Teaching Old Executives New Tricks
July 12, 2013 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Computer illiteracy among top executives: there has to be a solution

The CIO called out of a meeting to get his help desk manager on the phone to help the CEO print her emails.
The executive laptop computer, completely destroyed in a fit of technical frustration.
The top manager who loudly complains that since she cannot understand how to view her subordinates reports on her computer, they need to be done differently.

I've been in many such companies, my friends have been in many such companies -- it's a matter of course that a company's executives are among those least required to understand computers -- and those whose lack of skills disrupt organizations the most.

I'm not a decision-maker in my company, but I have the ear of some younger (more tech-savvy) execs who see this problem and I'd like to propose a solution.

Are there any books, resources, articles, etc. that might help me think through and plan an approach to this problem and a good strategy to solve it? By strategy, I mean, influence those above you to learn how to do things they'd probably rather not learn how to do.

Thank you!
posted by alice_curiouse to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, most high executives don't have the time to learn new skills for tasks that can be done by subordinates, nor does the corporate structure indicate that they need to learn those skills. I knew a studio head who had no idea how to open emailed attachments, saw no reason to do so and yet she managed to run a company very well. I think the only realistic solution is for the exec's assistants to anticipate such dilemmas and plan accordingly.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:01 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

executive assistant
posted by cupcake1337 at 4:04 PM on July 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

Just about the only way it can happen intentionally is for a trusted person to look them/the whole leadership team in the eye and explain they are hurting the company and their career(s) by ignoring this skill, and then following up with a way to get the skill to which the executive can actually commit time.

I know you are looking for a book; I don't know of one on this specific topic but I think that The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage (same author) present an effective way to discuss awkward topics with groups and individuals at work.

I think a number of Gallup-type articles about engagement and how technical illiteracy at the top alienates quality workers might get through to some.

For 'hustlers' or people running a highly sales/consulting-focused org/department there is a good section about bothering to speed up on the computer in The Ultimate Sales Machine, though it's not essential to the premises or the methods of the book.
posted by michaelh at 4:20 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the executive assistant answer, but if you're bound and determined to teach them new tricks Jessamyn wrote a book about this stuff.
posted by Wretch729 at 4:21 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm an executive assistant and this kind of thing really is one of our main functions. This assumes, of course, that the executives in question have a reasonably good attitude about accepting forward progress on the tech front in a general sense and asking for assistance when they're out of their depth. I almost think the key thing you want to communicate here is the need for executives to accept help, not to learn how to do macros in Excel or what have you. The truth is, there really isn't any reason my CEO boss needs to run complicated sales reports on his own. That's why he pays me the big bucks.
posted by something something at 4:27 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

There isn't much time to learn new skills. This is why corporate training programs exist. Arrange for a 1 week skills class. You can probably find a trainer to do it in-house, using a conference room.
posted by deanc at 4:41 PM on July 12, 2013

This sounds like a dysfunctional organization. It's totally fine if higher ups either do or do not have tech skills but at some level the expectations need to be outlined: someone needs be tech competent (either the execs or their assistants) so the higher level executives can

1. do their own jobs
2. not cause other people to not be able to do their jobs

Outlining this in terms of money and productivity sometimes works. However someone has to set boundaries. If this were my organization I think I'd start with the CIO and have them make it quite clear that they don't do help desk stuff by proxy or otherwise. And someone needs to tell the top manager that it's embarrassing everyone that are loudly proclaiming their ignorance of tech matters so maybe how can we get this sorted.

In short: someone with the power to say "You need to change this" has to set expectations and enforce boundaries. This might be some sort of hypercompetent executive assistant who just steps in before someone calls the CIO or it might mean that people go to classes or it might mean that you get them all ipads and dropbox and they suddenly feel incentivized to learn to do some of this stuff.

I feel your pain, truly, but there is an aspect of "ur doin it rong" to all of this, so try to find a way to make a business case for why the situation is unsustainable not just a "this is annoying" case.
posted by jessamyn at 4:57 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't know about books, but have trained many execs. My advice: 1) find a champion 2) hire professional trainers 3) get them something exclusive like a [colorful, shiny, artisinally-customized] executive dashboard, something they can learn how to use without feeling like regular peons - they hate hate hate that. Maybe have them reach it via an "app" on an expensive tablet - something they can show off.
posted by jcrcarter at 5:19 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

To reverse the tables a bit, I could code up an operating system, but I can't file a reimbursement slip or expense report to save my life. The stress of learning the forms Just Isn't Worth It for me. I would much rather pay someone to handle my receipts.

The lesson: unless minimal competence (in computers, say) is table stakes for success, then it really might not be as important as you are claiming. To make this case, you have to prove that the value exceeds the (financial and opportunity) cost.
posted by gregglind at 6:06 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The most painless way with the best guarantee? For the big boss to be reasonably proficient and expect the execs to do likewise. If the boss is willing to use some common sense and learn how to get basic things done to move the work along, he/she's not going to look too kindly on execs who try to play the helpless entitlement card.
posted by desuetude at 8:43 PM on July 12, 2013

The executive laptop computer, completely destroyed in a fit of technical frustration.

Anger management counseling.
posted by yohko at 9:06 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience, most executives are reasonably smart, and use technology competently. The ones who don't are sometimes stubborn, i.e., I don't/ won't use email. or I like Outlook, so everyone has to use it. or may be too embarrassed to admit what they don't know, or apply whatever their geeky brother-in-law says to the company, or whatever. Not that long ago, my company had a VP of Finance who didn't use Excel.

The CIO called out of a meeting to get his help desk manager on the phone to help the CEO print her emails. A good helpdesker can walk any user through printing email and still practice juggling print cartridges while riding a unicycle. Choose a professional helpdesker to work with the CEO. Whenever you work with the CEO (or anybody, really), you fix the stated problem, and do a little bit of extra training. "Let's walk through printing the emails, and while they're printing, did you know you can tag emails and make it easier to find the ones you need? It's pretty useful."

The executive laptop computer, completely destroyed in a fit of technical frustration. There are jerks everywhere. The middle manager who obviously dropped the laptop, hard, or the VP who used the laptop palmrest as a candleholder. Bad behavior, supervisory issue, not your problem, that's why you get the warranty.

The top manager who loudly complains that since she cannot understand how to view her subordinates reports on her computer, they need to be done differently. "Let's talk about what information you need, and the best way for you to get it. Can you show me how you'd like to view the data?"

Execs are busy and need to maximize their time. 1:1 coaching works well. Try making a trainer/coach available on a regular basis to teach useful tasks a little bit at a time. Training the admin staff works, too - they can each the execs. Smart execs will make use of this resource, because it will help them be efficient and productive.

Also, I have the ear of some younger (more tech-savvy) execs - age is not a reliable indicator of technical capability. I meet lots of 20-somethings who have limited technical expertise, and lots of geezers who are expert. I have gray hair and can field-strip a laptop under mortar fire in rain, snow or ice.
posted by theora55 at 9:22 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

+1 to Theora55's comment. All good points. Just to add a bit more - if an exec assistant for each exec isn't possible a dedicated help desk person who must have:

1. excellent aptitude for communicating with execs (doesn't have to be "polished", just has to project IT trustworthiness)
2. good with computers (naturally)
3. patient, good at help-desking
4. has execs as their #1 priority (so, no other fire-fighting duties)

This person can slowly educate each exec at their own speed on how to view reports, print emails, what have you.

It helps if said person can show each exec "tricks" on how to do things faster. (if you double click on the attachment picture it opens right away! no need to save!)

IT skills are not a requirement for successful strategy planning, risk and financial management, and so on. Execs have limited time for learning skills that are not essential to their key objective (which is, steering the company into a profitable direction - via meetings with other heads, clients, review of paperwork, etc..). Thus, they are reticent in allocating time/mental energy to learn these new skills. iPads and so on are nice, but in my experience it's better to have dedicated hands-on support (that's not a CIO) and progress the education via 1:1 conversations.

Finally, how much of the overall IT's function goes towards supporting the execs, versus the rest of the IT infrastructure and operations? Calculate the time, and from that the cost. It may not be a problem that's worth solving. (e.g. the price to solve it is higher than the price of the solution).
posted by olya at 2:15 AM on July 13, 2013

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