In his classic treatise “Power In and Around Organizations” (Prentice-Hall, 1983), Henry Mintzberg describes three types of power in organizations – formal, informal, and expert.
FORMAL POWER is power derived from one’s rank in the organization. A division director has more formal power than a departmental manager and less than the corporate vice-president.
INFORMAL POWER derives from personal influence, perhaps because of being with a firm for many years, or knowing how to avoid ‘red tape’, or having key political connections inside or outside the firm, or even from more nebulous sources like the ability to inspire trust or possessing charisma. Informal power is, in a sense, an illegitimate power base, but it can be very real nonetheless. An obvious example would be the corporate executive assistant who, while having little formal power, actually exerts considerable influence on the operation of a firm.
Both of these kinds of power influence political life in modern organizations importantly; but Mintzberg’s third kind of power, EXPERT POWER, is probably the most significant for the typical IT practitioner.
IT Expertise and Business Decision-Making
Information technology is brimming with experts – on hardware, operating systems, databases, various application systems, networks, etc. Each of these experts has the capacity to influence decision-making in specific areas of technical expertise, and by extension within a business that relies upon that technology. This influence can be exerted for the good of the firm OR to promote the personal agendas of the technician or IT department. For example, IT personnel sometimes recommend the latest, most advanced computer systems for applications, even though there may not be a valid business need for the “latest and greatest” technologies. Technicians always want to work with the latest technology to maintain their own individual “leading edge” skills and maintain their technical pride and marketability.
So, the potential for IT expert power to influence, and even corrupt, decision-making cannot be denied. Because of the underlying technology, IT experts tend to influence and sometimes even control the introduction of new business processes into a firm. But the question is: “Who else can do it?” Who else understands the technology and the ramifications of the technology well enough to advise management in these matters? The answer is, “No one.” Consultants may help, but they tend to have their own agendas (like selling more consulting services). So, the only real option is to rely on internal IT staffs to make the critical choices and then to make them work.
Senior Management’s Dilemma
Real IT expert power is power based in knowing better than one’s peers how a mission critical system actually works. Its basis is technical expertise, not organizational longevity or loyalty. When a new system needs to be developed or an existing system falters, those who can address these needs can exert expert power. The more critical and complex computing and networking technologies become, the more opportunities there are for abuse. And IT technicians or their managers can easily further personal or departmental agendas.
Obviously, many IT professionals do not engage in this sort of manipulation, but when this does occur, others in the firm usually do not have the technical expertise or credibility to effectively challenge any such recommendations effectively. This can pose a serious dilemma for corporate executives and management in functional areas who must rely on their IT staffs for advice about when and how to implement and use essential information technologies to sustain competitiveness. This is often a very perplexing management problem.
Charles K. Davis, Ph.D.
Professor; Cameron Endowed Chair of Management & Marketing