Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sensitivity as an Organizational Resource

When reviewing articles about organizational nimbleness and agility, two factors that consistently emerge as positive response mechanisms are:
  • quick response to strategic opportunities, and 
  • integrating the customer voice.  
That means as CIO leaders, we need to develop staff members who recognize, inform on, and utilize strategic opportunities.  We need to identify and encourage staff members who discover and listen to the customer voice.  The most valuable team members are those who can see opportunities, hear what our constituents want, and connect the dots to build organizations that are ready to contribute to achieving university goals.  I call this ability "professional sensitivity."

The definition of sensitivity includes things like "an awareness and understanding of the feelings of other people" and "the capacity of an organ or organism to respond to stimulation."   Another reference suggest a definition of "readily or excessively affected by external agencies or influences."   These attributes can be a positive resource in an organization.  Teams that are sensitive to the feelings of people using technology are often more service oriented; we know, for example, that an important skill for service desk staff is empathy for the caller.  IT staff members that recognize new external trends early and quickly, like the impact of iPad introduction in educational environments, are more successful contributors.  If we combine the concepts of professional empathy, responding to stimulation, and readily affected by external agencies, we can see that this professional sensitivity is a positive asset in an IT organization.  An IT organization that is going to be agile in supporting the university must demonstrate professional sensitivity.

I'm sorry to use the phrase, but have you worked with someone with a reputation for being a workplace zombie?  Someone who just goes through the day and doesn't seem to know what is going on around them?  They may be able to contribute technically, but they are so unaware of what is going on around them that you have to constantly connect dots and describe rationale.  What they produce might work technically, but you find yourself asking "why in the world did you do it that way?" because the solution doesn't connect.  They make suggestions that seem out of touch with current workplace reality. 

To make sure we develop staff that demonstrate professional sensitivity, we can focus on three areas of skill development:  analytics, awareness, and negotiation.

Educause describes analytics as the tools, techniques, and solutions "used in a higher education environment to analyze various collected data points to gain insight and make informed decisions about complex issues." Educause presents a lot of material to support organizational development of an analytics culture.  For IT organizations, we can look at meaningful data collection within our organizations.  Also, participation in national surveys such the Educause Core Data Service survey and The Campus Computing Project survey, is important.  Encouraging staff members to analyze and comparing results of those surveys to their own environment is important.  Time is needed to develop skills that recognize data patterns and trends, and such analysis is often improved by group review and discussion. IT organizations that are fully analyzing and utilizing trends are better prepared to jump on new IT projects in effective and positive ways.

Awareness is observing what is happening around you; it seems so obvious.  But are all your IT staff reading a variety of news sources?  Are they participating in communities?  I remember having a staff member who was really struggling in producing quality work.  The work was done, but it didn't meet requirements.  I finally asked the staff member to write a self-evaluation describing each step he had taken; I was stunned when I read it.  The entire self-analysis was "I thought about this, then I did that, then I tested this."  In the entire self-analysis, there wasn't a single point when the employee had involved anything or anyone else outside himself.  There was no source of diversity of thought, including no involvement of the diverse backgrounds of fellow team members. Strong awareness skills develop when staff members can take those external sources and recognize patterns.  A good example of awareness that I've written about before is Bill Cunningham and his On the Street series in the New York Times. Intense observation adds greater perspective to analytics and trend analysis; observation and awareness can be current and forward-looking, while anaytics, with its data focus, can be looking backward and using a trend line.  A trend line would not have told us about the iPad impact, but observation and awareness does inform us.

Finally, professional sensitivity requires strong negotiation skills.  Negotiation skills involve empathy and a strong appreciation for another person's position.  We need to navigate decision processes by finding paths that allow everyone to win.  By being empathic, and finding win-win scenarios, we avoid wasting time on unimportant details and disagreements over direction.  This allows us to be nimble, moving in positive directions with speed.  Negotiation requires that we are successful in persuading others to appreciate our position as well.  An interesting recent article talks about how we need to think about our persuasion skills, for example, "When trying to persuade, a study says, stop at three claims." (The Power of Three)

Developing professional sensitivity as an organizational resource, something that we bring forward and utilize in projects, is an action a CIO or IT leader can do.  By investing in developing this resource, the result is that the IT organization improves its ability to be agile and nimble in change-disruptive environments.