4 (Uncommon) Habits for Better IT, part 1


Jump to part 2…

I’ve seen my share of IT gone wrong, and I pay attention when it does.  Sure, the problems and solutions may seem obvious, “do good, don’t do evil” as a CIO colleague of mine likes to say… but making the conscious effort to recognize and stand up for the most critical values takes something you don’t often see in today’s IT workplace.

So here’s 17 years (oh god, is it 18 now?) of watching successes and failures, wrapped up in the form of 4 Habits:

IV - Competence and Character above all else -

Sure, it seems obvious… but most IT organizations in decline can trace their woes to incompetency and/or lack of character amongst their ranks.  It’s all the more disastrous when these characteristics emerge in upper management.

No matter how well integrated to a business, IT is, by nature, an organizational island… albeit one in which the natives fear the beach, sunlight and are allergic to everything. 

The business as a whole has to trust, almost blindly, that the IT management has things in hand.  This makes Character and Competence the two most important qualities of IT professionals at all levels. 

Sure, we think about those things when we hire people, but they aren’t the focus… and they need to be.  

With all due respect to managers, it is no great feat to keep geeks in line and pointed at a goal.  Most IT groups consist of members whose skills do not generally overlap, so most organizations already depend on IT staff managing themselves, whether anyone realizes it or not.  This is, in fact, an increasing trend.  For most IT pros, independent management is just part of the job.  

This aspect of IT is a key oversight when finding IT people, particularly CIO’s.  IT pros don’t look toward a boss for management, rather, for their competent, engaged and coherent input on the technical and policy issues that are facing them in their work.  The CIO is responsible for the grand scheme, making the cogs fit together, so a lack of technical competence at this level is a grave, yet pervasive liability the industry currently endures.  Technically competent CIOs are both more useful to subordinates, and make better decisions.  It’s just a fact (because I say so).  

Also, IT professionals who find themselves responsible for the livelihood of an organization also realize how important it is to be trusted implicitly.  The job simply can’t be done without the trust of the users.  If the group loses that trust, it takes forever to earn it back.  All it takes is one bad hire.

Competence and Character are simply indispensable, no matter how technical, ceremonial or managerial you think the job is.  IT staff are extremely sensitive to these two characteristics.  So instead of looking for generally “good” candidates, using whatever arbitrary factors may be in play, the first question that should be asked of your HR people is “how to we verify the technical competence of IT hirees” and the second is “how do we assess their character”.  If there is no current method, create one.  ALWAYS involve the rest of the IT staff in the decision making process, and DEMAND their unrestrained opinions.  You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

To sum it up:  Obvious or not, a little respect goes a long way at all levels of IT.  Hire people you and your IT staff respect, and foster a culture of doing the right thing, or expect major problems.

III - IT Employee Development and the 50/50 Rule -

In failing IT organizations, IT employees often work 100% of the time or more.  In successful IT organizations, IT employees often work 50% of the time or less.   It’s just a fact (because I say so).

You may grumble about that assertion, but the old adage about working smarter, not harder, is pretty much the mantra of the successful IT organization.  A good IT employee in a successful IT organization consumes and applies a PhD’s worth of information every couple years of their career.  Those who don’t, simply become irrelevant, or even a hindrance in short order.  Continuous education and retraining is an absolutely essential part of the job, from the CIO to the technician.

But you say, “The CIO doesn’t need to know how to configure a router…”  No, but it is the process of obtaining education in IT related disciplines that gives them the insight to contribute intellectually on other technical topics… in fact, it’s even more important for the CIO because a tech competent CIO will see possibilities well beyond what’s available on the shelf… and generally save their organizations large amounts of cash.

Of course, the shape of such education for IT staff need not be defined.  Certifications and degrees have no more value than the education derived from tinkering, experimenting, and reading Slashdot or Digg.

In order to progress and do things cheaper, faster, better… IT employees must both have the time, and be expected to learn and implement new concepts, technologies and strategies.  If your group is overtaxed just to get the daily work done, then you’re not only failing at employee development… but you aren’t providing a competitive advantage to your organization. The competitive advantage comes from doing things better than the other guy, and customizing the IT solutions to the benefit of the organization.  

Of course, the current management norm is to cut FTEs to the bare minimum any time there’s an excess of man power for the immediate work.  This, however, ensures that what you do today is all you’ll ever do, and likewise ensures that what your employees do today is all they’ll be able to do.  At that point, there’s little value to having an IT department… and is a major reason why organizations wind up unable to deploy new technology or adapt to unforeseen changes.
  
The more desirable outcome, indicative of both good management and employee development, is to have challenging goals being achieved, reasonable expectations being met, and employees that only spend 25%-50% of their time working, and the rest educating themselves.  Organizations in  this situation have the best chance of retaining employees and providing exceptional service.

To sum it up:  Education is half the job.  Organizations that make it a priority are more effective than those that do not.

4 (Uncommon) Habits for Better IT, part 2…

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