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.

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