The Traits of a Modern IT Organization

The IT industry is at a significant tipping point.  It's not about hype, marketing, branding.  It's very real.  Things are changing and they are changing fast.  Many businesses and the technology executives inside those businesses are caught in a difficult situation where they are not technologically current or tooled for accommodating the velocity of change that their very own companies demand of them.  They are mired on stultifying processes and every day they face one dismal failure after another.  There are cost over runs, time constraints, resource constraints, and fiscal constraints.  There is just always too much to do with too little time and money too do it. How are executives and their IT teams supposed to adjust and excel under these conditions?  How is the overall IT organization and people within it supposed to adjust and react?  How can they be effective?  It does sound dire, but there are some great success stories out there!4,3  But, unfortunately, they are still rare.  There is good news.

What follows are what are values or traits of a modern IT organization.  They are all deeply intertwined.  I suspect over time I may be able to re-factor and refine this document.  But, this is meant to be an introduction to the concepts more than an exhaustive treatment of the subject.

The Traits of a modern IT organization:

  • Be Agile
  • Be Elastic
  • Be Loosely Coupled
  • Be Quick
  • Be Responsive
  • Be Effective
  • Be Well Instrumented
  • Be Lean
  • Provide Value
  • Understand the technology
  • Educate at all times

Be Agile.  This is critical for any IT Organization that wants to compete.  This is not about Agile Software Development.  Being agile means being able quickly change direction or speed.  In physiological terms Wikipedia defines Agility as, "the ability to change the body's position, and requires a combination of balance, coordination, speed, reflexes, and strength."  In terms of response rate or reflexes being Agile intertwines closely with the concepts of being elastic.  So, for example, your response rate is the time needed to effectively adjust capacity.  This response rate must be kept as low as possible.  If it takes 11 months to put your team together and you have high turnover you're in trouble and your project will definitely suffer.  Overall, I really like the idea of thinking in terms of IT organizational performance in the context of athletic performance.

Be Elastic.  I'm talking about people here, not computers.  You do need a solid core of people whom you can depend on and that know your business needs intimately.  This should not be outsourced.  These are your strongest weapons.  Trust them to no one else.  Take good care of them and by all means, keep them sharp.  Beyond that core group you do need an extended team of partners and contract employees to augment the core.  However, make sure the core stays in charge.  The core of the IT Department is sometimes called a steering committee.  The problem with that sort of thing is that they don't usually know what is really going on or see where they are going.  It's scary when the people steering can't see the road.  The core can and need to get their hands dirty.  They must have strong touch points with real projects.  They must be held responsible for their decisions.  This will pose challenges for very large organizations.  But, I still think it's very true overall and there are ways it can work.

Be Loosely Coupled.  A successful modern it organization must be run in a way that is distributed and it should produce output and systems that are loosely coupled.  Systems must be maintainable and deployable at a granularity that does not halt or threaten the entire IT organization, it's customers, it's vendors, or the business as a whole.  Doing this requires significant forethought and planning about how one item will interact with another over a significant amount of time when it's being put in place.  This is a complex task already.  To keep it as managable as possible one must be extremely diligent and factor out as much complexity as is reasonable from both process, organizations, and systems.  Agile project management methodologies are well suited in a loosely coupled environment.

Be Quick.  In a car speed may kill.  But, in an IT organization speed makes money (or saves it which is somewhat similar).  IT departments can no longer afford projects that takes years.  In fact, if a project takes more than a few months the overall project plan is probably highly suspect.  Slow IT departments are completely and utterly ineffective.  Slow is somewhat relative of course but it must be defined and the goals must be aggressive.  Please note that being quick isn't the same thing as being rushed or being in a hurry.

Be Lean.  Lean IT, is all about having just enough and no more or no less of the resources you need when you need them.  If you are lean and Agile things will likely go well.  Frequent and regular layoffs are a pretty clear sign that your not lean.  This particular trait is very closely tied to being Elastic.  But, don't get fat.  Solving this problem is very, very challenging for almost all organizations.

Be Effective.5  You can be extremely efficient to the point of ruthlessness and get absolutely no meaningful work done.  This is a common affliction of IT organizations who have lost their way.  You are only effective if the overwhelming majority of what ever you do every moment of every work day is clearly aligned with the purpose of furthering the success of the business that IT is supporting.  Lean and Quick IT organizations are superlative examples in that they are well aligned and involved in setting and achieving core business values and goals which makes them very effective.

Be Well Instrumented.  You must be able to measure success.  To do so you must have monitoring and the ability to peer into the guts of what's going on at all points along all processes.  This is true not of only computers and systems but also of people and process.  There must be an effective monitoring and reporting of what is going on at all levels (especially at the top) and consistent methods of interpreting what that monitoring output means.  Do this you need to set "break points" or insert "probes" into those processes that kick out information that can be consolidated into meaningful and consistent metrics over time.  Remember, there are no sacred cows.  Good instrumentation in an IT organization takes away some of the mystery and lays bare the strengths and weaknesses at all levels of an organization.  One word of warning though, be prepared not to like what the monitoring tells you.

Provide value.  Information Technology can be a strategic and tactical ace in hole for any business.  As never before the implications on business of technology are paramount.  Without some relative degree of technology mastery a business will most likely be trounced by its competition.  This is true across most industries and area of expertise today.  What this means is that IT is absolutely and without any question able provide true value.  But will it?  What value IT can and should provide to your organization will be different from every other organization but it's crucial to find out what it means for yours.  Without it, you can't set the right goals, you can't move at the right pace, you can't even hire the right people.  A company's technology endeavors absolutely must provide unwavering and measurable value to it's business benefactor.

Understand the Technology.  At all levels, up and down the people making important decisions must understand the technology and it's impacts on their business.  Not everyone in the IT part of a business must be a hands on technology expert.  However, all the people in IT need to understand technology at even the highest levels.  This is critically important.  Almost anyone from any background can lead a technology organization if they are a good leader,  have good business skills, and are savvy about how to manage and leverage the knowledgeable technical and human resources they have available to them.  At all levels of the IT organization one must listen, study and learn about technology and its impact every single day.  It's just the way it is with IT and it is part of the attraction for many career IT people.

Educate at All Times.  There is no real shortage of "IT Workers" in the world probably.  But, there seems to be a dramatic shortage of really good ones.  Every IT Organization must take it upon themselves to educate, train, and improve every person at every level.  I almost never see this and it makes me sad.  Ego is the usual culprit.  But, from time to time there is a glimmer of hope in some companies.2


These practices and values can help get a growing or faltering IT organization start moving in the right direction again or they can be principles that a fledgling organization might wish to start with.

Further Reading and Resources:

1. Factoring complexity (article I'll be writing soon)
2. Article about Zoho Training Program
3. Harvard Business Review:  Radically Simple IT, David M. Upton, Bradley R. Staats
4. Stratgy+Business, Spring 2008: The Practical Visionary, Michael Farber, Tom Greenspon and Jeffrey Tucker
5. The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker.