The conflict between managers and engineers

Before I became a consultant about all things Media 2.0, I ran a Web company specializing in personality assessment. One of our value props was the ability to help companies hire just the right kind of person for the job. We knew that personality — the essential motivations that drive each of us — were critical in getting the various jobs done that make our business world function. Emotional people, for example, while necessary in social or some personnel relations functions, have great difficulty at the top, because their emotions can interfere with making tough decisions.

Analytical minds have different types of issues, because they’re always looking for the right process to handle various tasks and problems. This interferes with some forms of creativity, but these people can perform seemingly emotionless jobs. An executioner, for example, could rationalize his job, but an emotional person could not. It’s simply impossible.

The right kind of person to run a start-up Web company needs a combination of creative and analytical skills, but all too often they’re run by one or the other. In the end, however, it’s about risk-taking, vision and cash, and that job is best left to those with a deep personal drive and leadership and motivational skills.

This is important in today’s media world, because we’ve shifted from a management paradigm to one that is much more entrepreneurial. As New York Times Regional News Group exec David Knight told me recently, “It’s not about revenue anymore; it’s about making money.” He’s so right.

So who calls the shots with your entrepreneurial digital strategy? Do the people at the top make the decisions — the managers and leaders who came up through the news, sales or marketing ranks — or does that task fall to a person or people who came up through the tech side of things? All too often, in my experience, they come from the tech side, because media executives generally don’t have the knowledge to drive strategy. While this has certainly been understandable, it has produced less than stellar results for media companies in the grip of disruption, and maybe it’s time we took a really hard look at that.

Broadcast companies have been through it before.

I worked for WTMJ-TV in the early 70s and was running the Assignment Desk when the station manager had the idea to create a “Who’s Who at WTMJ” booklet, complete with pictures of everybody. TMJ was a combination television, AM and FM powerhouse, and we had a ton of employees. I’ve kept that old book (dated 1974) and while looking at it a couple of years ago, made a pretty interesting discovery. The largest employee department was Engineering. Over 70 engineers worked there then, dwarfing the news department. General Managers of broadcast stations often came up through the engineering ranks, because, frankly, they were the people who understood the technology necessary to keep the signal on-the-air. Back then, you accomplished nothing — nothing — without the assistance of an engineer.

All of that changed during the 80s, when corporate mandates drove the bottom line to top priority status, and that required somebody other than an engineer to run the place. GM’s rose up from the sales, marketing and, occasionally, the news ranks, because they could best move the revenue rock. Technological advancements made it easier to handle the engineering side, and TV stations became massive money-making machines.

I’ve often written that Ted Turner should go down in media history, not as the man who built CNN and was an early driver of the cable industry, but because he took graphics production out of the hands of engineers and put it in the hands of artists. Until that happened, it was a major project in newscast development to make simple graphics. Turner changed that with his non-union CNN, where artists were equipped with a camera pointed downward, a character generator, and access to images that were either self-created or from a library. Contemporary newscast production owes a lot to that innovation, and it was yet another case of moving technical people away from tasks that formerly they were the only ones able to execute.

Fast forward to today.

We’ve arrived at that point in the execution of digital strategies, too, and, with deep respect to my geek friends (and my own inner geek), it’s time for those who drive cash flow to take over. Why? Because as long as our strategic decisions are made by those in charge of maintaining technology, we’ll always default to things least likely to go wrong — the most provable, the most reliable, that which is known — and in today’s environment, we need to take chances. The last people in the world to take risks are those whose principal responsibility is to keep things from going wrong.

It’s not that engineers aren’t capable of risk-taking; it’s just that they’d rather not, because their world is bound to that which is known and proven, black and white, and right and wrong. Engineers are highly process-oriented and follow that which is known. Every good entrepreneur has a great engineer on the team, but even where engineers originate some great innovation, the smart ones find a different kind of personality to bring it to market. This pattern has been repeated over and over and over again in Silicon Valley, home of the Web start-up and the largest gathering of techies in the world.

The problem with what I’m suggesting is that the people running media properties — including those that work at the highest levels — lack the knowledge to be able to handle the task of strategy. There are only two solutions to that: acquire the knowledge or hire visionary people who already have it and have run Web businesses themselves. That’s problematic, of course, because the people who would hire them are the people who would have to step aside in so doing. Not gonna happen.

That means that the only alternative is a serious commitment to study, something that’s especially scary for executives who’ve worked hard to gain their positions on experience in the old world and would like nothing more than to just manage that until retirement. But study we must, and if it has to be one-on-one, then so be it. The alternative — unless you have a real visionary running the digital side — is to keep letting the engineers call the shots, whether that’s operational or strategic.

Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter.

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