Tuesday 11 November 2008

Got ineffective IT? Fire them all

Nothing is black and white. There is always a degree or more of separation, or a gradient of how bad (or good) any problem (or solution) is. However we are in interesting times, and usually when bad economics drive business initiatives, management folks tend to opt for more polarized solutions.

So given our new climate where companies are finding it difficult to borrow money or fund raise through the issuance of stock, some problems regarding ineffective IT become more focused. These problems often don’t seem like problems in good times, because when the cash is flowing in or it is easy to get, then you don’t often think about how you can get the most out of your IT staff and processes.

I remember reading a quality management magazine in the early nineties, that oddly was also interesting times, the likened any organization to the human body. Though the article was directed at quality issues, the gist of it can be generalized to any business problem. The premise was the more entrenched and systemic a problem is, like most fatal diseases, the more radical solution is for remedy.

When the body is compromised in some way, usually the internal systems kick in to assist. However if you have a repressed immune system, or you body is simply overwhelmed, you need external help such as medicine. If the prognosis is terminal, you may need a dangerous and invasive intervention. For example, if your arm has gangrene, chances are you need it amputated to survive.

So is your IT department out of touch with business needs? Can it not promote best practices or optimizations? Are service levels dropping, regardless of whether you have a Service Level Agreement in place internally or not? Does your business staff complain that everything IT does takes too long, projects are of low quality, or the IT staff are uncaring and incomprehensible? You may have IT necrosis, and you may need to have it removed!

The unfortunate thing about the 90s (and probably now) is that it was easy for companies to make draconian decisions. Just like our medical analogy, you really need to discover the root cause of the issue, because firing your IT staff in whole or in part may not guarantee corporate longevity. Sure enough, if the people are bad, it can kill your organization. However if the processes are bad, or your corporate culture is bad, you may end up with the same problem. Any solution requires analysis that includes both resource and process remedies.

Do some triage and figure out if your issue is top-loaded or bottom-loaded. In a top-loaded problem, the IT people in the trenches likely commiserate with business clients. There is often some sympathy. Do your IT generals know what the concerns are of the IT footmen? Are there more than 4 levels of middle management (or restated, do you have many managers for managers)? As CIO, consider changing your guard and flattening your hierarchy. The most important thing you can do is to visit your human resources department and read the exit interviews of all the really good trench fighters that left your organization. Usually people are very willing to talk to independent corporate HR about their successes and blockers. And if you have your middle managers do your exit interviews, shame on you.

Bottom-loaded problems are a challenge, because they can thwart really positive corporate IT initiatives, hindering their adoption. These may exist because of fear of change, or an organic growth of culture that saw people not accountable or receptive to process (and dare I say beauracry). That said, I was in a company once where some of the engineers refused to detail their timesheets. These guys were great engineers, but undisciplined. As the company grew from 80 to 200 employees, it became more and more important to track who was doing what, and to introduce (shudder) management. Unfortunately the family feel of the company saw the stress of growth, without the process planning for growth, and did not force these radical free agents to comply with simple and rational processes. The result was a few death march projects, shouting matches, and a poisoned corporate culture. Process compliance should be measured, and non-compliance should be consequenced. Sounds a lot like being a parent, doesn’t it?

So remember, triage might save your corporate life in the short term, but long-term solutions often require postoperative care, and often preventative measures that bolster your corporate wellness.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And The Armchair CIO goes on-line.

Have you ever worked for a company and wondered what exactly a Chief Information Officer does? This is the person that is supposed to set the direction for Information Technology to fulfill the corporate needs. Contrary to the dreams of some aspiring IT middle management, this job is neither sexy, glamorous, nor uber-geeky. Where the Chief Executive Officer is setting direction for improving shareholder value, the CIO is enabling business to work effectively.

At least, this is what anyone working in IT would hope for.

"The bigger they come, the harder they fall." Applied in context; the larger an organization is, the greater the demands placed on its CIO. The good CIO will delegate to minions the day-to-day operational support, while he (or she) investigates how IT can better service corporate needs. Of course where other corporate officers are accountable to the board of directors (and that can be one crusty group of individuals), the CIO is often accountable to the CEO and CFO. Given that IT is rife with human resources, that are the largest expense most companies have, the CIO often becomes the giant at the top of the bean stalk, carefully guarding the goose that lays golden eggs, and we all know how hard he fell.

So lets review some of the things expected from a CIO:

  • implement the will of the CEO and the board of directors

  • provide leadership over IT staff

  • manage overall IT budget

  • start strategic initiatives

With a good CIO, the expectations should not stop here:

  • quantify goals and measures

  • continually review and revise IT policies and procedures

  • ensure quality and service levels

  • gap, risk, and value analysis

  • leverage internal expertise

The reason why I separate these two lists is that many bad CIOs adequately meet the first four expectations. In fact, each of those four points can be a detriment to corporate value. For example:

How many CIOs blindly implement the directives of the CEO and/or board [because of either weak leadership or that they are not empowered]? In an effective organization an executive should be able to challenge bad ideas. Often times IT is not considered a core part of a business and therefore is marginalized. For any medium to large sized company the information systems and staff are crucial to competitiveness, so why would they be given less consideration than whatever brings in the cash (the core business)? Knowledge, and the application of it, is power.

How many CIOs gather a group of faithful about them and limit their hearing to only the voices of this inner circle? Strictly top down, one way communication is not IT leadership, it is dictatorship.

A good CIO should encourage active feedback from end-to-end. The more levels of management between the bottom and the top, the more miscommunication (or filtering of information) between the general and his troops. Some might argue that is the point of delegation, however, if the wrong information is filtered or communicated, errors get amplified through every level. There is also the danger of the self-reinforcing delusion, that is also known as let's only talk about what we think we want to hear.

Has any CIO ever been told to cut their overall budget 10%? A good CIO might do analysis of what is being spent, where, and what the perceived value is in efforts to streamline or cut. A not so good CIO might look at quick-fixes, like layoffs, umbrella outsourcing, or sacrificing quality/service. Outsourcing is the most beguiling fix, as most outsources promise the TCO reduction off the mark. The problem is service levels drop too. And the placation is that it is to be expected while you work out the kinks. Meanwhile you've lost a heap of undocumented corporate knowledge (even with the best knowledge capture processes.) And by the time you figure out you're spending more to fix the new problems, the outsource is firmly entrenched.

And how many short term CIOs come to a company, start a variety of initiatives that are really good ideas, and are not there to see them through? There are wonderful strategic initiatives that can be started without insight or enlightenment as to a company’s needs. For example; centralize or silo. Push through process initiatives (like ISO or ITIL) or remove them. Push a specific technology platform (like saying we’ll be a homogenous Microsoft environment.) These might look great on a resume, but in practice, without real analysis these can be painful mistakes.

Listening to your staff is very important. Who knows your business better? A good general visits thetrenches to listen to the troops and boost morale, but doesn't fight in them. He or she delegates and enables people to do their jobs. How many CIOs blindly follow the research or Forrester or Gartner? These companies are typically paid to support an existing agenda. In fact, you can find contradictory analysis in their libraries to support most IT arguments you'd like to make. This falls in the tell me what I want to hear category, and it provides a convenient excuse for the CIO to avoid the trenches. For example, I saw a report that exhalted how a tiered support model with specific roles made staff interchangeable (read replaceable.) Some refer to this as the bench model. Each role had specific duties, and existing staff should be refactored into these roles and should not be assigned more than one. A developer cannot be a business analyst, database administrator, or client support.

The execution of this model completely discounted that different applications in an organization require very different types and levels of support. Not every application fits to desktop application support (horizontal applications, like word processors.) Some vendor's applications require full-time staff with a breadth of technical and/or business expertise just to stay operational.

The good expectations can really be distilled down to a CIO who knows the business, cares about the business and the staff, and is willing to put in the effort to "do what we do better." This cannot be done without measures, analysis, and learning from experience.