Technical problems are the easy ones to fix

HEIT can provide customized workshops, such as the one I gave to Wake Forest last year: “Building a Problem-Solving Culture.” (To see a summary of that workshop and Wake’s problem management process, see our joint EDUCAUSE SERC 2013 presentation.) As part of that workshop, I asked people to work in groups to come to a definition of a “problem” and to list a few examples of work-related problems.

Intentionally, we weren’t talking about ITIL problem management. (ITIL has a very specific definition for the word “problem.”) Instead, we were using the word “problem” like normal, non-IT people 🙂 –problems like having to come in at 2 AM because a server went down.

When groups reconvened and we reviewed one another’s examples of problems, it was really interesting to see the types of problems listed.

Some groups exclusively listed technical problems. As hypotheticals: this VPN does not work with that MS Firewall, or Chinese language extensions conflict with Spanish language extensions. These types of technical problems are the bread and butter of IT.

Other groups listed political or management problems–sometimes exclusively. Just making up examples here: Manager A told me to do this, but Manager B said no; funding was not approved at the level requested; Team A wants this thing but Team B wants this other thing.

That exercise underscored for me why I like programming and using my systems administrator skill from time to time: technical problems are identifiable and solvable. It’s easy for everyone to agree there is a problem, and then with technical expertise you can find the black-and-white answer. (Great stories come from these too, like the famous “case of the 500-mile email.”)

The management, political, or other non-technical problems are in many ways much more challenging: people who work together closely and know one another might not agree there is a problem. Even if it’s agreed there’s a problem, deciding whether and how to fix can be exceedingly difficult and energy-intensive. Changing a cultural norm can take years.

I believe this leads IT people at all levels (not to mention IT people) to talk about and address the technical problems, often ignoring the more challenging “soft” problems.

The trick of it is, these soft problems may be much more valuable to address: helping departments work better together, learning how to negotiate, setting organizational priorities, and building new processes can make groups radically more effective and more efficient.