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What exactly is an Honest Broker? Sometimes the term is heard in the context of political discussion, however the phrase applies to just about any field of endeavor. The role of Honest Broker refers to someone who applies their expertise in a fair and unbiased manner and more importantly communicates that expertise forthrightly without fear or concern for potential reprisal. Another way to think about the role is that the Honest Broker is the polar opposite to the “Yes Man” – a person who only communicates what others expect to hear. Why is this of value and what does it have to do with IT Architecture? I’ll try to address both of those points…
Why having an Honest Broker Matters – The obvious reason may start with the realization that if one hires an expert for their expertise, they may actually want the expert to demonstrate that value. This may not always be case of course, some people hire experts and then expect them to merely mimic precisely what they wish hear. The flaw with that is the value proposition is nearly always lost in those type of situations – any problem which required the expert in order to be corrected is that less likely to be solved. It is worth emphasizing here that this applies to any field, any profession, any industry, not just IT. The difference with IT might be that there is at least the expectation that less of the ‘Yes Men’ type roles would be accepted or tolerated because IT is the main focus of innovation these days. This isn’t necessarily the case though.
Another consideration in the overall value proposition behind having an honest broker is a related phenomenon called Group-Think. Group-Think isn’t quite the same as having people act as Yes Men per se, it is more of an organizational, self-imposed boundary to what is or isn’t acceptable to think. Thus it is a cultural phenomenon, but one that exists primarily within certain sub-cultures – these can be companies or any type of organization really. The NET effect of Group-Think existing in such an environment is an overall reduction in problem-solving effectiveness. In organizations where problem solving (either individual or collective) is not really needed, Group-Think may be considered an asset. This tends not to be the case in IT however, as the field is dynamic enough that it requires problem-solving on almost a constant basis at all levels. Group-Think can be thought of as the ‘Box’ in the phrase, “Think outside of the box.”
Architecture & The Honest Broker – In IT, we hold the advantage of having a fairly well-recognized role (at least in recent years) that turns out to be perfectly suited for combating Group-Think and solving problems at all levels. That role is the IT Architect and it represents a significant part of the overall value proposition behind IT Architecture. Here are a few reasons why IT Architects make excellent Honest Brokers:
1. Because in IT, intelligence and open-mindedness are rewarded perhaps more often than in any other field (at least that I know of). Some might say Science in general might be the place where this really holds true, but I think not. There are aspects to traditional science that are still much more rigid than IT in regards to how non-traditional thinking is accepted. IT is results-oriented in a pragmatic way that Science sometimes isn’t.
2. IT Architects tend to be experts in more than one area, but also tend to have the ability to become experts in others quite quickly and have to deal with many more areas where they are not expert. This imbues the Architect with a dynamic and relatively unbiased world-view; as architects we don’t see the world of problems in black and white where there is an absolute set of right and wrong choices to be made. We also embrace change because we see it every day and can easily gauge massive shifts in both technology and practice within the bounds of our own careers. The IT Architect is flexible, open-minded and most importantly of all quick to challenge their own and other’s assumptions in the performance of whatever task needs doing. This is because we haven’t built our thinking around a belief system, we’ve built it around problem-solving with direct, tangible results as our primary measure of success.
3. And perhaps most importantly, IT Architects tend to be leaders or close to leadership roles. We are in the right place at the right time and usually talking to the right people to make a difference. Matching the skills and thinking to the situation is crucial.
Being an honest broker does not imply that someone (whether they be an IT Architect or not), can say whatever pops into their head. No, being “honest” in this sense means that the Broker is fairly assessing an issue and fairly determining courses of action and communicating that information in the manner which the organization expects it to be presented without undue restriction or censorship. As I alluded to earlier, there are some organizations which don’t value this type of role and that’s fine. Others may pretend to support it, but in practice don’t and it’s not uncommon at all for Architects to be forced to one type of conclusion or another in order to maintain their position. But ultimately, the most successful IT organizations do value this type of role and once you know you’re in that type of organization fulfilling that type of role your potential to add value as an IT Architect increases exponentially.
Copyright 2016, Stephen Lahanas