IT literature leaves a lot to be desired

Several years ago, while facilitating a development session for a group of the CIO’s direct reports at a Fortune 250 company, I went around the room of 20 earnest destined-for-greatness executives and asked them, as a painless way of introducing themselves, to share their names, their roles and the books they were currently reading.

As a liberal arts grad of Dartmouth College, I had been led to believe that what you read is a window into your soul and a mirror of your true persona. The group I was working with that day was apparently soulless. The exercise, which made them feel uncomfortable, almost lost us the engagement. The first several individuals seemed to have trouble with both the verb (reading) and the noun (book).

One individual asked if I wanted to know what he was really reading. I said, “Yes” and he responded, “The Palm Pilot Manual.” One executive – admittedly from the Web side of the house – explained that book reading was no longer part of what she did.

What I heard seemed to substantiate what I believed was the misguided stereotype of IT leaders as hygienically-challenged geeks who socialize poorly, worship machines and are generally uneducated, unlettered boors.

In a panic of denial, I attributed this lack of reading to the intensity of the current environment that group of IT leaders found themselves in; they had no real time for reading, I reasoned. I also blamed myself for poorly structuring the exercise. I should have asked, What’s the most important book you’ve read in the past three years?

At the next company we visited, I asked that rephrased question. Again, I was surprised at the responses. Several IT leaders cited major business best-sellers. This was very consistent with the then-prevalent objective of linking, or aligning, with the demand side of the house as a way to understand how end users think.

A few cited a subset of the great works of Western literature, with Shakespeare and Dickens the most prominent. The remaining responses parsed into tribal reading sects – software project managers cited The Mythical Man Month, while IT leaders who formerly worked in product development for vendors chose The Soul of the New Machine.

IT leaders in the advanced technology group named Crossing the Chasm or books by futurists. And the alpha-geeks cited technical manuals and Web sites. The friskies (individuals known for contrarian thinking) picked either science fiction classics or Dr. Seuss. I’m pleased to say that no one mentioned the lame, self-serving puff pieces from the ghostwriters of vendor CEOs.

As I stepped back from the exercise, I concluded that the literature of IT stinks. IT is one of the most powerful forces of change on the planet, yet a set of great IT books apparently doesn’t exist.

If your board of directors or CEO asked you, as an IT leader, what book they should read that lays out how the world has changed or is changing and what their responsibilities as executives should be in managing IT, what would you tell them?

As you examine literature that has changed people’s lives, IT tomes are noticeably absent. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944) changed the understanding of race relations and profoundly influenced the U.S. civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s.

David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) chronicled a sea change in behaviour from a production-oriented to a consumption-driven economy.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) gave rise to the modern U.S. environmental movement, framing a powerful call to arms for citizens of the world to mobilize and stop the destruction of nature.

If we are what we read, we’re in big trouble. The time has come for somebody to create such a literary “call to arms” for the new IT-intensive economy.

May is vice-president of research and education and corporate futurist at Cambridge Technology Partners Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Contact him at