I’m a BRM why don’t you understand technology?

Question: When technology is needed in nearly every business process/change today; should the entire c-suite be more “tech aware”?

There has long been a relationship between knowledge and power. For a long time, the balance of power has been in favour of those who hold the knowledge and can make it appear as a “magic” to those who don’t know it. The balance of power is shifting as we increasingly see the democratisation of knowledge and the power is increasingly found in the network that you have and the relationships that underpin that network.

Collective Intelligence is an emerging concept that many are seeing as unlocking solutions to some of the hardest and most valuable problems that we face as a society. If you want to look more at this then here is a starting point: https://www.weareliminal.co/

You may wonder why I have started to respond to this question in this way – it is for the simple reason that the technology professional has for too long made out that our knowledge is something special that only we understand and that we want to make it as difficult as possible to enter our world. I suspect it wasn’t intended by the person who asked this question, but at one level it does highlight this superiority position technologists have established and set out a position of “well shouldn’t they work harder to understand our world?”

The simple answer is yes, but that makes it their problem and not yours and disempowers the BRM which isn’t a good place to end up.

It has been said that you wouldn’t expect a senior leader to look at the budget and respond with a shrug, saying: “I’ve never been good at numbers I just don’t get this finance stuff”, and in today's online digital and connected world it isn’t acceptable to do that about technology.

There is nothing wrong with that statement and it is true, any leader in an organisation (regardless of the level in the hierarchy their role sits) who takes that attitude is not only doing themselves a disservice but also hindering the prospect of their organisation and their employees.

However, to accept that state is to leave yourself as the BRM (or any other technology role) as the victim and at the mercy of others which I don’t believe is a good place to be. Our opportunity is to recognise that there is a challenge here and we won’t be as successful whilst the understanding is limited but the response should be to point the finger back at ourselves.

To come back to the opening statement – power is in the relationships. These relationships need to be created not only internally been those who understand technology and those who don’t, but also outside the organisation. The need to be able to speak in both “business” and “technical” domains is increasing and you need credibility in both – having a broad network of people who can support those conversations is really important.

If you find yourself in this position and it’s causing you problems or just limiting what you can do what should the response be? I’d like to suggest three things:

Start with what they do know and translate it and show the future

Focus on what is important and don’t worry about the detail

Never talk about technology as the “thing”

Too often we try to push a technology conversation outwards and talk about the latest and greatest feature that a supplier has offered to us. Some people may find that interesting but in many cases, they’ll struggle to connect the opportunity to the problem they’re facing. By starting with their view of the world and leading them on a journey where they see how others have approached the same challenges and come to a different conclusion is a really powerful way to bring about change. Your job is not to sell technology it is to create an appetite for finding better ways of doing things – technology may just be the answer.

Do you know what is important to those who you think need to understanding technology? In most organisations, you can start with looking at time, cost and quality of delivery. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone will have a focus on driving change around one of those dimensions and they can become the lens through which you look at the technological shift that is happening. I’ve seen too many people try to explain cloud technologies to business leaders without connecting the importance of the technology to what they consider important. In many cases, a shift to the cloud is about how you obtain your compute and storage and is a bit like your electricity supplier telling you about how their shifting from coal to wind power. You may be interested but do you actually care?

When the conversation can shift towards how we’re going to increase the profitability of the organisation because we’re able to use real-time monitoring to predict component failure on a production line, or we’re now able to launch a new service without having to order physical servers which have a six-week build time and so can be more experimental and first to market in new areas then we’re starting to approach the need to understand the opportunity of technology from the perspective of what is important.

Finally, technology people love to talk about technology as if it is magic and everyone else should be interested in it. Even though I’ve spent my career working at the intersection of technology, business and people I’ve very little personal interest in technology itself. As a family, we’ve a very low-tech household (even digging out a 12-year-old laptop for the COVID-19 home school set up!) and my eyes tend to glaze over when people start talking about the detail specifications.

That’s not to say I’m not interested in technology just that I want to focus on what it can do and the opportunity rather than the technology itself.

As a leader for a Digital Service team that had a significant number of people dedicated to delivering services and developing new capabilities I never wanted the conversation to be about that even though it was the easiest thing to talk about. My focus was to talk about the impact of technological change and the opportunities and challenges that it would create with business leaders to help them think about what they would need to do differently in the future.

When they started to understand the opportunity and saw they needed to do something in response I wanted their question to be “…and do you know anyone who can help us with that?” Our response should have been one of “yes – we do, it’s just not the thing we talk about”.

Technology is never the thing we want to be talking about, it’s time for a different conversation where we have the depth of knowledge to appear credible with the intelligence to be able to start with the business problem and work in partnership with the organisation rather than demanding they understand our language before we engage.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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