How to Transform Your Technology Organization: The Basics

This series of posts can help CIOs achieve better results. In the first installment, Bob Ronan sets the stage by describing his model for thinking about the four stages of the technology organization and shares best practices that CIOs can use to significantly improve the effectiveness of their organizations.

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The CIO job can be very different depending on the maturity of the organization. For example, the priorities of an organization having frequent production issues is far different than those of an organization that has stable systems.

In this series of posts, I will describe a model that will help CIOs determine where their organizations are in terms of maturity, and I will describe techniques that can be used to move to higher levels. These posts are an expansion of an article I wrote entitled "Is Your IT Shop a Scrambler or a Leader?"

Technology groups can be categorized as being in one of four stages — "Scramblers," "Producers," "Innovators" and "Leaders" — with each step enhancing the value of the organization to their customers. Scramblers have a great deal of difficulty getting the basics right and, true to their name, they spend much of their time reacting to events. Producers get the basics right but have not yet evolved further. Innovators are not spending as much time on the basics so they can divert this energy to find ways of using technology for competitive advantage. Leaders provide technology leadership to other technology groups.

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These three posts will go into significant detail on each of the four stages. In this first post, Scramblers and Producers will be discussed with a focus on specific actions CIOs can take to "get the basics right." Part two will focus on Innovators and what it takes to develop a culture of innovation in the technology group. Part three will discuss the rare Leader organizations that are sought out by other aspiring groups for guidance.

Scramblers and Producers

The key difference between these two stages is the fact that Scramblers have a difficult time getting the basics right while Producers do a good job with them. "Getting the basics right" implies a level of competence in the areas of IT operations, application development, personnel and finance.

Before describing "the basics," it is important to note that these concepts may sound like common sense and there may be a temptation for the reader to quickly jump to "we do that" when reading each item. After all, no organization wants to consciously admit they are not doing something that appears to be common sense. But, most organizations don't execute "the basics" — at least at the level they should — so the reader is encouraged to challenge themselves with the following question: Does my organization really do these things well or do we just want to believe we are excelling in these areas? With that caution in mind, the following paragraphs define "the basics."

Operational basics relate to items that every technology organization needs to address as a first priority — ensuring the production systems are available and perform well. Specific items in this area include:

  • Production Incidents. Are there a manageable number of system "hiccups" or are employees spending a great deal of time reacting to production issues?
  • Online Availability & Performance. Are the online applications available for the business and customers? Do screens and pages render with acceptable performance?
  • Batch Cycle SLAs. Do the batch processes hit their SLAs?
  • Risk. Does the organization have appropriate standards, processes and best practices in place to minimize systems issues? Is the technology environment protected from information security threats?
  • Technical Debt. Is the technology infrastructure current, e.g., consistent with a defined architectural roadmap and on the right versions of software?  
  • Periodic Events. Are events outside of the day-to-day processing executed well?

Application Development basics include the delivery of efficient and scalable technology solutions which allow the business to achieve its objectives. Competencies in this area include:

  • Estimation. Are high level and detailed estimates reasonably accurate?
  • Project Delivery and Cost. Are projects delivered on time? Are projects delivered on budget? Scramblers often have project delivery issues because they need to "tax" projects to address deficiencies in operational basics, e.g., performance and technical debt.
  • Quality. Do standard quality metrics, such as tracking how well defects are contained to pre-production environments, demonstrate a level of quality in the production code? Is the organization mature in the use of test automation techniques allowing for frequent and robust regression testing?
  • Customer Satisfaction. Are business partners pleased with the implemented solutions?

Organizations that get the basics right in the areas of IT operations and application development may be tempted to declare victory. But any success is likely to be temporary if the organization is not paying attention to its people and its finances. If an organization does not take steps to treat its people properly, the high quality employees may seek employment at more attractive companies. If an organization mismanages its finances, it runs the risk of being lower in the priorities when the company decides how to allocate capital. Achieving the Producer level requires getting the people management and financial basics right as well as the "nuts and bolts" of IT operations and application development.

People Management basics include initiatives that improve the effectiveness of the technology workforce. Included in this area are:

  • Hiring. Are positions filled in a reasonable amount of time? Are there effective on-boarding programs to make new employees productive? Do most hires "make it?"
  • Mentoring. Is there a formal mentoring program in place to help employees grow in their careers?
  • Training. Does the management team take the time to identify the training required for the organization and then match appropriate employees to these training opportunities? Are employees incented to "invest in themselves?"
  • Promotions. Are managers able to promote the people they feel are ready? Successful organizations manage their hierarchies aggressively, e.g., by replacing employees who leave with lower level employees so they can promote employees without becoming "top heavy."
  • Performance Goals. How well do employees understand how their work fits into the bigger picture? Do they have individual goals that map into larger organizational goals?
  • Performance Reviews. Do employees receive regular, constructive feedback on their performance?
  • Recognition. Do employees feel appreciated for the work they do? Recognition techniques do not need to be complex or expensive. A simple technique is to encourage managers to start staff meetings with a discussion of who is doing a great job and then send hand-written notes to each of the people mentioned.

Financial basics relate to how well an organization manages the technology investment. More specifically:

  • Expenses. Are direct and indirect costs in line with the budgets?
  • Resource Rate. Are the right levers, such as the use of lower cost offshore talent, used to keep the cost per resource at an appropriate level?
  • Cost Savings. Is the technology organization taking steps to reduce its infrastructure spend or to reduce the time it takes to deliver projects?

There is one important item to note before leaving this section. The transition from Scrambler to Producer is often achieved once an organization embraces metrics. Metrics put a spotlight on the basics which allow management to quickly and objectively recognize issues, take steps to understand the root cause of the issues and then make changes. For each of the bullets in this section, there are metrics that can be used to objectively assess whether the organization is on the right track. Scrambler organizations rarely have good metrics in place while more advanced organizations aggressively use metrics to measure and improve their performance.

Obviously, no technology organization performs all the basics flawlessly. But, it isn't hard to recognize the Scramblers who really struggle and the organizations that have freed themselves of this chaos. Once the Producer box has been attained, the next stage of evolution for a technology organization is to become an Innovator, which is described here in the next post of this series.

The Series:

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