IT's Worst Addictions (and How to Cure Them)

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Are you a jargon junkie? Got an insatiable appetite for information? Do you rule over your company's systems with an iron fist, unwilling to yield control until someone pries the keyboard from your cold, dead hands?

You're going to have to face it -- you're addicted to tech. It's not an uncommon problem, but it can lead to bad decisions, lost productivity, wasted money, and data breaches, to name just a few downsides.

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Fortunately, there are cures. But first you must admit you are powerless over your addiction to acronyms, your dependence on data, and your cravings for power. You must resist the illusion you can make your network perfectly secure or that technology can solve all your problems. And you must stop clinging to old ways of doing things -- or lusting for anything shiny and new.

Consider this your first step on the long road to recovery.

IT addiction no. 1: Jargon

Geeks love their jargon. It's a way to show off, not to mention an effective technique for fooling others into thinking you know more than you actually do. But an acronym addiction ultimately serves no one well, says Glenn Phillips, president of Forte, which builds custom software and offers "nerd-to-English" translation coaching for executives.

"Some tech may say things like, 'We need a RAID 5 SAN or our backups will fail,' and management won't have any idea what that means," Phillips says. "Instead he could say, 'We don't have enough space to store our backups; we could lose all our data.' And if he's just making up a bunch of crap, management won't have any idea. You need someone technically competent enough to call BS or say the emperor has no clothes."

The cure: Smart IT pros know good communication skills are essential, and they work hard to develop those skills, says Phillips. But executives must also be willing to admit they don't have the slightest idea what their techs are telling them.

"A good leadership team can cut through the jargon by not running from it," he says. "If you don't understand what your IT guys are saying, say, 'That's fascinating; now try it again in language that makes sense to the rest of us.' Otherwise you think you're delegating responsibility for your company's technology when you're actually just ignoring it."

IT addiction no. 2: Power

A little power can be a dangerous thing, as any organization that has endured a rogue system administrator can tell you. Because technology is both so central to how modern organizations operate and so poorly understood by those outside the IT department, it's easy for tech whizzes to perpetuate their own internal fiefdoms.

"The worst addiction IT employees succumb to is what fire wardens call Lookout Syndrome," says Bill Horne, owner of William Warren Consulting. "It happens to wardens who serve in remote posts for long periods of time with little or no outside contact. After a while they start to believe they're in charge of everything that happens in their area. In like manner, system administrators start to assume they're in charge of everything that happens on the systems they maintain, which can lead to childish rules about which applications users are allowed to run, what their log-ons should look like, even what countries are allowed to send email to 'their' system."

As a result, IT pros often forget they exist to support the business, not the other way around, says Forte's Phillips. "Using a computer should be easier than not using one, but too many IT professionals have created private little kingdoms that make that hard or impossible," he says.

The cure: The tendency to consolidate power is not exclusive to IT professionals, notes Jeffrey Palermo, president and COO of Headspring, a custom software development and consulting firm. But it may happen more often in IT because that's where technology decisions and resources are usually centralized.

"The root cause is that most companies are organized by department instead of by function," he says. "Companies need to realize that having all of their computing resources in one massive IT department that's supposed to magically manage priorities and resources for every other department just doesn't work any more. They need to disband the big IT departments, give each functional department their own tech staff and computing resources, and allow them to set their own priorities."

IT addiction no. 3: Data

Blame impossibly cheap storage or the magical belief that big data will revolutionize your company, but many IT pros are unrepentant information junkies -- and that can lead to data overload, or worse.

"Technology departments are addicted to collecting an inordinate number of events that are not necessarily used for decision support," says Charley Rich, VP of product management at Nastel Technologies, a maker of application performance management solutions. "They just think they need to have all this information, but don't know what it means or what to do with it."

Collecting too much data not only makes it harder to reach decisions, it also increases the risk of damage caused by data leaks, says Dr. Donn DiNunno, quality director at engineering, management, and integration consultants EM&I.

"While data storage advances make data retention and distribution easy, they also make privacy hard," he says. "If data is never erased, potential threats to privacy and security endure for years, in the form of Social Security numbers, credit usage, medical information, and more. The power and visibility of this data puts us at risk."

The cure: IT needs to look more selectively at the data it collects and retains, says DiNunno.

"The cure is a more rigorous analysis of the whole value chain," he says. "Privacy controls, better understanding of the user's needs, working on the value and quality of data, and respecting the use of 'IT power' so that that power doesn't corrupt us all -- these are the cures."

Next Page: old methods, new machines, and illusions...

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