Psst: What Are the ‘Other Guys’ Doing?
One of the things my father used to say is that the day you stop learning is the day you’re dead. Now, dear old dad was a colorful individual, to say the least, and much of what he said I either couldn’t or wouldn’t print, but that expression is one of his few gems.
I consider my professional life as starting when I interned and then freelanced as a studio engineer for AT&T Corporate Television at 195 Broadway in September 1978. That puts me at 35 years of figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. The one constant dad’s advice provided me is that it was never enough to know just what I knew. All things — especially technology things — change so rapidly that anyone calling themselves an “expert” or even a “professional” in a specific area has to force themselves to keep learning if they want to maintain that edge.
I understood at every point in my career that a teenager coming out of high school would inherently know more about the technology he grew up with than I knew — unless I worked at it. That work includes attendance at industry gatherings and conferences, working with manufacturers and software producers, and — quite simply — finding out what everybody else is doing.
When I was working for “end-user” firms, I was constantly seeking out peers at similar firms to find out how they were handling the problems and issues I was faced with. Which firms/people came to the same conclusions I did? Which organizations figured out new approaches? Which organizations hit snags that I had not encountered yet? Etc. I joined industry associations and advisory boards whenever I had the chance. I took every opportunity I could to keep learning — or stay alive, as my dad would say.
Now that I am on the other side of the business (as a consultant), “How are other firms handling this?” is still the number one question I’m asked. Smart people know that constant trial and error will eventually get them to the right answer (if they still have their job at the end) but there is usually an easier way.
It was Bill Gates who said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” Lazy may be a bit harsh, but the sentiment is the same. As the older proverb goes, “We stand taller on the shoulders of those who came before us.”
Helping organizations understand this is now part of my job description. I can explain and demonstrate what other clients have done to solve problems and achieve success (without revealing any confidences, of course.) I can also detail what didn’t work and why — saving organizations huge, wasted investments in time and money.
This opportunity has given me a great sense of perspective. When I was with the end-user firms, I took company policy to be a fixed mandate and rarely questioned it. Security, compliance, technical policies — all of these were obviously regulated and written in stone.
Now that I work with dozens of organizations, I understand that all of those “requirements” are really just interpretations. No two organizations interpret requirements in exactly the same way. This is as it should be, as no two firms have exactly the same priorities and needs. The difficulty in getting organizations to see that usually lies with their technology leadership.
These people tend to shop the market for solutions and decide upon them. That’s great if you’re selling solutions (like a manufacturer), but no so smart if you want to meet an organization’s actual needs. It is much wiser to start with an organization’s people — an end-user base that functions as a “focus group” and then ultimately as “adoption advocates” — before making technology decisions.
Organizations have different users with different use cases, and it is ridiculous to assumethat each user group has the same needs. It’s even more ridiculous to assume that every organization has exactly the same blend of user groups. Getting this segmentation right is the first step to a successful technology strategy. Sometimes I can convince organizations to learn this practice; sometimes I can’t (and they wind up buying what a manufacturer convinced them they needed all along.) It’s usually the latter organizations that wonder why their technology adoption rates and ROI are so low.
There are two morals to this story: 1.) Organizations and individuals should never stop learning — even if it requires a concerted effort to seek out other opinions and face down some incorrect assumptions from your past. 2.) Take advantage of every opportunity to find out what similar organizations and individuals are doing. Maybe they’ve solved a problem you’re also having, or maybe they’ve already faced one you weren’t even aware of.
You can accomplish both things in many ways. You can attend and participate in industry conferences and seminars. You can join the relevant industry associations and participate in — or even just listen to — the dialog. And then there’s always that part about hiring a qualified consultant — just make sure he or she is one that knows they need to keep learning new things in order to keep their edge.
This post originally appeared on David’s blog. It’s reprinted here with his permission.