The philosopher and the IT manager

We think, and therefore we are, but IT managers and their business colleagues have never been content to stop there.

The whole point of all this technology is to get a better understanding of information. The question of whether “truth” exists is one we leave to the philosophers. But curiously, some philosophers are no longer probing such issues on their own. They are using study methods that would be familiar to any IT manager, and suggest the worlds of theory and practice are moving closer together than ever.

In a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, a philosopher named Kwame Anthony Appiah who teaches at Princeton University wrote about the emerging discipline of experimental philosophy, or x-phi. Instead of merely sitting in an armchair and spouting off, x-phi adherents go out and conduct surveys or gather reference already available research material. For traditionalists, Appiach admits, it’s all a bit unsettling.

“Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so,” he writes. “Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect.”

IT managers don’t always do a lot of experimenting either, but the systems they set up, develop and maintain do a lot of data gathering and counting. The more sophisticated systems try to draw conclusions so that users don’t have to. At the same time, their work is governed, if that’s the right word, by the philosophy of someone else. This is usually the CEO or the founders of the company they work for, who have communicated in mission statements or in performance reviews their answers to questions around what’s important, what’s right and what’s wrong. IT managers are sometimes able to craft their own guidelines and policies for the use of specific technologies, but these are also influenced by the corporate philosophy. Of course, they don’t use that word. More likely an enterprise would refer to “values,” but these aren’t defined until the people in charge have given them serious thought.

As new questions in the business come up, IT should be able to help senior executives to think. Based on the data sorted and analyzed by enterprise systems, they should be able to figure whether it is right to launch a new product, buy a competitor or lay off staff. Most philosophers would go a lot deeper than that, but it’s surprising how often some executives seem to ignore all the evidence. They ignore the BI reports in favour of what they’ve personally experienced. They talk about their intuition and instincts, or they go with a surprise move after “giving it a lot of thought.” Philosophy can, in some cases, be a barrier to IT and business alignment. If IT managers have a central purpose, it is to keep pushing the boundaries of where data leaves off and pure thought remains.

“X-phi helps keep us honest and enforces a useful modesty about how much weight to give one’s personal hunches, even when they’re shared by the guy in the next office. But — this is my own empirical observation — although experiments can illuminate philosophical arguments, they don’t settle them,” Appiah says. “There always comes a point where the clipboards and questionnaires and M.R.I. scans have to be put aside.”

That’s what he thinks.

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