Episode 25

The availability of technology skills between organizations can vary dramatically, and not all organizations can have dedicated technical staff. Regardless, staying technology relevant is a universal challenge no matter the size or sophistication of the organization. To make the most out of the resources available requires understanding their strengths and limitations, and how these resources interact with the rest of the organization.

What if the most technical person in the office handles all the technical stuff? Typically, these individuals are your spreadsheet wizards, printer fixers, VCR programmers, or the youngest employee. There are two elements at play here. The first is that an individual represents a culmination of their lived experience, the second is that a motivated individual can learn what they do not know. The most tech savvy individuals are likely the most curious and have learned technical skills while solving problems. Under the right conditions these individuals can thrive in a highly diverse problem-solving environment building solutions to support the organization. However, it is very easy to overwhelm them. Novel problems require learning before acting. Anyone who has tackled a messy spreadsheet problem, understands that the second time solving the problem goes significantly faster.

What happens when your organization has a single IT person? Compared to the previous example, this individual has formal technology training, whether as a developer or operator. Here expectations are different, as non-technical staff will have a common perception that a technology expert, should know everything. With the higher expectations, it is very easy to overwhelm these individuals into a state where all their time is devoted to firefighting. When an organization’s technical needs remain in a “keep the lights on” mentality for too long, the culture will eventually begin to accept that the situation must be the norm, preventing opportunities for innovation. As a single individual they have a significantly smaller support network to call upon. Likewise, it is very difficult to integrate a single individual into many departments of an organization. Therefore, it is difficult to prevent building a silo between the technology stack and the rest of the organization.

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For larger organizations, it is possible to have an entire IT team or department. An IT team is comprised of a mix of competencies from development, network, server, and security specialists. The dominant difference between the single individual and team is the creation of an alignment and coordination challenge. A single individual can easily self-prioritize as dependencies are singular. With a team, the breadth of lived experience is broader providing individuals within the team a larger support network. Likewise, with specialized training, there is a greater availability of competencies to call upon for problem solving. However, much like the challenges with the single IT individual, it is possible to bog down a team into a perpetual state of fire fighting. What compounds the challenge is the extra requirements for communication and knowledge sharing. Adding more resources will likely not increase productivity if the IT department reaches a critical state.

Thankfully, regardless of which situation your organization is in, there are some universal truths to technology management that can dramatically improve productivity and agility. Channelling learning from the manufacturing sector, it is very important to keep the amount of work in process to a minimum. Make work in process visible to everyone in the organization. If non-technical staff are aware of active projects, there will be greater visibility and appreciation for the work IT staff perform. Likewise, smaller batch sizes allow for greater production throughput as downstream problems can be identified earlier and have a smaller impact on system productivity. For technology projects it is important to make releases to production far more frequent with small changes. Fostering networks for feedback, organizational learning, and experimentation are critical to staying technology relevant. The worst thing that can be done is walling off your technology team and limiting feedback to only when there are big bang changes. Big bang deployments are intense, highly failure prone, and likely feedback is retrospective and unconstructive. Make work visible, keep jobs small and frequent, and talk to each other.