Adopting Critical Thinking in Information Technology

The scenario is a data center, late on a Saturday evening.  A telecom distribution system fails, and operations staff are called in from their weekend to quickly find the problem and restore operations as quickly as possible.

Critical Thinking As time goes on,  many customers begin to call in, open trouble tickets, upset at systems outages and escalating customer disruptions.

The team spends hours trying to fix a rectifier providing DC power to a main telecommunications distribution switch, and start by replacing each systems component one-by-one hoping to find the guilty part.  The team grows very frustrated due to not only fatigue, but also their failure in being able to s0lve the problem.  After many hours the team finally realizes there is no issue with either the telecom switch, or rectifier supplying DC power to the switch.  What could the problem be?

Finally, after many hours of troubleshooting, chasing symptoms, and hit / miss component replacements,  an electrician discovers there is a panel circuit that has failed due to many years of misuse (for those electrical engineers it was actually a circuit that oxidized and shorted due to “over-amping” the circuit – without preventive maintenance or routine checks).

The incident highlighted a reality – the organization working on the problem had very little critical thinking or problem solving skills.  They chased each obvious symptom, but never really addressed or successfully identified the underlying problem.  Great technicians, poor critical thinkers.   And a true story.

While this incident was a data center-related trouble shooting fail, we frequently fail to use good critical thinking in not only trouble shooting, but also developing opportunities and solutions for our business users and customers.

A few years ago I took a break from the job and spent some time working on personal development.  In addition to collecting certifications in TOGAF, ITIL, and other aerchitecture-related subjects I added a couple of additional classes, including Kepner-Tregoe (K-T) and Kepner-Fourie (K-F) Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Courses.

Not bad schools of thought, and a good refresher course reminding me of those long since forgotten systems management skills learned in graduate school – heck, nearly 30 years ago.

Here is the problem: IT systems and business use of technologies have rapidly developed during the past 10 years, and that rate of change appears to be accelerating.  Processes and standards developed 10, 15, or 20 years ago are woefully inadequate to support much of our technology and business-related design, development, and operations.  Tacit knowledge, tacit skills, and gut feelings cannot be relied on to correctly identify and solve problems we encounter in our fast-paced IT world.

Keep in mind, this discussion is not only related to problem solving, but also works just as well when considering new product or solution development for new and emerging business opportunities or challenges.

Critical Thinking forces us to know what a problem (or opportunity) is, know and apply the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning, identify premises and conclusions, good and bad arguments, and acknowledge issue descriptions and explanations (Erlandson).

Critical Thinking “religions” such as Kepner-Fourie (K-F) provide a process and model for solving problems.  Not bad if you have the time to create and follow heavy processes, or even better can automate much of the process.  However even studying extensive system like K-T and K-F will continue to drive the need for establishing an appropriate system for responding to events.

Regardless of the approach you may consider, repeated exposure to critical thinking concepts and practice will force us to  intellectually step away from chasing symptoms or over-reliance on tacit knowledge (automatic thinking) when responding to problems and challenges.

For IT managers, think of it as an intellectual ITIL Continuous Improvement Cycle – we always need to exercise our brains and thought process.  Status quo, or relying on time-honored solutions to problems will probably not be sufficient to bring our IT organizations into the future.  We need to continue ensuring our assumptions are based on facts, and avoid undue influence – in particular by vendors, to ensure our stakeholders have confidence in our problem or solution development process, and we have a good awareness of business and technology transformations impacting our actions.

In addition to those courses and critical thinking approaches listed above, exposure and study of those or any of the following can only help ensure we continue to exercise and hone our critical thinking skills.

  • A3 Management
  • Toyota Kata
  • PDSA (Plan-Do-Adjust-Study)

And lots of other university or related courseware.  For myself, I keep my interest alive by reading an occasional eBook (Such as “How to Think Clearly, A Guide to Critical Thinking” by Doug Erlandson – great to read during long flights), and Youtube videos.

What do you “think?”

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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