Support Top Managers, Not Just Top Management

I met a youngish guy who was unbelievably sharp about PC technology and the Web. He seemed smart and articulate about business issues, too. His academic credentials were impeccable. I took him for a webpreneur wanna-be trolling for venture capital.

I was wrong.

Turns out he was the personal technical guru for the chairman and CEO of Gargantuan Technology Inc. Sort of a PC butler-cum-coach. Apparently, the chief executive was a technological ignoramus. Not that you would have heard those words from the mouth of his PC butler; he was the soul of discretion.

Apparently, a savvy CIO had assigned the young hotshot to serve the CEO’s every technical need and whim. The assignment was to last a year. After that, he could pretty much go wherever he chose in the organization. Good deal: young hotshot gets terrific exposure, learns a lot. And IT is operationally hard-wired directly into the chairman’s office. At Gargantuan, the assignment is managed more as professional development than technical support. The CEO gets a loyal technical sounding board who also can reformat his hard disk. Smart.

At a time when organizations know that help desks do more training than technical support, the notion of IT creatively sucking up to the top cadre of management should have a special appeal. Sure, budgets are tight. Sure, resources are constrained. But doesn’t it make political – if not economic – sense to detail a few bright IT minds to the folks who run the profit centres? To all of those managers who complain that IT doesn’t know how to align itself with business needs? Offer them their own personal IT trainers. The goal should be to make business lives easier. And if the hotshots are asked to configure el jefe’s home PC setup. Well, it’s a relationships world, no?

Is it risky to assign a ponytailed 28-year-old to be the CEO’s personal intranet tour guide three times a week? You bet. Could the 33-year-old LAN manager probably do better things with her time than be on technical call for the 45-year-old newbie general manager at the company’s most profitable unit? Maybe.

But I’m still taken aback by how few IT organizations have tried to turn their people into missionary resources.

Although it’s undeniably true that typical IT people don’t have the same social skills as, say, sales folk, it’s equally true that “power users” have skills and insights top managers need on hand. It’s like having a translator for international visitors. You want that resource on call. And, not incidentally, you want to give people a chance to become more of who they can be.

To be sure, several world-class organizations – Chase Manhattan Bank and General Motors come to mind – provide PC coaches to bring managers up to speed. That isn’t the issue. The challenge here is to see if IT organizations can build intra-corporate alliances based on people rather than technologies. That isn’t easy.

Of course, top managers might not play along with this proposal. Maybe they don’t want or need their very own nerd. Then again, that very unwillingness would send an important message to IT. My message is simple and blunt: maybe IT could be more successful with the corporation if it became more successful supporting top managers – not just top management.

Michael Schrage is a research associate at the MIT Media Lab and author of No More Teams! His Internet address is