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When I joined Gellman, Hayward and Partners, I first had to learn how to become an effective consultant. Eventually, I got to know and work with our Chairman, Harvey Gellman. Often, I puzzled at what made this warm and wonderful man so successful. After a long period of observation and several interesting incidents, I was able to make a preliminary conclusion. Harvey had a steadfast and unwavering practice of respecting people. Whether it was the Chairman of the Board of a major corporation, an elevator Operator, or anyone in between (i.e., the entire range of business positions), his approach was consistent and radiated evident acceptance of the individual, his thoughts, his position in life and his potential abilities; in other words, respect.

This respect for the individual was also true for various professions. From the respect he held for the mechanic who kept his car in running condition, to the treatment he afforded a somewhat crass and pushy (in my opinion) salesman, this singular ability continued to amaze me.

When I queried the man who was already regarded as an industry guru when I was still earning my stripes in the service bureau industry, he merely replied "People have to be viewed as innocent until proven guilty". in other words, anyone deserved his respect until their words or actions caused a modification to that opening respected status. I would have the opportunity to see this concept at work many more times in the future.

An Information Systems Example

Recently, upon following up a business lead from a junior member of our firm, we dispatched one of our senior consultants to develop the potential opportunity with this new prospective client. The promising lead began to appear not so promising as the client was clearly uncomfortable with the input/comments/questions from our senior person. We were able to resolve the somewhat rocky start and initiated the assignment.

As the work proceeded, I had the opportunity to meet with the client and eventually tried to ascertain why one of our most brilliant and application knowledgeable people (one who clearly had the academic, systems, management, and topic area expertise to manage the work) was perceived as unacceptable. I was privileged in this instance to have a client who was not only honest and candid in her comments, but was a person who was able to clearly describe the issue. In simple terms she indicated that she felt that our senior person had condescended to her. She also sensed that her project was being judged very small, and this carried a stigma of corresponding "small importance". She sensed an implied expectation that she should learn about computer technology rather than just use it as a tool to support her business. She found this unacceptable. My client suggested that respect for each other in a one-on-one relationship, whether it be a business relationship or a personal one, was a prime necessity. Without this as a basic premise, failure was inevitable. Given her professional training in psychology, I accepted the input of an expert. The psychological concept is that one's ego is the root of not only the defensive reaction to a condescending approach but also is what might produce that type of approach as well. In other words although a client may very well be a poor accountant, they still deserve to be treated as a valuable client. Attacking the accountant's accounting skills may be attacking the only area of strength or confidence the person has and this is a severe blow to the ego. On the other hand, a computer technology expert condescending to a noncomputer person may do so beacuse the technology expertise is the only strength or area of confidence they have and they need to display or flex this continually to maintain their personal sense of worth. I have observed the ultrasensitivity of peoples' "antennae" when they feel someone is condescending to them. Another subsequent client situation tended to substantiate this critical concept which was becoming ever clearer.

History: Explosive

The meeting was a typical steering committee session monitoring the development and implementation of a major financial system in a national corporation. The VP of Information Systems was present along with the VP of Administration. In addition, there were a number of senior executives from the primary business units. The project manager had the unenviable hot seat due to the rather sad progress of the work. Classically, the project was overdue and over budget. It was hard to view the quality because nothing had been delivered and the user community had almost totally deserted the project; leaving the project to die.

After the project update, the VP of Information Systems took the floor to harangue the user community for poor participation and lack of commitment to the work. This apparently was an old story to the financial people and yielded little reaction until he made a few comments that implied the financial community were not only poor project managers in developing new systems, but were also poor managers in managing the financial venues of the company (i.e., their chosen profession and specific area of expertise).

Of course the reaction was unified, vigorous and not terribly complimentary to the data processing people. This event (and perhaps other similar ones which I did not have the opportunity to witness) has contributed to a deep rift between the supplier and his client. In this case (as with many other organizations forced to use in-house systems services) the client had no choice of supplier for systems services serving to magnify the frustration.


So what does all this mean? I believe it is a simple and clear message that goes beyond the bounds of the data processing arena. In order for the relationship between the supplier of information systems services and the client or user to have a successful relationship, there must be respect on both sides. The systems person must respect the business professional for his expertise in his chosen field; the data processing user must develop an appreciation for the skills, experience, and specialized abilities of the systems professional.

Advice For The Information Systems Community

How can this be achieved? The dominant suggestion I have is in attitude: to the information systems person, view your users as experts in their field (until proven otherwise) and develop the patience and discipline to maintain this in the face of the daily crisis that might destroy this approach. Other more substantive ideas might include the following:

* Planning - involve your users in your processes. The manager of a purchasing unit howled at me in a requirements gathering interview that he was absolutely ignorant of the communications network plans of his information systems group. This information was vital to his plans for a regional acquisition system being planned.

* Communication - eliminate the flurry of surprises that plague this very special relationship. Recently the CEO of a major financial firm called to complain that he was going to be required to spend over two million dollars on a new computer and this had been a total surprise to him.

* Learn the business - take whatever opportunities arise to learn more about the nuances, depth, and range of the business of your user. A systems development director told me over lunch a while back that he had enrolled in a night course in petroleum accounting.

* Bring them along - take the time informally, if necessary) to raise a non-crisis topic with your clients and increase their understanding of the topic, perhaps even finding parallels in their arena.

* Listen - listen to needs, the perceived needs, the annoyances, the misconceptions of the business units and find ways to respond to them.

There are many more vehicles to address this issue but for sure this item has become a training item for all of our consultants and is one that I am sensitized to, particularly in that first encounter with a potential new client. As predicted/suggested earlier, the relationship (by definition) is two-sided.

Advice For The Information Systems Users

Most of the writings found in the information systems journals and papers abound with advice and methodologies for the information systems professionals to follow to minimize risk and guarantee delivery. I believe that the buyers/clients/users also can benefit from some advice.

Again, the basic premise for the successful relationship begins with respect for the information systems people in the organization. Few people will argue with their loyalty, their diligence, their intelligence and the difficult work they perform. A proper attitude of respect for the special skills possessed by this group is the beginning of a good healthy relationship. If we can ignore the scars and bruises of past experiences and try a fresh approach, the results are amazing.

The following points illustrate some further concrete examples of demonstrating this basic element of respect.

* Solution vs problem - always discipline yourself and your staff to bring to the technologist, the problem (not your favorite technical solution). Remember; yours is not the world of bits, bytes, SVC'S, EXCP'S, etc., but the world of business and function. For example, don't demand that your information systems group provide you with VISICALC; tell him/her that you need a spreadsheet tool for doing some basic budget modelling with about 20 variables for a macro 10- year plan and that you want to be able to graph the results on an overhead projector. A systems person complained to me recently that his client (the marketing department of the downstream portion of a large oil and gas company) demanded that he install a Tandem Model xyz with 2400 bps multiplexors, etc. What the systems person really wanted to know was what kind of transactions would be coming from what geographic locations and whether on-line credit verification was required, etc. In other words, the systems person wanted to know the business requirements, not one of the many potential technical solutions.

* Involvement - involve the information systems person in your planning process - even if your plans are vague - take the time to include your information systems professionals in the process; they are making decisions every day that could easily benefit from this input. If there is one consistent complaint I hear from the systems professional, it is that they are not provided with sufficient direction. Recently, the director of information systems of a small conglomerate called me for lunch. When I suggested he invite his president along, he informed me that the president and the other directors were all away on a planning session.

* Be flexible-if the information systems person has an idea, take the time to listen and maybe try a controlled experiment to see if the benefits are reasonable. Spend some resources on R&D in the systems area with the awareness that success is not guaranteed. A senior systems analyst complained to me once that he had been soundly rejected by his financial group when he suggested some experiments with a scheduling package in an effort to reduce the monthly reporting cycle.

* Listen - even though no one can argue that you know your business better than the information systems person, you should listen to your information systems person when he tells you the implications of your requests. For example, only you may know the semantics of a piece of data, but the systems person is probably the only one to be able to grasp the implications on a system in attempting to add a new relationship between two data elements. When this type of situation arises, accept the input/advice as you would accept advice from your tax lawyer on the risk/benefits of a new tax shelter mechanism. 5 Teach them the business - spend the time to make the information systems people knowledgeable about your business (e.g., take the director of systems development to the next conference, buy your VP of IS the book on tax reform, use that coffee break to relate the history of your company, etc.)

* Plain talk - Ask the information systems person to speak in English, but also be prepared to use English when you are conversing with him (e.g., the VP of Finance should not use all the financial acronyms that abound, nor should the engineers use all of their verbal shorthand, etc.).


From all the observations of success and failure I have witnessed around me in the business of building, buying, and implementing computer systems, a few kernels, or elemental truths have evolved. The issue of respect is definitely a key attribute. I have tried to explain the concept and a few key actions you can take in this area. I have used these techniques to my advantage in many consulting assignments and try to ensure that our new employees are trained to recognize its value. If you are on either side of the very special relationship between a business unit and the supporting information systems delivery unit, some energy focussed on this respect model will do wonders. Try it!
COPYRIGHT 1989 Canadian Institute of Management
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gilmore, Ron V.
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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