Two floppy disks placed on top of an old keyboard
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I once had a colleague who was lazy, rude and prejudiced. But Reg, as I will call him, kept his job for a reason aside from the almost inexhaustible tolerance of our employer. Reg could accomplish feats on the clunky publishing system of that era that no one else could. When he placed his stubby fingers on the keyboard, he transformed from sleepy schlub into IT archmage.

Reg, naturally, did not teach anyone else how to input the complex instructions that were more akin to coding than the intuitive commands on modern apps. That would have eroded his competitive advantage in the workplace. His latitude to disappear to the pub for two hours every lunchtime would have diminished accordingly.

There is a bit of Reg in all of us. The temptation to become a wizard, rather than share our expertise, is always strong. It is a problem chief technology officers and other IT-literate executives struggle with at the big banks and insurers I cover as a journalist.

Some of these organisations use more than 1,000 tech systems, many of which cannot talk to each other. That suggests there must be several thousand Regs tending to them. But this group of colleagues is an awkward one for would-be “tech champions”. It is convenient to see tech challenges, such as systems integration or cloud migration, as largely mechanistic. In reality, though, perplexing human culture can be just as important to success or failure.

The impact of getting it wrong can be serious. In public interviews, chief executives typically say their main preoccupation is delivering for stakeholders. Privately, they admit that something more specific keeps them awake at night: the fear of a massive systems breach. This is more likely when anti-hacking controls are weakly implemented.

During the pandemic, hacking-as-a-service took off as a criminal enterprise on the dark web. Ransomware attacks temporarily disabled parts of a US pipeline company and the Irish health service. The business damage of such hacks is an order of magnitude higher than thefts of low-level user data that were commonplace previously. Ignoring strictures on the use of personal devices also became rife among employees of highly regulated banks amid lockdowns. The regulatory backlash is already under way.

Most businesses would like to have a single, flexible tech platform that allows some, or most, of its data to be stored on the cloud. This would make regulatory compliance and vulnerability to hacking easier to monitor while allowing clever staff to undertake data projects for commercial advantage. “If something is easy, people do more of it,” says Mark Jones, deputy chief executive of Man, a London-based hedge fund group that has invested heavily in IT.

But local innovation can impede systems integration just as much as devotion to legacy tech. “Every business is constantly subject to fragmentation of systems as people set up new projects,” says Jones.

The human challenge persists even among tech-hungry colleagues itching to run data experiments they think will give their business a competitive edge. An example would be tweaking the front end of a retail banking app with the aim of increasing the sign-up rate.

“Most people are numerical, not statistical,” Jones warns. We are prone to misinterpret data by spotting patterns that lack statistical significance.

A further human obstacle to technological innovation is the tricky business of getting colleagues to share a vision of the future. Contrary to stereotype, CTOs and other tech-literate executives generally have decent people skills. But sponsorship from the chief executive can only take reformists so far. Staff have plenty of scope to ignore what the big boss says, even in small and medium-sized businesses.

The best way to “achieve employee buy-in”, as it is cheesily known, is to focus on what suits staff as well as the organisation. Let Reg be your exemplar. Workplace competitive advantage in IT gave him greater control. The trick is to offer this to colleagues who are willing to learn — preferably in the cause of self-improvement rather than lunchtime drinking. The wrinkle is that new systems must be transparent to the majority, rather than so opaque that they foster priesthoods.

At the same time, you need to commandeer internal comms to trumpet the perils of sloppy tech practices. This should not be too hard at present. Ransomware attacks have disrupted energy supplies and regulators are fining Wall Street banks billions of dollars for unauthorised use of messaging apps.

The last ask of CTOs and other tech evangelists is the hardest because it requires them to acknowledge their own Reg-like tendencies. It is this: resist the temptation to become a wizard yourself. Do not cloak your tech activities in the equivalent of runes and pentagrams. Create robust, user-friendly systems and help your colleagues interpret data intelligently.

Wizardry Reg-style does, admittedly, boost the status of in-house tech champions by erecting barriers to entry. But sharing knowledge in plain language is better for the organisation and thus, ultimately, the individual who imparts it. That should still give you leeway for the occasional extended lunch break, albeit a non-alcoholic one. 

Jonathan Guthrie is an associate editor of the FT and head of its Lex column

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