Technicians, managers must get on the same page

Walter R. Houser

Consider Dilbert vs. his pointy-haired manager. Is that the corporate culture in your agency, where technical staff and management are always squared off?

It has never been easy to maintain technical skill after having been promoted into the ranks of management. A talented few try to straddle technology and management. Perhaps for a while, first-line supervisors can succeed at keeping one foot on each of these two speeding trains.

But those who try to serve two masters usually displease both. Workers gossip about how supervisors are losing touch. The managers chat about senior technicians lacking a managerial perspective because they can't see the big picture. Workers value knowledge, skill and ability. Management deals in judgment and influence.

How odd

In the government, the financial rewards are clearly on the management side. The rank and file peaks at GS-12, maybe GS-13. A very few organizations support nonsupervisory GS-14 and GS-15 positions, but they are exceptions.

The mere fact that a position is called a nonsupervisory GS-14 points to the oddity of the job; the term nonsupervisory is an essential clarification of a peculiar situation.

This industrial caste system is the consequence of a bygone era when management made the decisions and labor implemented them. Management was the brains of the outfit; labor was the brawn.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith inspired industrialists around the world with his description of how pin makers increased productivity many-fold by moving from a unitary process done by solitary craftsmen to a production line with a succession of small steps.

Until recently, Western industry was typified by increasing specialization of labor as much as it was by technological change. Workers brought no reservoir of skills to their employment. Even the village idiot could perform most any industrial task after 15 seconds of training. Industrial labor was interchangeable and disposable.

But technology replaced the industrial worker with the knowledge worker. Machines could be programmed to perform the repetitive tasks of the industrial economy. Teaching machines was the responsibility of the new caste of knowledge workers.

Unlike industrial workers, the knowledge worker requires a substantial body of knowledge and skills to perform effectively. Rapidly changing technology demands a rapidly changing skill set. Managers rarely have the time to devote to keeping up with both technology and the political or financial requirements of management duties.

Polarization is the consequence of treating knowledge workers as if they were industrial workers.

How can we bridge the divide between technicians and managers? Each group needs to recognize its dependence on the effectiveness of the other. Derision is no more useful or sensible than your left hand chastising your right. Each group has it own talents and contributions to make to the success of the enterprise.

Each needs to share its insights and power with the other. Unless technicians demystify their magic, management has little basis for understanding what is easy or difficult and why. Planning and decision-making require technical insight as much as they require organizational and budgetary input.

Technicians need the cooperation of managers to realize the potential of promising technologies. Persuasive literary and human-relations skills are essential for explaining sophisticated technology well enough to extract funding for major information technology investments.

Even though the aptitudes that make for an outstanding technician are not entirely compatible with those required in management, higher pay and responsibility require becoming a manager. Government rewards skilled technicians by turning them into managers. The technical employee does increasingly less of what he or she enjoys most or is best at. The agency gets substandard administrative products from employees who feel like they've been punished for their technical skills.

As agencies struggle to use technology to do more with less, the idea that managers deal in judgment and influence needs to be broadened from budget proposals and personnel actions to include technical innovation. The ability to judge the potential of a technology and to influence its adoption by the organization is just as important. Dilbert and the pointy-haired boss need to recognize their interdependence and recover from their mutual disdain.''''''''''''

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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