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IT « Ocean Web

Posts Tagged ‘IT’

Turning the pyramid upside down

Thursday, November 6, 2014
posted by daveb

pyramidMuch has been written about managing change in large organisations. However, examples of successful change programmes are still far too rare. Even when change programmes succeed they take far too long, and cost far too much. Large organisations simply find it very hard to change the way they do things internally. This is because real change is impossible without the full buy-in of least a majority of the staff members affected. People simply don’t like change – there’s often much that’s threatening about the kind of change that gets pushed from the top down, and little upside. Put yourself in the position of an administrator that has become expert in a system over 10 years of daily usage. Now try telling that person that the system will be thrown out in favour of a new system. That is of course a very threatening situation to someone whose feeling of worth at the organisation is based on their indispensable knowledge of the old system.

Leading change in hearts and minds is surely the foundation of successful organisational change, because at the end of the day changing an organisation’s operations involves changing the way people do things. The key is leadership, in its classical sense. Unfortunately its just this kind of leadership that large businesses are frequently very bad at. How many examples of great leaders can you identify around you in your workplace? How many individuals can you identify that you would follow if your life depended on their leadership? A true leader has the respect of their team, and gives respect back. They don’t need to force their will on their team because their team trusts them and feels their point of view is heard. You should consider yourself fortunate if you can identify just one such person in your work environment, and sadly you would be extremely fortunate to work in a team with such a person in the lead role. It shouldn’t be like this of course, but that’s the reality of corporate culture.

But in stark contrast to this, “IT leadership” in large organisations typically decides on an IT strategy and starts pushing changes downstream onto the organisation. Business users typically get involved in the requirements gathering process, and “IT leadership” calls this “listening to the users”. But this is like me asking you: “What colour would you like your new car?” before I’ve understood your transport needs. Furthermore, I’m a car enthusiast, and I love the prospect of putting you in a new car (I know I’d want one, therefore you must too). Perhaps what you really needed was an annual train pass, but I jumped right over that because I have no interest in trains, let alone public transport.

We in IT leadership really need to engage with the business much earlier, and far more deeply – so deeply that we really understand what’s going on at the front lines of the organisation, where the rubber hits the road, as it were. But this is hard work. I’d argue that in any reasonably complex business environment it is not possible for analysts to understand everything that is going on at the business level, unless less they have been at the organisation for at least 3-4 years. The best analysts have been in multiple roles, including operational roles, so that have have a deep understanding of a business area in terms of operations, support, technology, and business process. These analysts are very rare. If you have analysts like these look after them! They are irreplaceable. Most analysts develop shallow approximations to what’s going on, and while these approximations can be useful, it’s very dangerous to view these approximations as if they are the complete picture. If IT leadership develops solutions based on these shallow approximations, they won’t build the right solution, at least not on the first attempt.

In the 1990’s IT got away with top-down driven change. E.g. we decided the company needed a PC on every desk, so we made it happen. But in 2014, things are no where near so simple. Our biggest IT projects aren’t often about providing this kind of basic infrastructure anymore – we already have that. What we need are new ways to do business, new ways to solve old problems, ways to get head and shoulders above the competition, ways to enable us to move faster. IT persists in thinking, like it did in the 1990’s, that it just needs to ask the business what the issues are, then come up with a snazzy technical solution.

However, there’s another way to approach organisation change, an approach that fosters trust and gets real buy-in, an approach that is borne of the Scrum, Agile and Lean movements. It is to turn around the notion that we in IT or organisational leadership actually even understand what changes would have the most benefit (even after asking the business), or whether change is required at all.

Instead we should eat some serious humble pie and try this: Ask the folks in the front lines themselves what needs to change, and critically, let them become the designers and leaders of change. Lead from behind by supporting them to get the changes they want by providing whatever they need – software, developers, analysts, trainers etc. but always work under the front line leaders (in Scrum, you’d make them the Product Owner). Turn the organisation chart upside down and respect and empower the front lines for that is where your organisation creates value.

Critical to this approach is the concept of iterations – the buildmeasurelearn feedback loop. This means we change something (preferably something small), measure its effect, and learn from that what to try next. Repeating this loop is the key. It actually doesn’t even matter what change you make – the measurement step will tell you whether it was a positive or negative change, and that will drive your next iteration. The iterations need to be as short as possible for this to be effective. One week iterations work well.

Of course it takes time for front line workers to get into this way of thinking (and longer for management!) after accepting decades of top down driven changes that have left them disillusioned and change-weary. But once they get the idea that they can have whatever changes they want, they’ll start flexing their new found powers creatively and working out how to make best use of it. There is nothing as empowering and engaging as being in control of one’s own success. And with that new power should come new responsibility – the front lines, not their managers should be responsible for their department’s results, because, after all, they are the ones creating those results, not their manager nor their manager’s manager.

The main drawback of the front-line driven approach I am arguing for is that big changes don’t happen that way. Finance systems don’t get replaced that way. Front-line staff are great at coming up with small improvements, but they may not be in the best position to see opportunities for big step changes.

The big changes may still need to come from IT leadership. But importantly, if IT staff are constantly working with front-line staff to make the small changes they need, then IT gains an enormous amount of understanding of the business during this process, and a huge amount of mutual trust is created if this is executed well. After 12 months of close work with the business users, IT staff are in a much better position to recommend larger “step” changes in the solution space.

Further reading about these concepts:

  1. Insecure Manager’s Don’t Want Your Suggestions
  2. Implementing Lean Software Development
  3. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams
  4. Extreme Programming Explained

There is no “skills shortage”

Friday, December 23, 2011
posted by saille429

Allow me to share a discussion I started on Linked-In’s “Getting IT Right” group.


The recruiting industry has created a wonderfully self-serving “skills shortage” – perhaps in much the same way that the financial industry was able to create its own bubble. There aren’t enough square pegs for all the square holes, yet we are sitting on mountains of round, triangular and hexagonal pegs of all colours and sizes, all desperate for a chance!

There’s talented people everywhere, but you have to be a bit open minded, and you have to be prepared to take a rough diamond and shape it yourself. It is myopic and lazy to sit back and wait for the perfectly qualified candidate to be presented to you. There is a widespread assumption that a recognised certification in a particular discipline equates to a competency in that discipline, and if we simply find the candidates with skills X and Y they will likely be able to do the job that requires skills X and Y. How simple recruiting is, right?

I say that that assumption is naive, and leads to good job candidates being overlooked every day, to the detriment of the company and the nation as a whole. I would suggest there is not so much an IT skills shortage, but a chronic lack of people able to spot talent if it walked right past them. Recruiters with no in-depth knowledge of an industry (most of them) will add no value above CV keyword filtering software. How can they be expected to? (BTW, anyone who thinks IT is one industry, doesn’t understand the IT industry – IT probably has more specialised niches and roles than medicine).

Certifications are just one indicator that an individual may have a competency in a given field. Certifications typically rely on exams, and exam questions are crammed and memorised then recited. The certification then only proves that someone has a good memory and general literacy in the field, useful, but memory is a skill that is becoming less and less critical in a searchable online IT world where information in the form of facts can be found quickly and easily.

There are far more powerful indicators of competency. If you are interviewing someone who claims to have a knowledge in a particular field, and you (the interviewer) are experienced in that field, you should be able to spot a fake in 3 questions or less. If you cannot, you add no value to the process, and you should not be interviewing. It is even possible in zero questions, just get them talking about their experiences in their field, or their areas of interest in their field if they lack experience. If they know nothing about the field, let them talk about their other life experiences, how they teach themselves new things, what motivates them, why you should employ them, and so on. You will quickly gauge their enthusiasm, the depth of their understanding, and their approach to life.

Do they recite conventional, textbook answers to common problems or do they think for themselves? Can they provide multiple solutions and ideas to solving a problem, or are they trying to simply give you the answer they think you want? Ask open questions, given them no clue as to the expected answer (indeed have no expected answer) and just let them go for it.

This means that wading though CV’s just got a whole lot harder right? Perhaps, but if you can spot a fake vs someone worth talking to, then you can cut an interview down to 5 minutes or less for the unsuitable, and longer for the more suitable candidates.

Complaining about a skills shortage is like complaining about the weather – our energy might be better directed to working around it – in other words play the hand you’re dealt, search harder for talent, be open minded about what talent might look like, be prepared to help create talent, and be prepared to invest more time in the search for talent. Perhaps the mistake many employers may make in the recruiting process is to approach the market with a desperate need to fill a hole, coupled with an arbitrary set of required attributes (pay range, certifications, experience level etc.). These attributes are often nothing more than a wish list. When they find it hard to fill the position, they blame it on the “skills shortage”, and everyone nods in sober agreement, perhaps throwing in that the government needs to “do something about it”.

Knowledge workers are becoming increasingly specialised. In addition to a vast array of niche specialist technology roles, functional roles, vertical market specialisations, and technology product specialisations, there are vastly different levels of experience. That’s not even considering the range of personalities, and the impact that has on the suitability of a candidate to a role. Then you have to throw in that NZ is a very small market – some skillsets are held by only a handful of people in the entire country. The result is that every knowledge worker is different, and the dated concept of one “resource” being a substitute for another, as if knowledge workers are some kind of high-tech labourer, is very 20th century.

Employers could instead take on keen apprentices and put them alongside their more experienced staff. When that is done right, there’s a kind of magic that happens when skills rub off, often at an astonishing rate. By having a range of experience levels on a team, from apprentice to senior, the employer should have options to promote from within. Then they’d have the option of hiring a new apprentice when a senior member moves on, and moving everyone in between up a notch.