Your next head of IT will be a video game clan leader

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Your next head of IT will be a video game clan leader

Comment: Do current IT cultures suppress gamers' soft skills?

The skills that your IT leaders need to support the engaged IT department of the 21st century are being honed for hours every night, yet most IT departments are structured to actively suppress them.

Gaming is big. Gartner estimates that spending on gaming reached over $US67 billion ($62 billion) in 2010.

And it’s not 12-year-old children or even college students playing in their rooms instead of going to class. In the US, the average gamer is 37 years old and has been playing for 12 years.

Eighty-two percent are 18 years old or older. Forty-two percent are women. Gamers are not just "IT people," but associates in every corner of your business (and those of your business partners, customers, regulators and competitors).

Anyone who has played a multiplayer online game such as World of Warcraft or the Battlefield series is familiar with the following scenario. You are dropped into an unfamiliar map. There is a group of people playing different roles with different skills.

There may be some people you actually know, some you have played with before and some you have never met — either physically or virtually. The group quickly comes together and agrees objectives.

If someone on the team has played this map before, he or she might take the lead — if no one is familiar with it, a leader will emerge from among the players. In the middle of the quest, unanticipated circumstances arise. The team regroups, changes tactics and a new leader who is more familiar with this particular challenge takes over.

These players are exhibiting precisely the skills required of the current generation of IT leaders:

  • Leadership
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Situational awareness
  • Dynamic engagement
  • Practical goal orientation

If these skills are so pervasive, why are they so hard to find in IT? Why do CIOs tell us that the biggest single challenge they face is a skills gap in these areas and that IT is very bad at developing these skills?

In short, current IT cultures actively suppress these skills. The command and control structure is hierarchical and formally articulated.

By contrast, games are meritocracies. While it may seem to those more accustomed to traditional management techniques that cultivating such an environment will lead to anarchy and chaos, the truth is that game environments are highly structured, typically have many more rules than traditional work environments and the players are encouraged to develop strategies to thrive within those rule sets.

CIOs cannot wave a magic wand over the IT department and change all the behavioral norms so that leaders can emerge dynamically and teams will become instantly productive.

However, there are several things that CIOs can do to begin to take advantage of the gaming phenomenon.

Sponsor gaming events (these can be virtual or real) outside normal working hours and encourage staff from all parts of the business to play.

Extend invitations to the gamers in the organisations of your strategic customers and business partners.

Create a community of gamers in your organisation — and challenge it to use gaming techniques to solve real-world business problems.

And perhaps, most importantly, CIOs should try gaming themselves. It is difficult to appreciate the skills that gaming fosters, or even to understand the dynamics, if you are only an observer.

Anne Lapkin is Gartner's research vice president in New York.

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