Stephen J Pratt FBCS wonders whether successes in the field of information technology might lead the tech industry into complacency and repetition as opposed to reaching for new creative heights.

Time for a new approach towards application Utopia

It is generally recognised that many of the issues facing commerce in exploiting the commercial application of technology are founded on sourcing the relevant skills. In addressing the issues facing talent management sourcing it would be prudent to ask whether anything could be learnt from our technological journey to date that can assist in realising the liberation of creative, free-thinking resources that are necessary to take technology to the next level.

Memory Lane

Firstly what has been achieved? Those involved during the embryonic and growth stages of a new computing industry during the 1970’s witnessed an evolution through Information Technology (IT) into the realms of smart technologies. Anyone involved in the evolution of computing during the 1980s will remember the recognition of the inevitable need to extend the discipline outside of computer science. This required programmers to be trained in using Fortran, COBOL and Prolog languages, fundamentally satisfying the primary demands of the scientific, business and artificial intelligence lobbies, respectively.

The need for a more generic developmental approach to commercial applications dictated the inclusion of the ‘laggards’ who didn't fall into the initial psychometric categories. Languages were developed to accommodate the changes requested by those keen to extend application development beyond the obvious enthusiasts and cover some of the middle, overlapping markets. Hence expediting the development and adoption of commercial application tools: Algol, Pascal and Ada where developed to assist those who were designing solutions for environments that crossed disciplines. These languages, or tools, provided the mechanism which attracted those that would otherwise feel less encouraged to embrace technology and explore potential application opportunities.

The pervasiveness of technology in many (if not all) areas of business meant that there was going to be a need for effective managerial control of seemingly complex systems. The recognition of this need manifested itself in questioning the efficacy of extant managerial programmes. No longer was the standard MBA-type of programme sufficient. There was a need to develop hybrid programmes that transcended the traditional scholastic paths of business administration and included technology. In many ways the ethnological expansion seen in the 1990s and 2000s reflected the consequences of this programme change and investment. Nothing could demonstrate this more than the ‘.com’ explosion that has changed how we see technology and its incorporation, and intrusion, into our daily duties.

The success that technology has had in penetrating every aspect of our lives is, at least in part, due the investment made in providing the tools that have enabled creative thinkers to provide the commercially viable solutions that are prevalent today. The enthusiasm with which applications have been developed is evident by the depth and breadth of usages in all aspects of everyday life. However the issues facing commerce now are similar to those some three decades ago. How do we develop, attract and nurture the necessary talent to progress to the next stage of growth?

During the halcyon days of the early 21st century when technology’s impact on societal and commercial environments was burgeoning there was nothing but positive, enthusiastic support for its application. The ability to unlock seemingly complex solutions and make them commercially viable was seen as welcome relief from the generic boredom of their workplace by those feeling unchallenged, under-utilised and under-valued. Those responsible for the development of complex applications felt the freedom of an artist, being able to demonstrate the true value and contribution their technologically based solution could offer. As such technology was the vehicle of realisation, and not invention.

So should we now take responsibility and take stock of the situation, relax the emphasis of technology dependency and allow people the freedom to design solutions without encasing them in a technological harness. Freedom to explore, within reasonable commercial constraints, will generate the motivational juices that true innovative, entrepreneurial spirit requires. Technology has contributed to the feeling of having to be constantly running in order to standstill. Data analytics is clearly valuable, but being bombarded with data and no time to think of how we can turn this into useful information is senseless.

Onward and upward

There is a school of thought that suggest that we cannot learn unless we are taken out of our comfort zone, and the extant workplace is generally designed to be as comfortable as possible. Although team building activities are valuable, do they provide the stimulus from which good solutions can be fostered.

One way to encourage creativity is to give people the feeling of freedom: flexible working, relaxation areas, natural lighting, are just some of the approaches made by companies to create the environment in which creative thinking occurs. IBM used to position staff desks so that staff could see the green grass and blue sky outside. The intention being that nature and general outdoor awareness gives staff the feeling of openness and freedom as a platform for creativity.

Group outdoor activities has seen significantly increased publicity, no longer is it just seen as the playground of the rich or idiosyncratic. It is seen as an alternative, challenging environment where people can truly ‘find themselves’. To be realistic that desire does have to be commercially rewarding which is the challenge facing today's management.

Team building per se is no longer enough. Commercially viable workplace environments have to be developed that will identify any individual and collective inhibitions that are constraining innovative, creative thinking.

Establishment of workplace environments where challenge is actively encouraged is difficult to achieve through extant approaches dominated by short-term goals and even shorter timelines. If we require a radical shift in working practices and individual approaches to system design then we need to re-think the existing corporate developmental models.

People need to be taken out of their comfort to enable them to engage in possible solutions for seemingly insoluble problems. The requirement is for an organised systematic approach to teaming which endorses free-thinking and exploration where ‘quality time’ has a meaning, acceptance and realisable commercial value:

  • Meetings where challenge is encouraged, particularly those involving those individual whose primary contribution is specialist knowledge (eg medics, physicists, physiotherapists, chemists, biologists, etc).
  • Innovation is encouraged. Rewarding seemingly ridiculous unworthy ideas.
  • Seeking the opinions of others. Engaging in personal interaction rather than being embroiled in an exchange of quick-firing, buck-passing emails or instant messaging.
  • Team building where there is no comfort zone and the reliance on others is recognised and rewarded. Team activities are organised and planned with the aim of enhancing the symbiotic relationship between members.
  • Incorporating diversity and inclusion principles, realising the merit of diversity and inclusion through exploring different cultural, ideological and ethic issues.
  • Develop the environmental ecosystem skills necessary to address future complex issues associated with innovative solutions for the challenge facing IoT - ie local sensing, data integration, analysis of things and cognitive action.

Computing evolved into IT by providing the technological tools and languages for the realisation of creative ideas. The dependency we now have on technology is constraining are ability to develop ideas. We have become a victim of our own success and as such technology is our ‘straight-jacket’ rather than a vehicle for the ‘liberation’ of free-thinking ideas.