Practical thoughts and examples - how to manufacture time and attention, to get hands-on, relevant skills in new technologies
As digital transformation initiatives sweep across organizations looking to make a strategic change, internal IT teams often have a tough time getting on the digital radar screen inside. How can they get involved?
I’m talking about getting on the radar screen of other departments in their company; Operations teams looking to instrument the shop floor, Marketing folks looking to connect with customers digitally, and R&D teams looking to create new information-enabled products and services. Any group looking for ways to leverage information and technology to drive their objectives (and in need of technical folks that know how to get things done) – why can’t they see you?
And now that organizations are talking about Digital Transformation as the latest path to drive performance and innovation, internal IT departments see more of the same. Fresh new faces get to sit in front of exciting new digital tools, as the incumbents are chained to supporting legacy systems and stilted processes. Drab and unexciting, with a litany of limitations, exceptions, and manual workarounds – but still critical in the day-to-day operation of the As-Is.
Your internal IT team will be a valuable addition to the Digital Transformation team; obviously, they will be much more in tune with legacy process, existing culture, and “how things [really] work.” And they are quite likely the folks with the best grasp of the existing technology. So what’s missing? One challenge might be the “new” technology – IT may have skills with current tech, but do they have the chops to take on tasks using newer ideas, platforms, and techniques in mobile, web, and cloud?
Building and maintaining skills in new technology – stuff that is not currently in place in your organization – can be challenging. But those skills can be vital in getting that “seat at the table” when the company is working out how to apply new ideas to their Digital Transformation. So how does IT break the cycle and get the hands-on skills that are so important? Give yourself permission to think a little differently.
Physician Heal Thyself (Prioritize Your Digital Requirements Equally)
It is a common sentiment, a repeating pattern – we do not apply our talents and brilliance to our own efforts. Sure, a lot of it has to do with prioritization – we are working on our [internal] customers’ requests and projects before our own, giving them a higher priority in the competition for our time. And in a world where “the customer is always right,” this is a typical response.
But some of it has to do with our fear of change. I am always fascinated by folks in IT that resist change in how we do what we do. We are continually expecting our peers in the business to adapt to certain changes, like version upgrades for core systems, or increased controls and policies for cybersecurity. But when we are talking about lower-level topics, like cloud vs. on-premise architectures – details that are typically out of sight from the end-user – IT will often resist change to the investments already made in time, talent, and training.
The Cobbler’s Children Have No Shoes (Invest in Digital Self-Improvement)
Alternatively, we may be falling into a selfless, customer-obsessed prioritization. You would be correct, for example, to treat your peer organizations like your customers – focusing on service, the impact of change, and being ‘obsessed’ with understanding their needs and looking for solutions. But every IT team gets hit by the ever-increasing wave of requests … ask and you shall receive. And the result is pretty consistent; we have so many project and service requests, we cannot make time to learn new techniques, change core architecture, or improve our internal process.
But the customer is not always right – especially when you expand the window of time impacted by a given decision/request. You could be incurring a load of technical debt every time you patch a broken process, implement a manual workaround – or just fall back on completely manual processes that could be effectively automated. The incremental cost of “doing it the old-fashioned way” may be low, but over time this extra work adds up to a ton of time wasted – time better spent on more impactful work for your customers!
If you think about it, we are acting inconsistently; why am I suggesting value from one direction (encouraging innovation for our business) as I walk down a completely different path (for our internal IT operations)? A much better approach would be to carve out a set portion of your time for process improvement and training. The short-term cost (time and expense) will always be offset by long-term savings – time and expense that you can redirect towards impactful work for your internal customers, with faster time to value, less risk, higher reliability.
Learn by Doing
It is entirely probable that despite their fondest hopes, IT cannot match their critical internal needs with the kinds of new technology expertise that Marketing or Product Development is looking for. To be fair, if a given “shiny object” is bleeding edge, it may easily be too experimental to justify the time it might take to master it. But how does IT get hands-on experience with the close-to-cutting edge stuff that can arguably provide value to your Digital Transformation?
A sure-fire way to get a seat at the table will be to have the hands-on skills. Be the ones that can write the dashboards, code the apps, architect and build the cloud, and even put together an arguably effective machine learning model – at least enough to visualize how applicable it really can be.
But how do you get these skills? Stop thinking so much – just do it! Train yourself by reading the documentation, watching the videos, and taking the online courses. It’s not all rocket science – you will be amazed at how evolutionary most of this stuff is.
And how do you manufacture the time? Yes, it will not be a simple task to learn this stuff – if it were, everyone would be doing it. Schedule some time and make the commitment; you may have to mindfully sign yourself up for the nights-and-weekends work that it takes to learn.
And what projects will you create/implement? That could be an easy one as well – just look in the mirror. Start using this tech to work at problems that are stealing away time from your day. Make some improvements to the databases and spreadsheets that your team uses to manage projects, plan your work, model your resource constraints, track and publish your performance metrics – stuff like that. Or build interfaces and aggregate information from your project tracker, your help desk ticketing system, and your financials & collaboration systems, to give your team (and your internal business partners) a dashboard that details how IT is delivering value.
What’s In It For Me?
Remember – you probably do not want to start a side business as an IT software development house – that is not your core value to the company. But this is an excellent opportunity to learn new and exciting technical skills and concepts with a very understanding and patient customer – yourself!
When you are doing this for your own team, you can safely demonstrate that initial lack of understanding, learn how to estimate and prioritize effort, and make all manner of embarrassing mistakes in front of a very understanding audience. And when you make big mistakes, taking down production and requiring massive rewrites? No problem! Give your team a break, be the most understanding of customers, and do not beat yourself up.
Train and learn using yourself and your IT operations as a testbed – you’ll be glad you did!
26 March, 2019