, it will be in trouble with young people joining the work force. "These young kids are energetic and creative," Ken noted. "We can use their energy and creativity." But if they encounter a work place that doesn't correspond to their relationship to technology, they'll leave. To make an analogy for the older program manager, it would be as if they came into an office that didn't make much use of the telephone.

IT folks reading this column: You are welcome to take it to any program managers who you think need to hear Ken's message and say that the old codger, non-techie who wrote the column feels their pain and understands that they will never be as comfortable with computers as the generation coming up now. But I would give those managers the same message I used to share with procurement folks when I was in government: Change or die.

Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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