Appearance matters, even in IT

Does what you wear to work really matter? Yes, and quite a lot, according to preliminary data from a multiyear study of IT leadership best practices at the IT Leadership Academy.

One thing that the study has uncovered is that virtually all high-performing IT organizations aggressively manage the perception of IT in the minds of key constituents: Great IT leaders manage their own brand and the brand of IT. A key and surprising part of such brand management is how IT dresses.

Anthropologists and historians have long known that clothing and costume are key elements of culture. In the realm of IT scholarship, though, very little energy has been devoted to issues of dress — what we wear, why we wear it, how we wear it. Not much has been written about the psychological aspects of IT fashion. For example, how does what we wear reflect our internal mental state or affect it? Does it reinforce the mental models that business colleagues have of IT, or does it create dissonance?

According to the IT Leadership Academy research, in organizations where IT looks like the business — wearing the same sorts of clothes as people on the business side of the organization — alignment is better and performance improves. This unexpected finding gives rise to a rich and rarely mined vein of sociological, anthropological and psychological research.

We were guided and aided in this new research area by fashion scholar Valerie Steele, chief curator and acting director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. A preliminary examination revealed all kinds of fascinating insights:

— Women in IT dress better than men in IT (which may explain the accelerating ascendancy of women into C-level positions).

— The different tribes of IT have different costumes. IT sales folks are suited up, those in break-and-fix roles tend to wear mid-dress pants and golf shirts, security folks remain tragically out of step with sartorial norms, and contracted technology consultants tend to wear collared dress shirts and business-casual wear.

— High-performance, image-aware next-generation IT executives have discovered the wonders of affordable bespoke British tailoring. There’s a reason they call those things “power suits.” (It isn’t too surprising that these execs often choose Whitcomb & Shaftesbury of Savile Row. The tailor’s principals, Suresh and Mahesh Ramakrishnan, are IT heroes, Suresh having been a driving force behind the state-of-the-art IT risk management algorithms used so successfully at Goldman Sachs, and Mahesh is a very successful systems integrator.)

What with wearable computers and the iPod as accessories, IT itself is now a fashion industry of sorts. But IT executives still aren’t viewed as fashionable. Quite conversely, IT people — at least from the point of view of the creators of popular culture (e.g., movies and TV ads) — remain fashion-challenged. The dominant image of an IT guy remains the egregiously overweight, ethically challenged and destined-to-be-eaten programmer in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. This stereotype of poor personal hygiene and sophomoric tastes in slovenly clothing must change if the profession is to evolve. As one health care CIO explained to us, “As always, and as in any other profession, the most important skill sets are the social ones.”

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