Late last year, I had the privilege to speak to some IT (information technology) folks in Penang who were just starting their professional careers. In preparation, I had to look back at my own learning journey when I first began my tech career.
My career progressed through many different industries and disciplines, from firmware programming to software development, automation engineering, project management and beyond.
It turned out that what really defined my success was transferable skills, not the technical ones. It was this realisation that led to the conceptualisation of my talk to those young IT professionals. Essentially, reliance on technical knowledge can be a pitfall.
There are two major challenges with the IT industry as I see it, and I believe this applies to most other industries as well.
A catchy phrase that I recently learnt to encapsulate these problems is 'know-how vs know-what' and have since internalised this into my own leadership language.
Challenge 1: When others think that know-what is know-how
Ever had someone walk up to you and challenge your professional opinion based on what they Googled?
As a former 'IT guy', this has happened to me countless times, whether at work or at home. I’m sure people in the medical profession can relate to this as well. I can’t imagine how often doctors get harassed by patients who claim to 'know', thanks to Google.
Best cure for depression according to online forums.
Stakeholders often think their newfound knowledge to be the whole truth. However, most casual readers of information fail to grasp the multi-variate nature of any concept or knowledge.
So often our customers demand or dictate things based on technical literature they read online or what they hear from someone else. Knowledge is often simplified for easy understanding or made for an interesting read.
Little is considered about the practical application of the said knowledge. Even less is said about effectively applying it in a specific situation. This omission could lead to frustration.
Conversely, it could lead to this:
Q: Why are we doing it like that?
A: Because that’s what the customer wants.
We all know that very often what customers want may not be what they need or even what they mean. We find ourselves in situations where the focus on delivering the 'what' overshadows the 'how' and the 'why'. This is a recipe for disaster.
Often there are simpler ways of doing things; consider what the real needs are, the impact of the proposed solution, or the long-term vs short-term gain.
Challenge 2: When we think that know-what is know-how
Here’s another typical conversation:
Q: Why are we doing it like that?
A: Because that’s the latest technology.
This must rank among the most frustrating of responses. There is no rationalisation of whether it makes sense to the end customer. Or, whether that’s the most effective implementation.
We need to refrain ourselves from jumping to convenient or popular solutions based on knowledge we are comfortable with, and start looking at the problem statements holistically. The most familiar solution isn’t necessarily the best.
For example, the debate rages on about what’s the best programming language. The answer is that there is no 'best'; it just depends on what you need it for and how you plan to use it.
Again, knowing how to apply what language trumps knowing any language at all. If you have stakeholders who do not understand this, then you can be left with misdirection, misalignment, or at best, frustration.
Overcoming pitfalls of knowledge
When 'know-what' overwhelms the 'know-how', we find ourselves in the pitfalls of knowledge. I do not argue against knowledge being power, but I assert that it is only potential power. By itself, it is not sufficient until there is equal focus on how to apply it effectively.
So how do we overcome these pitfalls? How do we focus on the know-how? By extending beyond the competencies required, e.g. collaboration (communication, influencing skills, teamwork) and critical thinking (analysis, design).
This is what your mind could be like.
It requires a desire to get involved. The key is in wanting to know more about the business/stakeholders you are involved in/with, beyond the technical knowledge of doing your functional job.
My recommendation to the group of Penang IT professionals that day was to always raise your hand. To never say ‘no’ to an opportunity, any opportunity.
How are you impacting the business?
I reflected upon my own journey of being given various opportunities to participate in business projects that often had nothing to do with IT.
For example, joining a project team that was considering inventory levels on a supply chain project. That knowledge wound up being a game changer when I was involved in investigations surrounding variance of materials, because I could seamlessly marry IT knowledge with business knowledge to make a bigger impact.
As Steve Jobs put it, “You can only connect the dots looking backward.” So, create as many dots as possible.
The concept is simple. Whether you will be growing in your career in a managerial or technical capacity, your value is only as good as the impact to the business.
That impact will never be fully realised if you stick to your functional know-how. You must be able to fuse it with the business know-how.
If you do so, you will become fluent in the language of the business you are in and successfully navigate around the pitfalls of knowledge.