Expanding The IBM i Advocate’s Tool Box
February 10, 2014 Dan Burger
Fighting for the IBM i platform is a skill. And like any skill it requires forethought, training, and repetition. The platform has plenty of advocates, but most are not trained in effective ways to communicate with those who have little understanding of the system and those who focus on short-term technology changes without adequately considering the long-term business investments. Choosing to be an advocate doesn’t automatically bring the knowledge of how to effectively support and defend.
To begin, let’s make a distinction between popular computing and smart computing. Smart computing is about facilitating change while doing what’s right for a business and building solutions to business problems. Some will accuse any bucking of popular computing trends of standing in the way of change. Be prepared for that.
You already know the IBM i platform is not well understood or appreciated outside the IBM i community. But what do you bring to that conversation? Can you successfully defend the platform if it is being challenged by other factions of the IT department or from upper level management?
To help you answer that question in the affirmative, I turned to Bob Tipton. He specializes in helping organizations through transformational change, which accurately describes the circumstances in many IT departments. Tipton has been in the middle of many transformational changes. He’s also been on the front end helping to guide outcomes.
Tipton is a former IBM midrange computing insider. He understands the IT perspective and has seen the good and the bad. Don’t be surprised to find that all the good is not on one side and all the bad on the other. This is a mixed bag.
The first piece of advice is to bring some objectivity. Expand your frame of reference. When you explain your perspective with an “us versus them” attitude, your intentions are to build a strong case for IBM i, but in all likelihood you are building strong resistance. Maybe you have noticed that discussions about platform superiority frequently turn emotional.
“This is an ideological issue, not a logical issue,” Tipton says. “Many people think the facts should speak for themselves, but unfortunately they don’t and logic doesn’t trump emotion.”
Resistance builds by using a single perspective as the starting point. This has been a popular strategy for dueling platform discussions for almost 20 years. Tipton’s description reminds me of a lot of meetings I’ve participated in, regardless of the topic. In the following scenario, the IBM i advocate is prepared with a 10-pound sack full of substantiating evidence. Tipton explains, in an abbreviated way, how this logical pursuit most often plays out.
“If you don’t agree that the IBM i is the better platform, then you must not have the information that points to that fact. That means you are ignorant of what the IBM i capabilities are. I can fix that. I’m going to give you the information and that should change your mind.”
But the opponent in this debate looks at the 10-pound sack of information and says, “I’ve seen the information and I still disagree with you.”
Undeterred, the IBM i advocate notes, “Well, if you have the information and you still disagree, then you are stupid. You don’t understand the information I have given you.”
With clenched teeth, the opponent says, “No. I have the information and I understand it and I still don’t agree with you.”
Retort: “Well, if that’s true, then you must be evil.”
In real life, this debate takes much longer to unfold, probably over the course of several meetings and either weeks or months. Some of these words may only be thought and not vocalized, but it accurately describes the folly of expecting to win an ideological battle solely with information. Certainly, the roles could easily be reversed with a Microsoft Windows advocate wielding the 10-pound sack.
The conclusion is that there is no conclusion. There are only two sides fighting to defend their positions.
“You cannot rationally argue someone away from a position they have emotionally fallen into,” Tipton says. “Instead of fighting the ideological battle, give people a reason to move toward something rather than away from something.”
This is where objective analysis can tip the scale in your favor. It is necessary to become aware of the other choices. Often what passes as understanding of other platforms is nothing more than time-worn stories that are perpetuated as convenient “facts” because one side is threatened into defending its position. You may be convinced you know what’s wrong about an alternative platform, but, more importantly, do you understand what’s right about it?
To increase effectiveness, Tipton advises advocates take care of three items: awareness, understanding, and preferences.
If you already consider yourself an advocate for IBM i, you’ve probably been at work to raise the level of awareness about what capabilities the platform has to offer. It is no longer the machine that most people associate with the AS/400 name. The hardware and the operating system have greatly evolved and the capabilities are as modern as anything. Meanwhile, other platforms have “introduced” technologies and systems that make them more like the IBM midrange server–virtualization and improved database integration come to mind.
Awareness of the extension of the existing business investment is one area that deserves more attention when advocating in your own shop. Quantifying rip and replace compared with improving existing business investment to reach business solutions is a powerful strategy that shows you think things through.
Raising awareness within your organization is a great first step, but it is not enough all by itself.
Understanding how the core business computer fits within the context of the organization where you work is the second step. This has little to do with technology and a lot to do with knowing the business side of operations and identifying the business drivers, the issues, the themes, and opportunities that are influencing future decision making. This is where IT organizations, in general, are weakest. Often they are not connected to the person who is making an IT decision or is a major influencer when it comes to making one choice over another.
Give the decision maker a reason to pay attention. Explain how problems will be solved and discuss these plans with a business requirements perspective not a technological platform perspective. Talking about the IBM i platform in terms of its strengths rather than the weaknesses of other choices.
Raising awareness and understanding is designed to establish a preference for the decision maker. The goal is getting people to say, ‘OK, I choose this.’ It is a process that involves risk. Decisions mean risk and with risk comes fear. Planning out a long-term view is one way to reduce fear. Point to a plan that is moving toward common interests and integration rather than a plan that is designed to move away from positions that are being defended. Understand that there are roles for both IBM i and Windows.
The best opportunity to be a strong advocate is by developing trust. To become a trusted advisor requires learning more about the person making the decision and what the stakeholders in the decision process are expecting. Get a feel for their worlds. If you spend time knowing those people and what they do, trust is gained. People recognize situations where there is high trust and low trust. Time frames shorten when trust is high. When trust is low time frames lengthen and costs go up.
“Keep in mind,” Tipton advises, “there will always be conflict when big decisions are made, but it needs to be meaningful conflict.”