Friday, March 29, 2013

Your Helpdesk Has Flatlined

So this blog is about the role of the CIO, navigating the ins-and-outs of IT, and how to be strategically focused.  Why then would I dedicate a whole posting to discussing the Helpdesk?  Good question.

Let's start off by using a sports analogy about American Football.  By now you know how much I love sports analogies.  Which players on an NFL team are consistently paid the highest amount of money, per contract.  Many would say it's the quarterbacks, especially since we've seen recent high dollar deals with the likes of Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, and Tom Brady.  But if you said QBs, you'd be wrong.  The players making the consistently highest amount of money are offensive linemen.  For those uninitiated into the "greatest sport", the positions on the offensive line are:
  • Tackles (OT)
  • Guards (OG)
  • Centers (C)
There is a very good reason for these men to make the big bucks.  If the offensive line isn't good, in every case the whole team will underperform.  The offensive linemen open the holes for running backs, provide pass protection that extends the careers of NFL quarterbacks, and are chiefly responsible for wearing down the opposition's defense.  (A tired defense tends to give up a lot of points in the fourth quarter.)  Even if you don't hear much about them, offensive linemen are the heart and soul of every football team.  In the mock drafts projected for this year (2013), 25% of the positions in the first round will likely involve picking offensive linemen.

How does my football discussion relate to IT?  Everything in IT is built on a the same foundation - customer service.  You can read all the articles about process improvement, strategy, innovation, relationship building, etc.  But if your core services are not excellent, you will be at best a mediocre CIO.

Take a moment to think about where the majority of interactions with your customers occur.  Can you guess?  They happen between your users and the helpdesk, service desk, support center, or whatever you want to call it.  If these individuals are not good at their jobs - professional, knowledgeable, efficient - that's the perception your customers will tend to have about your whole group.  Which brings me to an interesting point.  In most IT shops, the Helpdesk staff tend to be paid the less and are viewed as the least important function.  Consequently it's no wonder that a lot of Helpdesk organizations make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To rectify a situation where your Helpdesk is hindrance to your overall organization there are several steps you can take.
  1. Put a truly competent manager in charge of the Helpdesk team and make the role a peer to other key managers
  2. Stop paying them less.  Hire people who are business analysts, not interns
  3. Make it a requirement for each individual to achieve a Helpdesk Professional (HDI) certification as a prerequisite for promotion or advancement
  4. Rotate functional analysts from other areas through the Helpdesk for short durations.  Nothing enhances the appreciation for the difficulties of being on the Helpdesk more quickly than having to be there to field calls personally
  5. Metrics/Metrics/Metrics!!  Keep score, so to speak, to show just how effective your Helpdesk is to the mission of your organization.  Trumpet the successes of the Helpdesk and reward exceptional performance
No matter what type of leader you are or aspire to be, don't forget to takes steps to address the "blocking and tackling" that is so critical to your success.  Investments in a great Helpdesk will repay you many times over in the future.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Do You Share My Values?

I have written several posts related to talent development, one specifically called "The Talent Triangle".  In my career my biggest failures have not been in poorly executed projects, missed deadlines, or any of the common mistakes that you read about online or in magazines.  Time and time again, the most cripplingly poor decisions I have made relate to people.  I've learned that good, smart, experienced people are significant components to a winning team.  But often I have selected specifically for those qualities only to find that my team does not perform at the level that should come with these individuals.  To be truthful, I have lost more sleep over poor team dynamics than all the other problems I have had as a CIO, combined.

So if you read my previous posts about capability and ego development you could legitimately ask the question, "What went wrong if you covered all the other bases?"  At this point in my career, after 20 years, I've finally got the answer.  My mistakes, when I get the wrong people on board, were that they did not share my values.  Now I'm not talking about beliefs.  A belief is something like this:
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Coal plants are good or bad
  • A vegetarian lifestyle is superior to one with meat
  • Global warming is a threat to the planet
  • Some roles in IT are inherently more important than others
  • Ford trucks are better than Chevys
The people that kept both me and my organizations from realizing our full potential were those who did not share our core values.  Here are some values that you would find in my IT teams:
  • The customer/user comes first (if you are having dinner and someone needs help you go hungry)
  • Risk taking is a good thing if we learn a lesson that makes us better
  • When the phone rings, we answer it
  • Good results beats meticulous attendance - every time
  • Everyone deserves respect even if they must be disciplined
  • Public displays of anger are not a virtue
  • Heroes are not "cool" - team success is a far better thing
  • Loyalty is important to each other and the group - if we cannot trust each other how can we perform at our peak?
Imagine you hire the world's most talented system administrator.  S/He is so good that there is nothing they cannot do.   But then add to that a declaration from the person that they are unwilling to work nights and weekends when necessary.  If you're IT for more than three months you begin to understand that bad things (server crashes) don't usually happen unless it's during the night, weekend, or even better, on a holiday.  In this case, it doesn't matter how good the system administrator is because their values are out of line with both the role and the team.

At a management level, the synchronization of values becomes even more important.  Diversity of thought is critical and people of all types and backgrounds can exist while sharing the same values.  Think about what happens to the cohesiveness of a team if each person cannot trust the other?  People hold back, obfuscate, and don't really collaborate.  One leader with incompatible values can do huge damage to the team dynamics.  If you don't believe me, why does every United States Marine place such a huge emphasis on the phrase "Semper Fi"?  It's all about loyalty to each other, the team, the mission, and the country.  Pretty important things to have when the bullets are flying, don't you think?

I could give you many more examples of how misaligned values have derailed my organizations.  Some are small, others catastrophic.  As a final example of how talent isn't enough, let's look at the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA.  They have at least four future Hall of Famers: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol.  This team should be, if not dominant, at least a strong contender.  Yet for all their skill, the Lakers are battling for the eighth and final playoff spot.  How could this be?  Just take a minute and read up on them, or if you're a fan analyze what you see as they play.  Their values are most definitely NOT in alignment and thus they are greatly under performing.  Now look at the San Antonio Spurs.  Can you name more than three players on their team?  Probably not.  But they are most likely the second best team in the league because despite their differences in life experience they all share the same values.

If you want to succeed as a CIO, a leader, or an individual you absolutely must associate with, and yes, hire people who can share and buy into your value systems.  Anything less is just like being a dentist to great white sharks.  Sooner or later you will experience, firsthand, a lesson in the coexistence of different value systems.

I is for Innovation

Last week I read another article about how the role of the Chief Information Officer was again become irrelevant with the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer.  This fad of trying to bury the traditional role of the CIO started with Nicholas Carr over a decade below and still seems to come up again every 18 months.

I'm not exactly sure what leads to this push.  Again, I don't see the rush to put a headstone on the the CEO, CFO, or COO roles.  What I do see is a proliferation of CXO roles to the point where there is a "Chief" for everything:  HR, Marketing, Sales, Talent, Public Relations, etc., etc.  There isn't anything inherently wrong with trying to differentiate roles, especially when the business model of a company could lead title creation in that direction.  However, there is a basic reason why the distinction of "Chief" was created in the first place.  It was and still is the differentiator of a role that is so basic, so important to a company that a special person is needed to steward that role.

When the CIO position was first envisioned it was done out of necessity.  In the 1980s/90s when technology was fast emerging as a competitive advantage, someone had to oversee all that "tekkie stuff".  You know, things like the data centers, networking, programming, telecommunications, etc.  In those times the CIO role was more like the COO.  It was designed to ensure that the day-to-day, nuts and bolts of IT were taken care of and managed.  Of course there was a strategic element to it as well but that was less important in those early days.  I can say this with a high degree of certainty because the first CIOs, for the most part, reported to CFOs, HR VPs, and other places but not to the CEO.

After the fear and furor of Y2K disappeared, lower levels with IT leadership (Directors, Managers) began to really take over the day to day activities of IT management.  Then, CIOs were free to be strategic.  Thus the era of the CIO having a "seat at the table" began.  But by about 2007/08 IT began to move beyond the gathering of information and CIOs had to learn to become the people who made sense of the data in a way that they could communicate it back out to the company and its leadership.  Once again, the CIO role changed and many holding the role were/are incapable of evolving with it.  The big difference is that the whole meaning of the "I" in CIO changed, again.

Let's take a look at Facebook as a case in point.  In February of this year, the company announced that people, especially teens, are getting bored with their services.  A reasonable question to ask would be "Why"?  Just like the evolution of the purpose of the CIO, Facebook had failed to understand just how quickly IT (in their case consumer IT) had changed and morphed.  If you logged onto Facebook today and compared the experience with Facebook circa 2010 you would be hard pressed to find much difference.  I would argue that Facebook got so big, so quickly, and became so enamored with its own "greatness" that it failed to innovate.  If I was a seer, which I'm not, I could predict with some credibility the demise of Facebook within three years if they don't find some way to reinvent themselves into something more than a place to store photos and make inane comments that just irritate your friends.  (How many of you de-friended someone over something related to the 2012 Presidential election?  Statistics say 47% of you did.)

Today, Information is just a requisite of the CIO role.  The I must also stand for Innovation.  I make this point because through my experiences and those of others in my peer circles I see that the rewards are going to people who bring new solutions to the table.  Forget about the brick-and-mortar, suit-and-tie mentality that comes with being a "stable" manager.  Leave that to the CFO and COO  executives.  As a CIO you are the visionary on the leadership team.  Reach out for the possibilities to do things that no one else is doing.  Build your own skunk works group within your organizations.  Try new technologies and encourage people to experiment and yes, even fail. 

We are now in the era where everyone is a technophile in some regard.  Unlike 10 years ago, today everyone is configuring some type of technology themselves.  Get out of the business of being a steward of bits and bytes and get comfortable (and effective) at being the person who can turn schemes into true competitive advantages.  It will keep you relevant, keep your seat at the table, and make you the person that people chase for knowledge, coaching, and expertise.