Technological communication risk

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 07:50 pm

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil—the iconic representation of communication failure. Technical debt can result from communication failures due to unwillingness to inform others of what you know, and unwillingness to receive information from others more knowledgeable.

Technologists must convey what they know about long-term technology trends to enterprise strategists and others. In addition to strategists, the interested parties include internal customers of technology, product owners, product managers, project sponsors, and senior management. Within the enterprise, technologists tend to be among those most knowledgeable regarding the relative alignment between enterprise technological assets and long-term technology trends. Yet technologists frequently fail to communicate this knowledge effectively to those who need it, and that can lead to nonstrategic technical debt. I call this phenomenon technological communication risk.

Technological communication risk is the risk that knowledgeable people within the enterprise don’t communicate important knowledge about technology. Within the enterprise are people who need this information and people who possess it. The risk is that people who possess it might be barred from distributing it, and people who need it might be unwilling to receive it. Policymakers can address this problem by working to define roles to clarify communication responsibilities. Role definitions must specify the need for this communication, and the need to be receptive to it.

A clear understanding of long-term technology trends is important in managing technical debt. Any significant misalignment between enterprise technological assets and long-term technology trends creates a risk of incurring new technical debt. As technologies evolve, enterprise assets must evolve with them. The gap between those assets and the state of the art is a source of lost productivity and depressed organizational agility, which is our definition of technical debt.

The root causes of technological communication risk

Some technologists are better informed about technology trends than are their internal customers, product owners, product managers, project sponsors, or senior management. Technologists often do attempt to communicate what they know on an informal basis, but unless such communication is expected and defined as an official duty, their superiors and internal customers don’t always welcome the information, especially if they haven’t heard it elsewhere, or if it conflicts with what they’ve learned elsewhere, or if its implications conflict with established strategic positions.

Many technologists are aware that their superiors might not welcome their observations about technological trends. And they are also aware that their superiors do not welcome observations about technology-based strategic vulnerabilities or opportunities. For example, a technologist might be reluctant to mention a cybersecurity risk that would be expensive to mitigate. This mechanism is especially strong when deploying adequate cyberdefense would compete for resources with other initiatives already underway. The mechanism is also important when the negative consequences of the vulnerability are unlikely to materialize. And some tend to question technologists’ credibility when they blame the technologists for the vulnerability itself.

Situations like these can lead to the formation of new nonstrategic technical debt in circumstances such as when Management directs technologists to…

  • …produce capabilities using approaches known to the technologists to be technological dead ends.
  • …implement capabilities that don’t exploit known approaches that could open new and vital lines of business.
  • …focus resources on initiatives that in the view of the technologists lack sufficient technological imperative.

Last words

Policymakers can mitigate technological communication risk by establishing internal standards that encourage knowledgeable technologists to share what they know. The parties that most benefit from the information are internal customers, project sponsors, or senior management. Similarly, those standards can encourage people in such roles to take heed when knowledgeable technologists do speak up.

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