As you get on in life, it's inevitable that your doctor wants to run more tests just to make sure you're healthy -- and stay that way. Personal health isn't something that can be taken for granted -- and neither is organizational health.
By now, I have seen more than enough well-intentioned enterprise IT groups get clobbered by a seismic change in circumstances. The world around them changed; they didn't. Upon reflection, the warning signs were there for all to see, but they most likely weren't recognized and acted upon.
I'd like to do what I can to keep that from happening to others.
While I'm no doctor, I can suggest a quick diagnostic to help you better understand the organizational health of your IT function.
Even though the IT industry is quickly changing as a whole -- for vendors, IT organizations and the people who use IT -- the rate of change isn't uniform for everyone.
Maybe you have some time to study the situation and make gradual changes.
And maybe you don't.
If smart and impatient business people can't get what they want internally, they'll simply go outside of IT. Or complain loudly to executive management about the state of affairs.
IT organizations that get bypassed lose control, and become less relevant to the businesses they serve. Fail to be relevant to your internal customers who pay the bills, and the prognosis is not good for the IT team.
Ideally, IT becomes an internal service provider -- a broker of attractive, responsive and competitive IT services -- irrespective of whether those services are sourced internally, externally or -- more likely -- a combination of both.
The IT Organizational Diagnostic
Stealing a trick from the supermarket magazines, I'd like to suggest a completely unscientific test to assess where you are on the IT organizational risk continuum. There is no survey or study I can point to that validates either the questions, the scoring or the methodology. It's just my best take based on personal experience.
So, if you're up for it, please answer the questions, record your scores, and let's see where your team ends up.
1. Is IT engaged with the business?
I detest the term "aligned". When I purchase services from someone, I don't want them merely "aligned", I want them engaged!
Or, more problematically, does IT leadership spend most of their time wrapped up with finance, discussing budgets?
Do the IT leaders know where the business is experiencing IT pain points, and are working to address them. Or is there a "that's the way it's always been" fatalistic attitude in the organization?
Are IT leaders seen as part of the overall business leadership team? Are IT team members brought in early in the project discussions, or towards the end where all important decisions have already been made?
Do IT people routinely come up with new and clever ways to use technology within the business? Or do they simply take orders from business users and implement whatever is being asked for?
Please rate your team from 1 (nobody really knows who the IT folks are) to 10 (many of your IT people spend more time outside of IT vs. internal functional meetings).
2. Does your business use IT to compete, differentiate or innovate?
Some business models are very IT intensive -- or could be. You can see the obvious and direct link between IT proficiency and competitive advantage.
That's not being negative, just realistic.
One useful proxy I've found is the proportion of "knowledge workers" vs. "task workers" in your workforce.
If the majority of your workforce does repetitive, process-oriented tasks, you're probably at one end of the IT spectrum where the IT function is just there to support the basics.
Conversely, if your organization is chock-full of highly educated knowledge professionals that use information to measure, analyze, collaborate and innovate, you're probably at the other end of the spectrum. You're probably aware of all sorts of opportunities to do things differently, better and faster through intelligent use of IT.
Please rate your business from 1 (basic services are all that's usually required) to 10 (no shortage of clever and wonderful things that could be done for the business using IT).
3. Are business users generally critical of the IT function?
Filter that obvious noise out, and ask yourself -- is the IT function routinely the target of severe and substantial criticism?
Does that criticism emanate from end users, or their management functions? Is there eye-rolling around the table when the topic of the IT function comes up?
Please rate the perceptions of the IT team from 1 (example: the IT group is seen as a dumping ground for the chronically unemployable) to 10 (the business people routinely brag about their IT group to people outside the company).
4. Has there been a recent unusual shift in business conditions or overall strategy that directly impacts IT?
Many of these changes directly impacts how IT does its job -- emphasizing speed and agility vs. steady-state efficiencies.
As a result, some IT organizations are built for agility: they respond quickly and effectively when the game changes.
Other IT functions are built to be predictable and stable -- and get badly caught off guard when the world changes around them quickly.
Please rate your situation from 1 (there's recently been a meaninfgul change, but we're not sure what to do about it) to 10 (business as usual -- whether that's an inherently stable situation or you live in a world of continual churn).
5. Is there meaningful new blood coming into the IT organization -- and staying?
This one should be obvious -- do talented individuals see your IT group as a place where they can make a contribution and advance their career, or is just another job to pay the bills until the next gig comes along?
Organizations are only as good as their talent, and -- given the rapid pace of IT evolution -- there should be a continual and meaningful stream of new people with new skills and new perspectives coming into the organization, and -- hopefully -- sticking around for a while.
This doesn't necessarily have to be entirely people from outside the company; many companies rotate their internal talent pool through IT as they would other corporate functions. That's very cool when you see it.
Please rate the freshness of your IT talent pool from 1 (the same familiar people have been around for a very long time) to 10 (a continual and predictable stream of new and talented faces that tend to stick around).
6. How hard is it to get something out of the IT group?
How much torture do you put them through?
How many meetings, justifications, reviews and approvals are involved? How much elapsed time between the indication of a need, and that need being satisfied -- from their perspective, and not yours?
The trap here is to think "well, I can provision a virtual machine in minutes if need be". Step back from that isolated example, and take a look at the bread-and-butter requests for new resources that come in. What is their experience?
Please rate yourself capability from 1 (average request turnaround often measured in multiple months, or worse) to 10 (people can usually get what they want in a matter of days or hours if authorized).
7. Do people know what they're paying for IT, and what their choices are?
I know what I'm paying for travel, and I know what my choices are. I may not be 100% happy with those choices, but it's a level and transparent playing field.
How about corporate IT services? Do I know what I'm paying? Do I know what my choices are? Are the charges benchmarked against others to establish reasonableness?
If not, the general perception is that IT is a "corporate tax" and we all know how we feel about being taxed without having any say in the matter …
Please rate your IT function from 1 (no one really knows what they're paying, and there are few if any choices) to 10 (many costs are transparent, there are meaningful choices, and some limited comparisons to external benchmarks and/or alternative services).
8. How much IT is being consumed where the IT group isn't directly involved?
Often called "shadow IT", this can take many forms -- from massive desktops and small server closets being stood up by non-IT people, to business users going directly to external service providers without consulting IT, all the way to business units building their own IT functions that are separate and independent from the established IT organization.
Better IT groups that are good at meeting user and business needs have a minimum of this; ones that are doing poorly will see people routinely taking matters into their own hands.
Please rate the degree of "shadow IT" from 1 (it's prevelant and growing) to 10 (it occasionally happens, but it's the exception rather than the rule).
9. Is the business spending more on IT year-over-year?
Business people vote with their budget dollars.
If the business sees value in having more sales reps, marketing, R+D, customer service, etc. they spend more money on those things. The same generally holds true for IT.
If you're not seeing rapidly declining unit costs coupled with increased overall expenditures in your own organization, that may be a cause for concern.
Generally speaking, increasing IT budgets means that the business sees value in the IT function and is willing to invest. Conversely, sharp cuts where IT is unusually singled out generally implies the opposite.
Please rate your IT spending profile from 1 (we get our budget cut routinely independently of how well the business is doing) to 10 (we generally get enough funding to do the things that need to be done).
10. Does IT market Itself?
Things like a nice internal portal that makes it easy for people to find what they need, preferably written in plain language vs. obtuse IT-speak.
Or a friendly and chatty newsletter that goes out every so often, just to share the news with your internal customers. Or perhaps having IT leaders showing up regularly at non-IT internal gatherings to share a few thoughts, and get some feedback.
Step outside of the IT world for a second, and try to understand how the average middle manager in your organization would find out what IT is doing, and how to use them best.
And don't fall into the trap of "everyone should know that stuff". They don't.
Please rate your external communication effort from 1 (we work as hard as we can to hide any evidence whatsoever of the IT function) to 10 (organized and sustained external communication effort as an integral part of the IT function)
It's Reckoning Time …
Now, total up your scores.
10 - 30 --- Yep, it's grim. If this was a medical health test, I'd politely inquire as to your life insurance status. At least you're being honest with your assessment. Expect either a fresh round of new IT leadership, or perhaps you're being courted by outsourcers?
30 - 50 -- You're in the hazard zone. Impending doom doesn't appear imminent, but there are clear warning signs you'd probably want to do something about. The good news? You just may have the time and the backing to make the structural changes that need to be made -- especially if you're loud and vocal about the need for change.
50-70 -- You're in the middle of the pack, as far as I can tell. Some things are working, others aren't. You probably have the time and backing to make whatever incremental changes are needed. Better get busy, though, things have a way of moving fast.
70-85 -- You're in very good shape, compared to your industry peers. Don't rest on your laurels too long, though -- you probably realize you still have a few key areas you'd like to get better at. And everyone is rooting for you to do more.
85+ -- You should write a book on how you did it. Better yet, would you consider allowing me to interview you for a blog post? You've obviously cracked the code, and you should be be proud of where you are.
I've learned to be brutally honest with myself on my personal health -- where I'm at, and what needs to be done. Deluding myself isn't particularly productive. And, yes, there are things I need to do better.
The same could be said for organizational health -- especially for IT groups these days. The world of IT is changing very fast indeed.
Remember: when the rate of external change exceeds the rate of internal change, the end is near …