Earlier today I was reading an article by Peter Cripps entitled “Attributes of an IT Architect”. Several of his statements won my instant agreement, but one or two left me deep in thought, on the cusp of disagreement. This being a challenging state to be in while halfway into my first cup of coffee, I immediately started a second cup to fuel the train of thought and, ultimately, this post.

What came from that second cup was a short series of attributes that I believe all IT Departments should strive for.

Attributes of an Aligned IT Department

A Department reflects a combination of attributes that are an average or condensed combination of the attributes of it’s members. Aligning the group to a standard set of principles or goals can help refine or clarify the department’s identity. This definition helps the Architect determine strategy, the technical support analyst in setting priorities, the developer select training, the managers to form more effective communications, and affects any number of other roles and tasks in the department. IT Departments without alignment, or with self-serving alignment, are the ones that buy infrastructure for infrastructures sake, choose technology solely based on what worked for their prior company, and commit any number of other actions or attitudes with limited or no evaluation as to how those actions affect the larger business or occasionally even the rest of the department.

Business Strategy Alignment

In order for the IT department to support and help grow the information systems and business, we need to be aware of the general business vision, short and long term strategies, and driving factors that define those plans. If the business does not have a clear high-level strategy, than it is our responsibility to help the business build one, or at least recognize the need for one.

Option: No Long Term Plan

Without a long term plan, a vision, and a strategy for attaining the vision, the business is wasting a great deal of time, money, and effort chasing down advantages that only improve individual departments or persons. These changes often have merit, at the tactical and operational level, but ultimately mean the business groups are flying in every direction, duplicating effort, contradicting each other, and leaving the company in a perilous state. Extreme examples include inter-departmental warfare, customers that are confused or that have tricks for playing multiple representatives against each other, a high level of distrust towards upper management, and complete disregard for company wide initiatives. The IT Department is only one problem among many in this type of situation.

Option: No IT Engagement

IT Departments that are constantly surprised by their business, where projects bloom faster than IT can implement them, technical challenges consistently surpass the resources available to IT, or products are selected based only on what the vendor has shared without technical review…these are IT departments that are not actively engaged and aligned with the business. Just as a logistics team cannot ensure delivery to a plan they know nothing about, an IT team cannot provide implementation or feedback against technical decisions without being involved and understanding the current and future state of the business. There may be short or long range plans inside the IT department, but they find themselves constantly at odds with the business.

Option: IT Engagement

An engaged IT department reduces stresses across the business. Technical decisions include IT and align with the IT plan, which aligns with the larger business plans. Communications between the IT group and wider business is more smooth because the same goals and measurements are in place, providing a bridge between different areas. An engaged IT department is no longer a separate group inside the company, they are members of the company and the individuals are motivated to meet those goals, provide ideas that will further the company, and interact and collaborate with members of other departments.

Learning is Critical

One of the early budget items to go in hard years is the training budget. Whether this is because that budget is generally mis-applied or because people believe IT training to be for personal improvement, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day we have decided to allow our technology to stagnate and to stop growing our options and skillsets. When the times are tight, the company with the most options is going to have a better chance at reducing costs or implementing a technology that drives improvements in the business.

Training budgets are not the only way to learn, but they are the first and last option provided in many IT departments. For the company that is serious about encouraging their employees to learn, a little imagination or web seaching can turn up cheaper options that allow us to continue the rowth of our employees at lower costs. Options that include weekly or monthly “Lunch and Learn’s”, webinars, even regular book report-esque assignments. The important thing is to keep growing and to keep that momentum.

Option: No Training

In an environment of no training, the business is at the mercy of the individual curiosities of the team. If no one is actively pursuing technological improvements, new and improved uses for current technology, or market trends, then the IT teams toolbox is going to become stagnant, focusing on skills or technologies that have been surpassed or that the market has discovered new users for that were not previously considered. As time passes, if a department is not keeping up or driving for additional knowledge and experiences, then they are steadily falling behind competitors that are taking advantage of those ideas or technologies. No one stays the best by stopping forward movement.

Option: Training and Ongoing Learning

In an environment that provides training and positive reinforcement of other methods of learning, there are more options to each particular problem. Members of the department can begin learning skills that will assist the company’s growth, learn about new technologies that could reduce current costs, and learn new methods of execution with current toolsets, reducing implementation time and cost. Engaging the interests of the department members also serves to lengthen the amount of time they stay with the business, reducing the cost of finding and replacing people that have moved on. The department with an ongoing desire to learn and improve is a department with fewer people accomplishing more for less money. In most business it only takes one or two decisions to double your return from a single training course, whether that be selecting the right technology for a problem, not selecting the wrong one, creating more extensive backup routines, learning about a technology that shortens development time for every future project, or simply being able to better collaborate with other departments and customers.

Improvement

Improvement is a common theme in the manufacturing world and one that showed up in the previous “Learning” section. Improvement, or the drive to improve, is a crucial ingredient in an IT Department and business in general and is the arm arm of a triangle that, in my mind, leads to a world class IT group. Improvement goes beyond updating software and hardware or taking training classes. Improvement means facing our failures and learning from them, finding places where we are under performing and correcting root cause issues, or finding wastes in our department and altering our process to reduce them. Improvement is a cultural difference that often leads to enormous gains in productivity or cost reduction, as well as smoother processes and higher morale.

Option: No Improvement

Theer are many departments that have stagnated, that barely pursue the minimum of technical improvements to keep the lights on. They are change-averse, fearing any change as worse than where they currently stand. They likely have a strong core of people that have aged with the company and recall the trials it took to bring the company as far as it has come, but at some point their momentum was lost and they are coasting on that memory of achievement. The stagnation or lack of momentum eventually leads these groups backwards, slowly and in an uncontrolled fashion. Frequent unplanned overtime, increasing cost overruns, lack of a cohesive direction, lack of momentum, a steady reduction in quality, and ever more frequent insistence that all of this is normal are sign that a group is somewhere behind that curve. Climbing back out is an arduous process, but not attending to the issue is eventually an unsustainable decision.

Option: Technology Improvement Only

A group that only improves their technology is not in danger like the previous group, but they may be blind to answers that don’t require technology. Simple process changes will not occur as frequently as massive infrastructure projects, leading to increased cost and fewer potential options. A reliance on technology can also be reflected in common, recurring delays and outages, issues that the team believes can only be corrected by further technology investment. There may be some root cause analysis for common issues, but these are also relegated to a “need more technology” category or as un-fixable due to a legacy system that must be replaced. A side-effect of this method of handling issues is that there is a greater tendency to require users to use the systems correctly, rather than a focus on error-proofing the systems or improving usability.

Option: Continuous Improvement Culture

A group that accepts failures as learning experiences, constantly challenges itself to improve, and supports and grows their improvement efforts…this is a group that is considered ‘World Class’ by their peers, regardless of the level of technology they are using. A system that is ailing and causing frequent business outages for a Technology-only group has shown improvements in the hands of a group seeking continuous improvement. Technology upgrades occur, but they occur not just to support the current state but also as a result of questioning that state, so that infrastructure morphs into more effective forms as the business grows, rather than simply being a continually upgraded version of what the company needed 10 years ago. Many technology costs and ongoing issues are limited or corrected by the group finding methods to improve their processes or systems without having to replace them. Missed timelines and cost overruns are dissected and their frequency is low and the causes understood and improved upon. Overtime is planned or occurs only in emergencies, never in a frequent, unplanned manner. Root cause results in technical as well as process suggestions, allowing more problems to be resolved earlier, freeing resources to work on more complex problems. Error proofing systems is adopted as more effective than building more user manuals, so error rate is reduced with lower ongoing cost to the business. Morale and respect in the group is higher because the culture supports everyone’s ideas as having merit and encourages members to bring new ideas or concepts to the team.
Costs are lower, work is more effective, and goals are both more collaborative and more frequently achieved.

Realistic?

There are entire business management philosophies built around these concepts, as well as tools, workshops, training, and books. The contrast between a continuous improvement and stagnated environment can make the opposite almost unimaginable, but I can assure you have I experienced examples of every positive and negative in each of the examples above.

If an IT group is engaged with the business, serious about aligning themselves with the business goals, and actively seeking to improve themselves with those goals in mind, then I believe they have the foundation for everything they need. Learning will follow improvement, demanded by future business needs and improvement of existing systems and processes. And if the examples seem dream-like, then you should examine that feeling and decide what factors in your current environment makes those examples feel unreal. Then find 5 ways to improve those factors. Then challenge your coworkers to bring 5 more.