6 min read

The technology skills gap is, apparently, an abyss of economic despair and financial ruin. It has been haunting the pages of business websites and online tech magazines for some time now. It effectively follows a lazy but common line of thought – that young people aren’t capable of dealing with the rigours of STEM subjects.

That perspective ignores a similar, but even more problematic issue. It’s not so much that we have a skills gap, it’s more of a fundamental ‘understanding-gap’. And it’s not the kids who are the problem – it’s senior management.

There are plenty of memes that reflect this state of affairs on social media – ‘When my boss tries to code’ being a personal favourite. Anyone working in a technical role recognizes variations of these day-to-day workplace problems. From communicating design constraints on a website, to discussing how to understand and act on data, that gap between those with technical knowledge and skills and those with strategic control – and authority – is a common experience of the modern workplace.

Your boss, trying to code (Courtesy of devopsreactions.tumblr.com)

However, just because there’s a knowledge gap among organizational leaders doesn’t mean that they’re not aware of it – if anything, they’re more aware of it than ever. And this is where the problem really lies. Business leaders expect a lot from technology – a morning spent reading Forbes, Gartner, or any other business website, can yield a long to-do list. Responsive website, Big Data strategy, cloud migration – these buzzwords that float around in the upper echelons of industry, by the sort of people that use the phrase ‘thought leader’ sincerely, put pressure on those with real expertise. Often, they are asked to deliver something they simply cannot.

‘Chief Whatever Officers’ – A Symptom of Managerial Failure

One of the symptoms of this problem is the phenomenon of the ‘Chief Whatever Officer’ – someone leading a certain project or area of the business without any real authority within an organization. The Chief Data Officer is one of the most common examples of this – someone who can plan and implement, say, a Big Data strategy, and can use data to improve the business in different ways. Effectively, this Chief Data Officer sits in lieu of senior management’s knowledge. This isn’t immediately a problem – after all, this is basically how any organization is built, with people doing different jobs based on their skillset. The problem happens when, to take this example, a data strategy is treated as separate siloed project within a business, rather than something that requires very real leadership and authority.

A lot of Big Data reports (you can find them pretty easily on any online business magazine looking for easy signups), and business think pieces such as this one from Forbes, and this from Read Write, talk a lot about the failure of Big Data projects. The Read Write one is particularly interesting as it singles out ‘corporate culture’ as one of the biggest causes of Big Data projects. However, if you want to be frank about it, it’s ultimately the fault of senior managers – the very people responsible for cultivating an organizational culture. It goes on to argue for a ‘cultural affinity for data’, which isn’t that helpful – the problem, as their own research highlights, isn’t so much there is no affinity for data, but instead that there is a fundamental lack of understanding of how it should be used.

Information Age recently published an article taking issue with the concept of the CWO:

It is an absurd notion that we need to define and hire someone as a ‘chief’ each time a challenge or opportunity arises that requires leadership attention and accountability. Isn’t this what we pay the big bucks to the CEO and his or her team to do?

Whether or not you want to focus on the CWO here is irrelevant – the important point here is ultimately that we’re seeing senior management neglect their responsibilities, instead delegating to project managers with trendy job titles. The article doesn’t ever quite follow through with the implications of their point here, choosing instead to link it to vague trends in management philosophy in which a few straw-man gurus are held responsible.

To put it another way, it’s not simply that there’s a knowledge gap, but instead that the very adjectives regularly espoused by the tech world – collaborative, agile, and innovative – are being used by business leaders to simultaneously relinquish and consolidate their position. This might sound counter-intuitive, and to a certain extent it is especially if you want to avoid the common growing pains of an expanding business – as technology has become more and more integral to businesses all around the world it comes to be seen as an easy solution that can deliver results in a really simple way. It’s effectively a form of hubris – the idea that you can solve things with just a click of your fingers (or a new hire).

Pernicious tech solutionism is stopping you from doing your job

The mistake being made here is that while technology – from the algorithms that predict customer behaviour to responsive websites that offer seamless and elegant user experiences – always targets points of friction and inefficiency, actually using that technology – integrating it and understanding how it can be used most effectively within an organization – is far from frictionless. Of course, it’s easy for anyone to make that mistake – just about everyone has, at some point, thought that something is going to revolutionize their lives or the way they work only to be disappointed when it turns out you’re still overworked and stressed.

But it’s those leading our businesses and organizations who are most prone to misunderstanding – and then overestimating how different technologies could improve the organization. It’s another form of what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘tech solutionism’. It’s particularly pernicious because it stops people who really can implement solutions from properly doing their job.

Adopting a More Holistic Approach

What can be done about this situation? Ultimately, over time those with the best understanding of how to use tools will take greater control over these companies. But we’ll probably also need to see better integration of technology – a more holistic approach is required. In theory, this is how the CWO role should function – with chiefs reporting horizontally, so different departments and projects are in dialogue with one another, rather than simply reporting to a superior. But the managerial knowledge gap stops this from happening – essentially those leading technical projects are expected to simply deliver impressive benefits without necessarily having the resources or the support needed.

Perhaps it’s not just a knowledge gap but also a cultural change – one which your boss loves, but doesn’t fully understand. If it is, then maybe it’s time to finally properly embrace it and try to really understand it. That way we might not have to keep battling through failed projects, stretched budgets, and damaged egos.


Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.


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