Teaching “…the Mirror” to CIOs

During today’s presentation to the San Jose CIO Community of Practice, several underlying themes (of the book, of these blog commentaries) were discussed; as promised, I will note them here, so that the attendees of the session have an opportunity to “extend the discussion…”

As with last week’s presentation at the Naval Postgraduate School, though with a very different audience, much of our attention was paid to the very difficult task of explaining complex technology to non-technical (though nonetheless astute and/or intelligent) audiences, particularly in the context of corporate institutions that produce technical products and services.  Most often, the non-technical audience are executives, and just as frequently, the significant events occur in relation to budgets.  As our technologies become more complex, the requisite challenges to explain them coherently (or risk inadequate funding) are also becoming more complex.

The key, as those familar with my work will already know, is narrative and metaphor.  And, as in  last week’s sessions with the admirals, the attendees at today’s session seemed most interested in the stories and metaphors “that have worked,” i.e., have conveyed the lesson that might otherwise have remained vague or confusing.

In my entry of March 6, I noted two interesting “metaphorical scenarios” re: enterprise search, and two-factor authentication.  As a result of today’s session, I have added a new “category” to this site, so that any of the postings containing a metaphor/analogy (of possible value in a broader context) will be tagged appropriately.

I’m inclined to re-iterate the underlying strategy.  Metaphors and/or narratives are not the end state in communication.  They are creative tools to be used when the audience needs more from the speaker/writer than mere description.  For example, some of my friends have jokingly told me that I’m at my best when I am a router.   My professional colleagues understand the reference, but my wife’s colleagues (psychologists, analysts) may not grasp the true intent of the sentence.  Therefore, one approach would be declarative: a router is a device on a network that distributes tiny packets of information according to a pre-defined set of rules.  OK, now they might understand what a Cisco router does literally, yet they still may not understand why some of my friends think I am a router. 

However (from the book) if a complex network were explained, in metaphorical terms, as a city bureaucracy with many layers, many different functions and departments, and a possibly arcane set of regulations governing a citizen’s interactions at City Hall, and that Stuart (the guide, or the router) could welcome the citizen to the bureaucracy, quickly determine their needs and their authenticity, and help them navigate the circuitous hallways and offices in order that the citizen’s packet (license, ticket, fee) as delivered as efficiently as possible to the correct location.  Routed.

Armed with last week’s “Stump the Consultant” anecdotes, one of today’s attendees (while waiting in line for me to sign a copy of the book – another subject worth a few words) asked what the metaphor would be for autographs.


With a disclaimer that the “system” being discussed was the book I have written, the autograph might serve as a personalization detail at the presentation layer, a unique key underscoring that person’s ownership of the book.  Pretty simple.  I was ready to move on to another subject, but they asked for another layer of detail, something less obvious, something directly involving technology.

And so, the following story:  in 1972 and ’73, I served as a congressional intern for Senator Adlai E. Stevenson the 3rd (Illinois) as part of my college curriculum (Oberlin 1971-75).  My first task was sorting mail which, at that time, was a tedious and manual effort absent any glory or significance.  However, if one demonstrated exceptional skill as a mail sorter, an intern could quickly be promoted to use the AutoPen.

The AutoPen, a desk-sized (and curiously expensive) machine, the core asset being a brass disc at the center of the mechanism, cut like a large jigsaw piece.  The disc, when rotated, guided the pen (fitted in its appropriate groove at the appropriate angle) to apply the Senator’s signature to the document inserted at just the correct moment.  It was an exact duplicate of the Senator’s true signature, used for the dozens (often hundreds) of personal notes and sensitive responses to constituents that deserved more than a stamped signature.  It was considered, in most Senate proceedings, as the official signature, when such was needed. 

 Senator Stevenson’s real (actual) signature rarely passed through staff hands, though on one or two occassions, I was asked to provide a “quick” note or photo autograph, stopping the AutoPen at just the right moment, so that only Adlai was scribble in the same, auto-authentic manner.

Reason for telling the story?  Because there is always – yes, always – a useful metaphor or relevant narrative that could be used to convey a larger theme.  As I boldly asserted this afternoon, if you cannot find a mirror image or analogy anywhere in nature or science or art, then perhaps you should re-visit your original notion, which must might be wrong, in need of some additional critical thinking.

There must be a downside, someone asked today.  With all of the benefits of metaphor and narrative, surely such an approach comes with liabilities? 

I know them well, suffer from them, and they can be found here in the blog:  the effort to convert a complex subject to a simpler level through metaphor risks oversimplifying the subject, lessening its apparent importance; the effort to provide a narrative in lieu of more technical jargon, as we may be witnessing at this very moment (late at night, unedited) wherein a great many words have been used to say what can better be said shortly.

Explore posts in the same categories: Useful Metaphors

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