Critical Thinking in the Management of Technology
Managing technology requires the ability to think critically. Besides managing technology assets and human resources, managers of technology must guide organizations and staff in identifying problems, designing solutions, evaluation of solutions and solution providers, implementing selected solutions and closely monitoring results at each juncture. Technology managers can augment technical skills by implementing critical thinking strategies. Critical thinking supports solving complex and unstructured problems. Critical thinking strategies are characterized by taking an active approach to planning and executing problem solving. Using critical thinking helps technology managers adapt to the changing demands of the technology itself and the environment that must support it. Critical thinking can be developed and is often developed through experience. Meanwhile, there have been changes in the existing standards for technology education to place emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills. Educational institutions have come to the realization that technology management no longer depends primarily on technical skills but requires other skills that extend beyond simple knowledge. The inability to apply knowledge in a critical and timely fashion can lead to undesirable results in the real world. In other disciplines, there is disagreement as to whether or not critical thinking has a common definition or can be effectively taught.
Keywords critical thinking; managing technology; problem solving; technical management
Management: Critical Thinking in the Management of Technology
Critical thinking is a way of conducting mental processes in order to "decide what to believe or do" (Schafersman, 1991). Technology managers are likely to have many inputs into decision making. Technical staff, business oriented operational staff and peer managers are just a few of the internal sources of input. Technology vendors, competitors, government regulators and customers are other groups influencing and providing input to technology decisions made by managers. Skillful technology managers must balance competing and critical inputs to decision making. At times there will be the luxury of making decisions and having ample time, resources and information to do so. In other cases, technology management decisions are based on unforseen problems, product, service or system failures and other undesirable events.
The focus of critical thinking is on evaluating successful alternatives for action. Thinking critically is also an automatic filter that can prioritize activity in a changing environment. Critical thinking allows professionals to manage daily challenges by methodically yet creatively solving problems. Penn State University (2004) considers critical thinking an essential competency for students. Penn State's curricular guide defines critical thinking as:
"a term used to refer to those kinds of mental activity that are clear, precise, and purposeful. It is typically associated with solving complex real world problems, generating multiple (or creative) solutions to a problem, drawing inferences, synthesizing and integrating information, distinguishing between fact and opinion, or estimating potential outcomes, but it can also refer to the process of evaluating the quality of one's own thinking."
Technology managers must check their own thinking because of the risk of bias or personal preference influencing decisions. Riddell (2001, p. 121) suggests that critical thinking requires getting away from "programmed ways of thinking." Programmed thinking can come from personal beliefs, experiences, stereotypical thoughts and even assumptions made about the way decisions will be received within an organization or by other key decision-makers. The management of technology may require creative and multiple solutions because outcomes may be difficult or impossible to predict yet return on investment must be assured. Some technology implementations are based on unrealistic timelines or costs due to the problems with predicting results. The world of technology is fraught with the constant trend toward obsolescence with the advent of many new technologies every day that threaten the stability of any current technology infrastructure. Decision making regarding technology standards may be challenging to managers because there are no guarantees the standards will infinitely support organizational goals. It is also a possibility that staying with standards too long will not guarantee a migration path to new or required technology. Decisions that are not in the best interest of an organization may not manifest themselves until later when it is discovered that the decision can become more costly over time.
Many managers and professionals may possess a large amount of knowledge and skill but the application of that skill within the context of a specific problem or scenario is not necessarily automatic. If problems are simple, concise and unchanging, a manager may have little trouble handling the issue or even handing it off to other less experienced personnel. However, in the real world, problems are seldom of scope or nature where simple knowledge alone will facilitate coordination of a solution. In technology, it is quite likely that the problems a manager will face may be beyond the experience of the manager or technical staff no matter the level of experience or training. One such problem is that of interoperability. Managing technology calls for managing different products and solutions from various vendors that may or may not easily operate together without some or even significant customization or adjustment. Once customization patching is done, it may have to be done and updated on a continual basis. Managing these updates may make the solution more costly than the organization can afford.
Technology tends to change quite often for many different reasons. Some technology change is the result of new capabilities being available such as higher capacity storage devices or greater functionality in software. Technology changes can also be due to vendors adopting new standards, merging technologies with other vendors or otherwise changing the direction of research and development. The speed of change in technology is not easy to predict nor is the direction of change. It is very possible that managers of technology may have to manage technology change without having access to internal resources to support these efforts. In this case, managers have to consider how to complete projects using external resources such as consultants and systems integrators or outsourced staff, assets, networks or facilities.
The management of technology involves bringing technical leadership to the mission and purpose of an organization. Managing technology also requires what Hargrove (2001, p.222) calls "block and tackle" managers who remove obstacles and barriers to staff achievement. Technical staff can exhibit creativity but can be thwarted by management's need to adhere to a set agenda, program, direction or timeline. The technical aspects of managing technology can include project planning and can require an understanding of the systems development life cycle. Technical managers also have to understand typical information technology tasks, what makes up these tasks and how long tasks take in order to estimate and allocate project resources.
How to Solve Technology Problems
Management of technology can range from managing information to applying technology to solve a problem or to meet a user or customer need. The process of solving the problems that management of technology indicates may not be a straight line because of the complex nature of most problems. Laudon & Laudon (2007, p. 18) suggest a four step problem solving methodology that starts with problem identification and is followed by solution design, solution evaluation and choice and ends with implementation of the solution.
When managers examine how technology should be managed, careful consideration has to be given to the needs of users and various stakeholder groups while balancing the features and functionality of technology. Because of competing needs and a requirement to balance technology needs versus organizational needs, the ability to conceive different paths and alternatives becomes a necessity. Hence, the opportunities for critical thinking abound.
Types of management problems in technology can include dealing with technical staff issues. One important technical staff issue is ensuring that internal skills are up to date and useful in meeting organizational needs. Technology training for technical staff is expensive and time consuming. Many technical professionals may also spend a considerable amount of personal time and money getting up to speed on new technology. The problem of technology training is not just reserved for technical staff. Increasingly, end users have to upgrade technology skills to be productive and contribute to organizational success. Managers of technology have to grapple with the most efficient and effective means of training end users given that most are at varying levels of initial knowledge. Sometimes, vendors offer training at no cost when major solutions are implemented. Vendor training is often standardized and may exceed the effectiveness of internally developed training as it is deployed more often in many different situations.
Leadership for the front lines (1999) recognized that increasingly non-technical managers may be responsible for using, recommending and managing technology and has several recommendations from technology consultant Barbara E. Miller. One recommendation is for managers to assess personal technology competence. Managers can be hampered by what is unknown but overwhelmed when trying to determine how much...
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