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How Social IT Rebalances the People Process Technology Equation

A remarkable transformation is taking place in the world of information technology today. It reflects a new generation of knowledge workers utilizing social media to improve problem-solving, foster collaboration and spark innovation.

However, despite the continued reference to the traditional triad of success encompassing people, process and technology, the IT world has typically focused more on the process and technology sides rather than emphasizing the ‘people’ component.

This has been particularly true of IT products, consultants, and executives who have emphasized a command and control approach to IT that tends to downplay and minimize the people factor.

While a highly industrialized, mechanistic view of IT over the last five plus years has led to enormous gains in automation and productivity, the IT industry has now reached a point where differentiation around process and technology has become smaller and smaller. At the same time, innovations such as tablets and smartphones have introduced a new era of enterprise IT consumerization that is dramatically changing workplace habits and forms of communication and collaboration within and between organizations worldwide.

Get on board the collaboration economy!

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, among others, has proclaimed a paradigm shift to a new “collaboration economy” that allows people, teams and companies to effectively organize and focus their activities on creating value and driving profitability. Thus, the traditional IT emphasis on process and technology is giving way to new ways of thinking that recognize the increasing importance of the social or people component in IT in order to unlock new sources of productivity and value through greater knowledge sharing and collaboration.

The following five key behavioral attributes are necessary to increase people engagement and rebalance the IT operations equation for success:

  1. Divide and Conquer – Overcome limitations of traditional mechanistic approaches to IT information discovery and share the knowledge and expertise of IT staff across the enterprise
  2. Feed and Engage – Facilitate new ways of engagement to break down traditional barriers to communication and collaboration among IT teams and stakeholders
  3. Assign and Trust – Foster accountability for knowledge, so that individuals take on responsibilities that go beyond traditional IT processes and systems and their peers trust in the knowledge captured
  4. Make it Second Nature – Use approaches that feel natural and interact intuitively to increase adoption and value
  5. Reinforce and Reward – Compel executives and IT managers to recognize and reward collaborative behavior among IT staff and stakeholders

Behavior #1: Divide and Conquer

Most IT organizations today conduct operations with a heavy emphasis on machine-driven automated discovery and monolithic configuration management databases (CMDBs) that attempt to capture all information about the IT environment. In many cases, these tools and databases are managed by a specialized team charged with keeping information current. However, these teams often have far less institutional knowledge and expertise than others within the IT organization. Those who do have the most knowledge are either blocked from directly accessing and updating these tools and databases, or they refuse to do so because they are already comfortable with their own personal spreadsheets, wikis, and other tools.

This results in a situation where IT departments all too frequently spend limited budget dollars to staff full- time resources to establish a “single source of truth” that is, in fact, either out of date, not trusted by many in their own organization, or both.

As a consequence, IT departments either do not use these tools and databases for their intended purposes, or IT professionals are forced to rely on inaccurate information to assess issues or problems and make decisions.

In contrast, social knowledge management gives everyone in IT a stake in contributing to and verifying the accuracy of the knowledge about the IT environment. The “burden” of maintenance doesn’t fall on any single person or team, but is the collective responsibility of everyone participating.

This is not to say there isn’t value in machine discovered knowledge. Instead, machine knowledge must be augmented by human knowledge and validated so that the organization can confidently make decisions. Stated another way, rather than trying to eliminate the human factor, as traditional approaches have done, social IT actually encourages all knowledgeable individuals to share their expertise and contribute to the knowledge pool by creating and following a new breed of “social objects” that leverage well-known principles from Wikipedia and Facebook-style news feeds.

Behavior #2: Feed and Engage

IT organizations that emphasize process and technology at the expense of people often tend to erect boundaries between individuals and teams in an effort to strictly manage operations through a hierarchical command and control structure. This approach reinforces the traditional technology silos in IT and exacerbates them by creating new process silos. For example, if the network is up and running, why should the network group worry if an application is slow? “It’s not our problem” is a typical reaction when IT behavior is siloed and not collaborative.

Social IT-based crowdsourcing and peer review of knowledge, on the other hand, taps into the human instinct to fill in the gaps of known and unknown information. Then, when confronting incidents, problems, and changes, the organization can make better decisions by better coordinating team effort where individuals contribute to issues they feel connected to and care about based on their responsibilities, their expertise, or simply their individual interests. This can be accomplished by leveraging familiar social media principles and “following” the objects IT manages (such as servers, network devices, applications, etc.) and by automatically assigning experts to collaboration activities around incidents, problems, and changes. With this approach, individuals can also be alerted and fed new information as social objects are updated leading to an organization that is continually current on the latest IT environment reality.

With such an approach, rather than hoarding knowledge for job security, individuals are encouraged to take ownership of objects in their sphere of influence and responsibility, keep those objects updated with new knowledge, create new objects when performing daily tasks, and then automatically share their activities with others who are affected by or depend on them.

Behavior #3: Assign and Trust

If the people potential of IT is to be fully realized by pooling collective knowledge and continuous engagement via social media types of communication and collaboration, then individuals must be accountable to others for their contribution and actions. In other words, you can crowd source knowledge but all knowledge is not created equal. Even though multiple individuals can contribute knowledge, a single individual or role should have sole ownership of a “social object.” In this manner, the organization can increase its trust of the knowledge about that object, or, if it is not being accurately maintained, replace the individual who is responsible.

Behavior #4: Make it Second Nature

IT organizations and bookshelves are littered with the bones of projects that have tried to enforce processes that individuals pay lip service to and then promptly ignore in their daily operational activities. What’s more, IT professionals are usually some of the busiest employees in the organization, so adding on a new set of activities can easily be met with skepticism.

The real potential and promise of social IT stems from its ability to foster ways of communicating and working that feel natural and intuitive to human beings without adding more to the plates of those who already feel overworked. The fact is, IT organizations are inherently social already. IT teams just haven’t had tools that are designed to support collaboration and the capture of knowledge.

IT teams that use email or instant messaging, conduct daily SCRUM meetings, or hold regular Change Advisory Board reviews, are ripe for the benefits of Social IT. But to leverage social IT requires products that fit naturally into the work IT professionals are already doing, and that augment existing processes and practices without being seen as another thing that must be done in the course of a day.

By taking this approach, IT organizations will find that “offline” communication methods like email and instant messaging will be used less and less in favor of the social knowledge management system. They will also find that SCRUM meetings are more productive and CAB meetings focused more on the changes that have the biggest risk.

Behavior #5: Reinforce and Reward

As human beings, we pay close attention to the kinds of behavior that are actually valued and rewarded in the workplace by management. Therefore, it’s imperative that executive and IT management understand and reward social IT activities that contribute to the knowledge and collaboration necessary to improve problem-solving and decision-making among IT staff members.

IT leadership must create a culture of collaboration that encourages and rewards individuals who participate in social IT by assuming responsibility and ownership of objects in their sphere of influence and actively contributing on a daily basis. One IT organization that I know of set a goal for getting a specific number of social objects into their knowledge management system by a certain day, and then paid a bonus to those who contributed to meeting that objective. You might consider providing incentives through bonuses like this and/or as part of annual performance reviews for those who make decisions by consulting the social IT knowledge management system.

Finally: An unprecedented opportunity to improve IT productivity

The introduction of social technologies into the IT workplace presents an unprecedented opportunity to improve productivity and even job satisfaction of IT professionals. Taking advantage of that opportunity, however, requires that IT leaders rebalance the people, process, technology equation by driving behavioral change and equipping teams with the proper tools and incentives to achieve success.

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