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Blog Post|8 minutes

How Humanistic IT is Finally Retiring the Old ‘Nick Burns’ Stereotype

How Humanistic IT is Finally Retiring the Old ‘Nick Burns’ Stereotype
December 16, 2020

I might be dating myself, but I began working in the IT service industry back in the late 90s. During the same time, the now infamous Saturday Night Live comedy skit—Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy, played by Jimmy Fallon—started to gain popularity for its over-the-top rendition of IT.

For those who don’t know the show, Nick Burns was an abrasive, socially-awkward techie who worked in a corporate office and was periodically called to help fix his colleagues’ IT problems. He was sarcastic, arrogant, and quick to mock his fellow employees for their lack of technical knowledge. In short: Nick Burns was a caricature for poor IT support. But if you strip away the cheeky humor, wacky dialogue, and outdated IT references, the show had a deeper message that still resonates today:

IT support used to be viewed (unfairly I’d add) as a group of detached, inaccessible characters that existed primarily to fix our devices so we could do the important work. That perception, however, has shifted dramatically in the last few years because of two reasons…

nick burns

The Unlikely Characters Changing IT Employee Experience Today

The problem with Nick Burns, aside from his obvious character flaws, is that he is an IT technician, not an IT consultant. He approaches problems like a robot, viewing issues exclusively through the prism of hardware and software, and never from the perspective of the employee before him. He lacks emotional intelligence and the ability to infer from human context. Instead, he operates under a series of yes-no questioning and binary logic.

IT consultants, on the other hand, are both emotionally aware and technologically savvy. They act like a double-edged sword, cutting through problems that stretch from your data center, all the way to your employees.

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Of course, consultants existed back then, but the perception certainly made it feel like there were less of them—me, I should say. But that perception has changed recently, primarily because of non-technical people; consumers.

The non-IT crowd Speaks the Same, Heightened Language of Digital Experience

Like many in IT, I had to work my way up the ladder and prove my worth at every step. But unlike some, I didn’t start down this path by tinkering with computers in my basement. I started my IT career as a barista in an internet café, and while I still make a mean latte, the other half of my role sometimes involved helping customers with their first experience with the internet. I fell in love with the feeling of helping someone experience technology through the lens of curiosity and wonder, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. Throughout my career I’ve gradually taken on more and more responsibility in technology leadership roles across retail, entertainment, the non-profit sector, financial services, and software development. And through all this time, I have a secret formula—kryptonite—if you will, for taking power away from that outdated Nick Burns stereotype.

The secret formula?

Empathy and connection.

I fell in love with the feeling of helping someone experience technology through the lens of curiosity and wonder, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

I’ve lost count of the number of users, and even friends, and family who have called themselves “stupid” in the context of technology. We often refer to young people as technology-natives and older generations as late-adopters, and yet I see everyone as a Chief Technology Officer at home. Has anyone ever taken an Airbnb training class? Of course not! And while most people may not fully grasp i9 processor speed, ISP protocols, or cloud computing, they are surprisingly informed, picky, and curious when it comes to technology. They, like all of us, are accustomed to hyper-specific consumer technology experiences.

Alexa, where can I get a cheap, reusable, fair-trade face mask? Preferably pastel-colored and available for delivery tomorrow?

The IT department has finally been invited to sit at the cool kids’ table in the high school cafeteria, in large part because non-IT people have grown more comfortable with innovative consumer technologies and are unapologetically dragging those high expectations into the workplace.

This is making room for a new generation of IT leaders that have risen to meet the challenge by delivering excellent service but also powerful experiences.

Humanistic IT & the Leading Force Behind the Movement

Over the past few years, I have shifted focus to deliver what I call Humanistic IT.

Humanistic IT is a human-centered approach to technology leadership that emphasizes the inclusion of each employee as a whole individual. Leaders who learn how to focus on creating an empathetic bond with users more deeply benefit from diverse teams and cultures, tap into lived experiences, and acknowledge external pressures to drive meaningful service excellence. Departments that take a Humanistic IT approach constantly look to include employees in shaping their own digital work experiences, and that effort pays off big time.

new generation

This isn’t just my opinion—research papers, analyst reports and business articles—all draw a line from human-centric IT services to employee engagement and business success. Companies with high levels of employee engagement report higher profitabilityshareholder valueproductivity, and longer employee retention than their competitors.

For the dominoes to fall, of course, you first need tech leaders who are willing to break away from the status quo. The organizations who have done this have primarily been ones whose IT leaders are willing to take risks and relinquish more leadership opportunities to younger and more diverse generations (though we still have a long way to go). We are entering a brave new world in IT support, but unlike the dystopian version described by Aldous Huxley, this one is built for experience excellence.

The traditional IT leadership mindset steers towards achieving service excellence, often scoring projects based on SLAs, and ignoring or undervaluing the employee’s experience. A new generation of IT leaders (and some notable elders) are adopting the shared philosophy of Humanistic IT and are willing to take it further within their respective organizations. Service excellence is table stakes, you can’t get to the good stuff if you’re unreliable, but these new leaders are recognizing a service-only mindset doesn’t do enough to improve the 21st century employee experience. Simply put, you can have award-winning service, in the traditional sense, and be setting your IT team up for commoditization.

Take the old way IT used to measure employee satisfaction. Many departments rely heavily on the employee satisfaction score, and when offered without context, it can mislead IT leaders into thinking they are providing good employee experiences. Start with the word “satisfaction”, and you’ll find it literally means to meet one’s needs or expectations, but what if those expectations are low to begin with?

these new leaders are recognizing a service-only mindset doesn’t do enough to improve the 21st century employee experience

I guarantee if you were lost in the desert without water for a day, you would suddenly find yourself very satisfied finding dirty water from a horse trough. But would your experience be great? Probably not. And would you return to the trough again if you had another choice? Definitely not.

The Right IT Talent Matters for Today’s Employee Experience

I think if Nick Burns was a real person, he wouldn’t find a job in IT today, and definitely not on one of my teams! The IT industry is maturing, and not to sound too dystopian but I think we are nearing a tipping point where automations and workflow processes are starting to mature enough to take over many of the roles we’ve needed humans to do. This means that the humans we are recruiting and retaining in the workforce are performing work that requires more creativity and empathy.

Start by developing a new talent profile for your teams with an emphasis on consultative, conversational, and research skills, and the capacity to build relationships and coach non-IT people. Of course, not everyone will tick each box so look to create a diverse team that can be deployed to support an ever changing workforce.

Then use your new profile to evaluate your talent to find, and groom, the empathetic IT professionals you already have and hire the next generation of team members. Pro-tip: they may not be techies themselves. And finally, when given the reigns to your own IT team, create programs that will have your employees calling you the experience desk, instead of the service desk. I guarantee that you, your employees, and your organization will reap the benefits, and frankly you’ll have a lot more fun along the way.