Harvard Business Review recently published an opinion piece about digital transformation, arguing that organizations need better managers, not more technocrats, in the drive to realize this future.
And that’s a view I disagree with, the reason having to do with their credentials. I wouldn’t accept financial advice from Colgate, or agribusiness advice from Ford, and I equally wouldn’t accept digital transformation advice from Harvard, as they are currently not producing the agents of that transformation.
LinkedIn updated their rankings recently, and Harvard placed 7th in the list of universities that produce digital entrepreneur alumni – the sort of people that go on to work at disruptive startups and drive real change. Stanford, MIT and Berkeley all placed higher.
If Harvard were a thought leader in the area of creating digital transformation, then their alumni should reflect that to some extent. I’d sooner accept digital transformation advice from a pair of Stanford dropouts (say, Sergey Brin and Larry Page?).
What it boils down to is that technology is not a fad, or a gadget. It’s not something you can take a 3-month elective course in and then fully understand. To understand technology, you need to grow up with technology, and produce things with technology. When you understand, at a fundamental level, what technology can and cannot do, and what it can be made to accomplish, you know exactly what to expect from your team, and your organization.
And those are at such odds these days, it’s actually funny. Everyone makes the “developer vs manager” jokes, where the managers don’t understand what the developers do, and the developers get frustrated with arbitrary deadlines and technically impossible requests. This is beautifully captured in The Expert:
That sort of conversation happens thousands of times a day, all over the world. And everyone in that conversation is computer literate – you have to be, in the modern economy. Being computer literate, however, is no substitute for a deep understanding of technology as a whole – for that, you need to treat technology with a lot more respect.
And that sort of respect takes some time to build. I think it’s fair to say that everyone who ever created anything of substance in technology, has at some point stood in awe of what it is capable of, while simultaneously recognizing its shortfalls. And it’s with that understanding that you can build companies that drive the real digital transformations.
Look at all the major tech companies today, the ones that are driving digital transformation in the real world, all over the world. Microsoft was founded by 2 hardcore developers (Bill Gates, Paul Allen). Google, by a pair of Stanford dropouts (Larry Page, Sergey Brin), their ambition rooted in technology’s transformative power. Apple, by two technologists who understood what technology could do (Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak). Twitter, by Jack Dorsey, a man that wrote open-source taxi dispatch software in his youth.
They do not need digital transformation – they’re creating digital transformation for the rest of us – and they’re doing it so effectively because they have technocrat managers at the helm. Business, people and finance skills can be taught, but true technology skills are earned, through years of hard labor at the keyboard, finding the limits of your skills and the equipment you’re using, and then pushing past them, every day.
That takes passion and ambition, and if there’s one thing you cannot accuse middle-managers in massive conglomerates of, it’s passion and ambition. The sort of people that (want to) spend all of their time managing the lives of others, never creating anything of their own, will have a hard time grasping what it truly means to understand technology.
That’s why I don’t think better managers will work. You can take all of them, train them all you like, send them on certification after certification, have them learn all the buzzwords and the industry trends, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever ignite the sort of spark it takes to create true digital transformation.
For that, you need a digital native.