Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Much do People Need to Understand Technology to Manage It?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Jeremiah Owyang’s post Gen Y Enter Stage Left, Baby Boomers Exit Stage Right got me to wondering how much people should understand about technology in order to manage it in an organization.

In his post Jeremiah commented on the eventual departure of “baby boomers” from organizations through retirement and how this “departure of expertise” would impact those organizations. The possible role that social networking might play in helping manage the transfer of knowledge form older to younger workers has interested me for some time, particularly in relation to corporate IT departments.

One question is, who will take over managing corporate technology services? Here’s part of a comment I left on Jeremiah’s post:

The good thing about today’s technology environment is how second nature its use has become. But that hasn’t extended to how technology is managed, which has lagged behind.

One question is, how much do people need to understand technology in order to manage its use? In the old days (you know, last week) we had “IT departments,” but as technology and its use has become much more pervasive, the distinction between managing and using technology has become much more fuzzy.

I wonder if it is possible to really effectively manage technology without understanding how it operates? This might be one of the weaknesses of “younger generations” who take technology for granted without understanding the basics of technology. They’re very fast at adopting and putting technology to use, but does that mean they know enough to make informed decisions about how it should be used and managed economically and effectively in an organization? Or am I over-generalizing based on my own limited experience?

I’m the first to admit that it’s not necessary to understand the inner workings of a machine in order to make productive use of it. Automobiles, computers, televisions, and cellphones are good examples.

Buying these types of tools as a consumer is one thing. What it you’re in charge of procuring such technology and associated development and support services for a corporation? Can you evaluate the trade offs among different vendors without understanding the underlying systems and processes involved in a technological product? Can you begin to compare an open source content management system with a commercially available tool without having some understanding about how such tools are structured, used, and supported?

This is not the same as a concern I have expressed elsewhere about the maintenance of legacy systems as older IT workers retire. Expertise crunches may occur with respect to the maintenance of poorly documented older “legacy” systems. I see few alternative to expensive approaches such as replacement, outsourcing, and crash projects to document. And in some cases, an alternative will be hiring back retired workers in a part time or full time consulting capacity. These are expensive solutions that software designed to support “knowledge transfer” can only partly alleviate.

Still, performing the development and support of specific systems requires a different set of skills from managing a department that provides technology support for a variety of inside- and outside-facing software, data management, and other technology support functions. Today’s younger generations, raised in the midst of a digital culture with all the entertainment, information, communication, and (now) relationship enhancement opportunities technology provides, may actually have very little understanding of the inner workings of the devices they rely on.

As consumers that may be irrelevant, but as managers of business processes that rely on such constantly changing technologies, that ignorance may cause problems as well as opportunities.

The opportunities are clear. Younger people who have grown up with expectations of access to digital technologies will readily see the way such technologies can support business processes. We already see this taking place as younger workers readily integrate social networking technologies into their places of employment.

The problems may come as they take on management positions that require them to evaluate, select, and implement new technologies. Accustomed to self sufficiency and peer support in the selection and use of technology, will they know enough to seek out the support of specialty departments such as Information Technology? Or, by the time they reach management levels will digital technologies be so integrated with business operations that technology support will be so standardized and pervasive that hardware and software are nearly disposable and no longer a source for business differentiation or competitive advantage?

Perhaps I’m being “old school,” but I’m of the philosophy that it’s to one’s advantage to understand something about how hardware, software, and databases operate. The more you know, the more opportunities you can bring to light. The question is, how much is enough information?

I don’t have a good answer to that, but I do intend to look into this question in the weeks head, starting with getting some familiarity with concepts such as technology literacy, technology competency, and computer skills. Having served on a school board when my children were younger I have some familiarity with curriculum development issues in grade schools and am well aware of the complexity of the topic. I’ve also watched as my own children have grown up with expectations of access to information, the web, and communications, so I’m also aware of how important personality, intellectual curiosity, and self-discipline are in shaping a young person’s approach to using and managing technology. I’m sure, for example, that role models are as important in shaping attitudes about technology as they are in shaping attitudes about reading and basic literacy, so that’s another thing I’ll be looking into.

If you have suggestions for possible sources of information I should be looking at, please use the comment form below or email me at Thanks!

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

Initial Research on "Technological Literacy"

Is RSS a Victim of its own Success?