Information Technology at a Crossroads

Interview with Joe Santana and Jim Donovan

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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In the wake of the brutal burst of the dotcom bubble, the corporate role of information technology and its purveyors has been at the heart of a heated debate. "Manage IT" is a just-published guide for IT managers, authored by Joe Santana and Jim Donovan.

Question: How did you come to write the book and why now? This isn't exactly the heyday of IT!

Joe: I've been in the IT profession for a little over 21 years. During this time I've seen a huge number of stellar IT individual contributors promoted into IT management roles where they began a steady descent in performance and confidence that brought pain to themselves, their teams, and their company. When I looked around for books that addressed these IT management challenges, I found that none of them dealt with the possibility that the role might be the wrong one for the individual (e.g., not their talent).

I think that it is important to make sure that the individual has the proper talent, desire and willingness to be an IT manager in a specific role before we leap to training and other development interventions. Also, many of the books dedicated to IT management seem to focus on "project-management" skills or "Tayloristic" productivity measurement approaches. Project management and reading metrics are important, but are not the only skills needed to be an effective manager.

One of my personal motivations for engaging in this project with Jim was to provide IT professionals as well as Human Resource and Performance Consultants working with IT professionals with a tool that would do two things. First, enable the IT professional considering a role in management to determine if this is the right career move and, if it is, to provide them with a basic foundation of key IT management skills.

Jim: My background for the past 20 or so years has been in human development and potential. I've authored three quite successful self-help books, delivered countless seminars, and worked with individuals and groups to help them identify the blockages to their growth and create strategies to move toward their goals. My main contribution to this book is in helping people identify their personal goals and values and applying them to their careers.

If a person is working out of alignment with his high driving values, no amount of promotion or money will satisfy him or her. Such people are continually unhappy, unfulfilled and less than stellar performers. In "Manage IT" we have provided a series of exercises to assist people to identify their own goals and values and then determine if they are in alignment with the specific management position being considered. We've also provided the IT manager with coaching tools and strategies that they can use to elicit peak performance and results from their teams.

Question: Why is there a gap between corporate management and IT management? What went wrong, what are the historical roots of this misunderstanding?

Joe: IT people that grew up writing programs or keeping computers and networks running have typically not been exposed to company strategy and objectives early in their careers. On the other hand, their "cousins" in marketing, sales and operations - often promoted to become corporate - were either directly part of the "core business action" or at least close enough to witness it.

A lot of effort is going into closing this gap, by pioneering innovators such as Dr. Howard Rubin, executive vice president and board member of META Group. One model developed by Dr. Rubin, the IT Investment Portfolio Model, creates what he calls a "universal translator" between the language of IT and Corporate Management.

In essence, Dr. Rubin teaches IT executives to look at their IT dollars as part of an investment fund and to regard themselves as fund and portfolio managers whose goal is to allocate investments in a manner that supports their company's overall business strategy. The model is an excellent tool that enables the IT function to link and drive technology investment decisions to conform to the company's business strategy. We make extensive use of this model in one chapter of the book.

Question: A growing school of economists study the "Solow Paradox". It seems that the introduction of IT has little effect of workplace productivity. From your experience, in what ways does IT change the workplace and render it more productive?

Joe: Assessing the impact of IT on productivity solely on the basis of statistical models that focus on the aggregate of numerical indicators reminds me of a story I once heard about a weatherman who denied the presence of a storm he saw out his window because his instruments indicated clear skies with a light breeze.

The impact of technology in driving up individual and team productivity can be seen in any office today where hundreds of people share information in a presentation delivered online, without leaving their desks. Unfortunately unless these individual and team productivity improvements are focused on specific areas that enhance the aggregate economic productivity of the company, they do not show up on the statistical charts.

To have a greater impact on these macroeconomic statistics, IT investments need to be better aligned with company business goals. If a company is in a business where measured productivity is highly dependent on a well automated point of sale strategy, but it is investing a large portion of its IT dollars in providing computer maintenance services, the impact of IT dollar investments on the company's productivity will be low.

On the other hand, if said company were to shift its investments from the maintenance process to improving the point-of-sale automation tools, the impact on overall company productivity would be greater. Unfortunately, according to studies by the likes of the META Group, the number of organizations where IT is well-aligned with business objectives - and thus highly impacts productivity - is still relatively low.

Jim: One of the things we've done in "Manage IT" is to give the new or aspiring IT manager tools they can use to better understand their role within the corporation and how they fit into the "big picture." Seeing this "big picture" enables managers to focus-lead their teams performance in a manner that contributes to corporate productivity.

Question: Should IT functions be outsourced - or is an in-house department the best - and cost-effective - solution?

Joe: The best solution is a hybrid approach. Keep only those things that are key to the enterprise's competitive differentiation and outsource everything else.

For example, if a company's strategy is heavily predicated on its success as a provider of a unique mobile commerce solution, they should be looking at mobile commerce development as a strategic differentiator and should internally own this function. They may use consultants to work on various aspects as needed, but for the most part they would want to own the development of this process which is going to yield them a strategic advantage.

On the other hand, basic commodity services such as the help desk, maintenance & repair, and general network administration are not strategic differentiators. These functions are simply needed to run the business, just like telephone repair and paying insurance.

Furthermore, these functions can be performed more cheaply and more qualitatively by suppliers that leverage their investments across millions of transactions versus the thousands generated by even the largest enterprises. If an enterprise is seeking cost-savings or to free up funds and reallocate them to more strategic projects that will positively impact productivity, outsourcing all commodity, non-core services is the best solution.

While outsourcing may scare many IT people, the fact is that being an IT person in a company that outsources certain IT functions presents a number of great career opportunities for IT people. In our book we actually have a chapter where we outline how IT people can turn outsourcing into a positive.

Jim: One of our goals in the book is to help new managers become more innovative in their approach, so that instead of standing in the way of strategic corporate changes they learn how to harness these and create win-win situations.

Question: IT personnel are widely perceived to be highly mobile, forever head-hunted, types with little corporate loyalty. Is this true? Should firms invest in training such cadre?

Joe: I don't think companies can even attract good IT people if they cease to invest in training, so that's not an option. The issue is not lack of loyalty of IT professionals as much as lack of career opportunities offered by enterprises-employers in many IT professional roles.

Companies will have to develop opportunities for growth in areas that are key to their business strategy. IT positions in these areas should have a growth path. Companies generally do not have a career path for non-key areas. For example: unless the company is in the computer maintenance field, where a repair technician can move up the ladder and become say a manager and from there a director of repair services, a computer repair technician would not generally have much of a career path.

IT people who have positions in companies where opportunities for personal growth are limited are more receptive to headhunters and/or seeking the next career opportunity elsewhere. But the same could be said of any highly skilled professional facing an artificial career ceiling.

The question is how can a company make sure that it is hiring and investing in IT professionals who stick around long enough for the company to reap some rewards? If a firm offers no career growth opportunity for a given position, then it should be outsourced and the company should avoid the headache and expense of hiring and investments that result in benefits that they never reap.

Jim: We devote an entire chapter to "getting to know your people." In it we offer several ways in which managers can learn best ways to motivate their people and keep them actively involved in the company's overall objectives. We offer suggestions for developing staff members, which in turn, reduce turnover. Companies which invest in training and coaching experience higher productivity and lower turnover than those who do not.

Question: Should IT managers also be IT experts - or are general management skills sufficient? Can you provide us with a profile of the "ideal" IT manager?

Joe: I don't think there is a single "ideal" IT Manager profile. "Ideal" really depends on what the specific manager manages (e.g., a software development team, a help desk, etcetera) and the role the company expects the manager to play. The best way is to:

The Gallup studies reveal that highly effective managers are great organizers of people and resources. They remove obstacles and thus increase team productivity and they know how to recognize, make the best use of, and develop their people's talents.

IT managers need to have a mixture of IT and general management skills. That does not mean that the IT manager has to be an expert (although some employers may expect and want this), but rather that he needs to understand the "technical context" of the work performed by the team in order to provide them with the support and direction they expect.

As IT continues to become inter-woven into the fabric of every business, the decisions concerning the allocation of IT investments and the quality of IT management as well as the ability of IT management to secure and maintain strong alignment with the objectives of the enterprise are becoming even more critical to business success. Companies that fail to fine-tune this area will find themselves in an increasingly difficult competitive position relative to their better-aligned competitors.

Jim: Agreed. The future belongs to those companies which understand that their true asset is their human capital and which invest in their employees. Study after study have confirmed that every "smart" dollar invested in employees results in increased performance, higher morale, less turnover and absenteeism and an overall increase in the growth of the company.

By integrating all aspects of the business, including IT, companies become well positioned for growth into the twenty first century.

Also Read:

Internet - A Medium or a Message?

The Solow Paradox

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