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Looking Ahead and Happy New Year Sun 31 Dec 06

Happy New Year!

As we start this New Year I wish you health, happiness and joy in all that you do.  Take time to look back and appreciate what you've accomplished and look ahead with eager anticipation to what the future may hold for you.

As New Year's Day is a time of fresh beginnings I thought I'd start out the year by re-formatting the look of my blog.  Hopefully this style will make it easier to read and navigate. 

I'd also like to take this opportunity to again extend an invitation to you to add your comments or suggestions. It is meant to be an interactive discussion so I'd love to hear from you.

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Lean IT - what comes first, technology or waste reduction? Fri 29 Dec 06

I try to make it a rule not to make a posting that simply says "Take a look at this great blog post I found".   Although I do mention other blog posts from time to time I've always tried to either add something to the discussion or give my spin on the topic.

However, today I'm making an exception.  Kent Blumberg's posting on Lean and IT today is simply quite excellent and there is really nothing more I can say to improve on it.  Although Kent did do a TrackBack to one of my earlier postings I wanted to make sure that you don't miss his message so I'm highlighting it here.

Take a look at Lean IT - what comes first, technology or waste reduction?  This is an important topic and if you have any interest in the proper usage of IT you really need to read Kent's post.

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Looking Back - Lessons of the Antikythera Mechanism Fri 29 Dec 06

Am1 At year-end most TV and radio news show typically take a look back at what has gone on in the past year.  So as 2006 comes to a close I thought it would be helpful if I also took a look back on what has transpired.  Back more than 2 thousand years, that is.  Being something of a history buff I've been fascinated by recent news stories on the Antikythera Mechanism.  Discovered by a sponge diver along with more seemingly glamorous artifacts in 1900 off of the Greek island of Antikythera the heavily encrusted and corroded mechanism lay un-noticed until 1902 when an archaeologist noted a gear-wheel embedded in it.  However, it has only just now been determined how this device was used.

Gears_200_1 Created sometime around the end of the second century B.C. (i.e. over 2 thousand years ago!) the Antikythera Mechanism is the first known analog computer.  Although it wasn't found completely intact the main fragment has at least 30 gear-wheels and numerous astronomical inscriptions.  The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project has reported its findings in the journal Nature.  The mechanism computed and displayed the movement of the Sun, the Moon and perhaps even the known planets around Earth, and predicted the dates of future eclipses.  I find it utterly amazing and fascinating that they were able to accomplish so much given the knowledge and tools of the time.

Some of the things that I believe this illustrates:

  • Simplicity, elegance and focus of purpose in design is enduring.
  • The power of observation should never be under-estimated.  It is amazing what you can learn just through observing how the world around you works.  I find it mind boggling to think of the amount of astronomical observation that had to be done to do something like this.
  • The power of the human mind is an awe-inspiring thing to contemplate.

As we often react to the every day pressure to get things done it might be worthwhile to contemplate what we can accomplish using computers if we go about it correctly.  Four thousand year from now if an archaeologist should find the remains of your PC what would they conclude you were using it for?

Your thoughts?

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Let's Not Bring IT into this Wed 27 Dec 06

Jeffrey Phillips recently raised an interesting topic about his customers who want to implement his software applications but say "Let's not bring IT into this".  As he notes:

What stuns me is the number of times I'll hear "can we do this without IT" or "let's not involve IT if we don't have to".

I left a comment on his blog, but in thinking about it some more I thought it warranted further discussion.  Many thanks to Kent Blumberg for bringing this posting to my attention.

Make no mistake, this is a common problem.  In looking at it, two questions come to mind:

  1. What causes this?
  2. What can a CIO / IT department do to change this attitude?

Jeffrey believes this is caused by both the business user and the IT guys.  On the business side he voices frustration with the IT guys saying it wasn't in the budget or we don't have the resources therefore you can't do it.  To me that is a symptom of the business not adequately explaining the situation.  In these situations IT is just the front man for the CFO.  What IT has been told is to work on the things that matter which evidence to the contrary are the items in the budget.  If the project truly has a better return than the competing projects it will get funding and staffing regardless of its budget status.  No self-respecting CFO would fund a lower return project instead of a higher return project just because it was in the budget.

From the IT side the problem is, I believe, a lack of understanding.  Isolated in our cubicles we have no idea of what the business is doing, why they are doing, or how we can help.  IT is more than providing PC and routine maintenance of applications.  We tend to view our role as merely technical and don't want to get involved.  It's more "tell me what you want" rather than "how can we use technology to improve the situation".

OK, so what do we do about it?  Here are some of my suggestions:

Business guys -

  • Make your case!  Make sure you have you a strong justification of why your project needs funding.  Kent Blumberg has laid out some guidelines for making sensible capital investments.  A strong factual case goes along way in getting support from both IT and the CFO.
  • Involve the IT guys early in the process.  Drag them kicking and screaming if you have to but force them to get involved even if they don't want to.  Let them know you need their help and support and don't let them go without getting it.

IT folks -

  • Get involved!  Don't wait for an invitation.  Go out and learn the business, talk to the people, learn what their issues are and how you can help.
  • Change the rhetoric.  Instead of talking about what we can't do let's talk about what we can do.  There is always a different approach.  If one won't work, what will?

If both the business guys and the IT folks make a concerted effort to communicate and get involved in issues together maybe we can get everyone saying "let's run this by IT" instead.

What are your suggestions?

If this topic was of interest, you might also like these:

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Holiday Wishes Mon 25 Dec 06

Today is Christmas and I want to extend my best wishes to all my readers.  December is a month of holy days not only for Christians but many other religions.  During your holy day observations I hope you take the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of life and to appreciate your family and friends.

I wish you peace and happiness in the upcoming year.


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99 Email Security, Netiquette and Productivity Tips Fri 22 Dec 06

Email2_1The folks at ITSecurity have a great article, Hacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity Tips that lists 99 great tips that can improve our use of email.  Email at times can be a powerful and useful communication tool.  At other times it can be the bane of our existence when the inbox is overflowing.  Take a look at these tips, I think you'll find them useful.  (Thanks to Grigor at behind the glasses for providing the link to this article.)

The two tips that I found especially significant were:

22. Remember the telephone. Unless you need a written record of a given communication (or if the person you're communicating with is long distance), consider calling (or sending a letter to) your intended recipient instead of an email. People often default to writing an email because it is quick and easy; but sometimes a handwritten letter or phone call can provide the personal touch your communication really needs.

42. Cut to the chase. Sometimes a text chat is the best way to resolve a communication quickly, instead of sending a dozen emails back and forth. By keeping the bank and forth emails to a minimum, you keep your inbox under control and prevent the need to declare email bankruptcy and starting all over.

I've always told the people that work for me about Schaffner's 3 email rule which is based on some of the same concepts that tips #22 and #42 are but with something extra.

If the email thread goes beyond 3 levels and it is more than a factual providing of information and more like a conversation then it is time to stop emailing, get up out of your cubicle and go talk to the person face-to-face (or if distance precludes then talk by telephone).

Discussion3 My reasoning is that with the inherent limitations of email (and for instant messaging too) where there is no body language feedback, or intonation of speech etc. you quickly have a "conversation" where the two parties are talking "at" each other rather then "with" each other.  Although this can happen with face-to-conversations if you are not careful, why not take the effort to increase the chances of a true exchange of viewpoints?

Break that email chain and actually go talk with someone.  You just might find out what you need and maybe some more and probably quicker too!

What email tips or rules do you have?

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Technology Driven Productivity? Wed 20 Dec 06

I just ran across an interesting article in the December 11 issue of Fortune magazine.  In the While You Were Out column Stanley Bing in an article called "The 0% Solution" [this appears to be available only in the print editions] talks about the third quarter Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report that Third Quarter nonfarm business productivity growth was zero.  Although this has since been revised to +0.2% it doesn't detract from Bing's point.

In this column Bing talks about a number of things he thinks have limited productivity:

  1. Too many meetings - probably no one will argue with this
  2. Too many digital devices - they provide an overload of extraneous information
  3. Too much Internet - it's great for research but do you spend most of your time there on YouTube?

The one on too many digital devices in particular caught my attention:

  • "Too many digital devices - iPods, BlackBerrys, cellphones, all pouring extraneous crud into our noggins.  You know what's productive?  A guy with a legal pad and a pencil, locked in a padded room until his work is done."

Oh so true.  This statement highlight 2 simple but very important points. 

  • First, tools are only useful if they help you get your work done.  If they don't maybe you should get rid of them. 
  • Second, sometimes low-tech is a better approach than high-tech.  Don't always assume going high-tech is the better path.

This reminded of what someone once told me about the effect of the word processor on productivity.  They didn't have any hard data to back up their argument but it does sound very believable.  They stated that the advent of computerized word processing was a revolutionary breakthrough in office productivity.  With it you could now get letters, reports etc. done more quickly, make changes much easier and as it further progressed you could even do it yourself eliminating labor (anyone remember a "typing pool"?).  This is very believable and I presume someone has actually validated this with hard data.

The second part of their argument is less evident but still very believable.  They stated that as the technology of word processing improved productivity peaked and actually decreased as the software got better!  The reason for this was with the more advanced features people were spending more time on "wordsmithing" than on the actual writing.  Should I highlight this?  What about italics?  Maybe I should add color? Indent the paragraph and add bullet points?  The point of this argument is that we can let the tools and all of their features distract us from our main goal.

As the purveyors of all this feature rich technology we in IT need to carefully examine how we apply it to make sure we are actually improving and not subtly inhibiting productivity.

Bing's somewhat tongue-in-cheek article and my anecdotal observation barely scratch the surface of the relationship of IT and productivity.  Fortunately, Andrew McAfee, Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School has done a very insightful analysis as described in IT and productivity growth: it was nice while it lasted? and takes the discussion beyond the issue of IT productivity tools.  McAfee makes a strong case that IT has (and will) positively impact productivity as the effect of IT has shifted from merely speeding things up to transforming how we do things.  He states:

"My hypothesis is that IT actually is a game-changing innovation of the same magnitude and importance as electricity, the IC engine, the shipping container, etc.  As I wrote in November's Harvard Business Review, I view IT as a general purpose technology (GPT) --  an innovation so important it leads to a long-term jump in an economy's normal march of progress. "

He argues that the impact of IT is now being seeing in the growth of the segment of productivity attributed to "other contributions" rather than just working smarter with better tools (e.g. faster computers) that we have seen in the past.  A increase in computing speed no longer has a significant impact since what we have now is already more than enough in most cases.  McAfee points out that what IT does do now is to allow us to transform our routines with benefits in the form of (see his article for a full description of these):

  • Specified with great precision and granularity
  • Replicated and scaled up with high fidelity
  • Propagated with confidence
  • Deployed across a very large footprint

It is this kind of transformation effect that is showing up in the "other contributions" factor.

McAfee makes a strong and compelling case and one that I think makes a lot of sense.  You may also want to check out a review of McAfee's article by Nicholas Carr in his blog posting Productivity Paradox 2.0.

Bringing this down from a macro level to a micro discussion, what does all of this mean to us IT managers on a day-to-day basis?  I think it highlights the fact that we need to shift our focus from the tools, e.g. faster computers, upgraded software, new input devices, to the transformational impact.  This is why discussions on PC's and should we migrate to Vista are at their heart, tactical discussions.  Yes, tools are important but what you do with them is more important and what we need to do is to use them to transform, revolutionize the way work and not just make it go faster.  That's where the real productivity gains will come from.

How do you feel about this?

[I should note some irony in Bing's article where he talks about "too many digital devices" and the impact on productivity.  The footer on the article points out that you can read the latest Fortune articles downloaded to your handheld device.  No doubt they believe it will lead to increased productivity.]

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The Best IT Advice I Ever Got Tue 19 Dec 06

eWeek.com recently asked several IT professionals about the best IT advice they ever got and have compiled this in an interesting slide show "The Best IT Advice I Ever Got".  Check it out, there is a lot of wisdom in these few slides.

My favorites from the eWeek.com list:

  • Don't prematurely optimize. Prove something works first and then optimize, because you'll never guess where the true issues lie and will waste a lot of time in the process.
  • Managing IT = 80% people, 20% technology.

Some I would have added if I had been asked

  • Don't let "best" get in the way of "better". (with thanks to Bill Clark)
  • People don't care how much you know until the know how much you care. (with thanks to Russ Svendsen)

Which do you like?

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Is Vista Worth the Bother? Mon 18 Dec 06

I came across a rather interesting debate in eWeekSteven J. Vaughan-Nichols in his article Vista: Why Bother? addresses the issue of upgrading to Microsoft's new Vista operating system with a resounding opinion of "If your operating system isn't broke, why 'fix' it?"

His colleague Joe Wilcox in a posting called Vista? Yes Bother has a decidedly different opinion.  He argues that the if it isn't broke argument "reflects a sentiment I hear too often as an excuse for keeping old technologies in place--long after their real usefulness is gone."  Excuse me, - real usefulness is gone?  Just because a new technology comes out does make the old technology useless.

He states that the reason people won't upgrade is plain simple resistance to change and the aesthetics of Vista are enough to justify the change.  What foolishness.  He points out that people change cell phones and iPods frequently due to aesthetics so why not PC operating systems.  Although individual may value the aesthetics of cell phones and iPods enough to constantly change them the fact remains that your call goes through just as quickly, reception is the same, and quality hasn't changed.  So although I may be willing to pay to upgrade my own equipment I would be very surprised to see any corporation pay out money for the aesthetics alone.

After reviewing these two arguments I stick with my original opinion that I wrote shortly after Vista was released;

Although the benefits can not be quantified companies will still make the expenditure -- eventually.  The reason for this is that although for most it won't be an investment with a specific return it will become a CODB (cost of doing business) for all of us.  We will need to make the switch as other new programs are developed that require it, as new PC's with Vista and Office 2007 added to the "fleet" reach a critical mass, as we run into compatibility issues, and perhaps most importantly as we develop new applications that take advantage of the new features.  Because of this companies will make the change over time as they see these issues arise and budget time, money and resources accordingly.

Joe's article generated a lot of comments (52 comments since it was published Friday morning).  The thing I found encouraging was that most of them also saw no need to rush into upgrading to Vista.  If IT really wants to be considered part of the business we need to think like businessmen and businesswomen and stop doing things just because they are cool.

What do you think?

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Critical Skills and Competencies for IT employees Fri 15 Dec 06

One of my more popular posts discusses critical competencies that CIOs need to succeed.  It discusses a paper entitled "CIO Leadership Diagnostic - A Pathway to "Best In Class" Performance" .  The paper was written by Eric Sigurdson who leads the Information Officers practice at Russell Reynolds and George Klemp, founding partner and President of Cambria Consulting, a Human Resources consulting firm.

This discussion generated an intriguing question from a friend of mine -- What skills and competencies do I look for in IT employees?

First, let me start out by explaining my take on skills and competencies because this will come into play later in this posting.  I view "skills" as task oriented.  For me a characteristic of a skill is that you can readily get training on the skill.  I view "competencies" as behavior oriented.  I see competencies as descriptors of a person's behavior, almost like a character trait.

By way of example, being proficient in Excel is a skill whereas analytical thinking is a competency.  Some people are gurus at manipulating Excel spreadsheets but don't know how to interpret the results.  Conversely some people can analyze and interpret the data but don't know how to fully utilize the spreadsheet.  And there are some people that can do both.  In terms of my earlier skill/competency characteristics; you can readily get training in Excel.  There are Excel training books, CD's, tutorials and classes.  While you may be able to get training in analytical thinking, it is much harder to find.  Likewise, if describing someone's characteristics we would be more likely to talk about their analytical thinking ability more than their Excel skills.

This is not an exact, precise description.  A friend of mine in Human Resources told me their are whole books written on this subject and even then it is still open to interpretation.  However, a good description of skills and competencies is by Vicki Heath of Business Performance Pty Ltd.

Having laid this foundation here are the critical skills and competencies I look for when hiring IT employees.

Critical Skills for IT employees

  • Technical Skills - These are the skill that are particular to a given position.  This would be things such as programming skills, knowledge of networks, etc.
  • Communication Skills - I look for the ability to communicate (written and oral) effectively.  IT people at all levels need to be able to communicate their ideas, IT concepts and sell their message.

Critical Competencies for IT employees

  • Analytical thinking - we are in the problem solving business so analytical thinking is critical
  • Conceptual thinking - we need to be able to see how all the pieces are "linked", changing something in one program will have ramifications where?  How does it all work together.  For higher-level IT positions we need to be able to see the strategic impacts
  • Service orientation - we are here to serve our customers, not the other way around.  It is essential that we maintain the proper perspective in all of our activities.
  • Empathetic attitude - in order to effectively work with our customers we have to be able see things from their perspective.
  • Passion - we need to perform our functions enthusiastically and motivate others through our enthusiasm
  • Bias for action - We need to get it done now
  • A sense of the practical - Our customers want workable solutions along with wanting in now.  A good solution now is better than a perfect solution sometime in the future.
  • A sense of curiosity - There is always something to learn and a better way of doing things, we have to let our natural curiosity roam freely.
  • A happy persona - Although we should take our work seriously we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously.  A good sense of humor can carry us through trying times.

A lot of people would point out that these competencies don't describe the stereotypical IT employees which takes me back to the earlier discussions on skills versus competencies.  In the past I know some of my subordinates have been frustrated when I refused to hire someone they thought was an excellent candidate because of their expert programming skills.  I truly believe that it is essential to have these skills and competencies.  So, while I can easily get programming training for a lesser skilled programmer with the right competencies it is much more difficult to improve someone with weak competencies.  I'd rather pay the price for skills training now than suffer continual poor performance due to weak competencies.

What skills and competencies do you look for in your employees?

If this topic was of interest, you might also like these:

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This is the personal blog of Michael W. Schaffner. The opinions expressed in this blog are soley mine and those of commenters. You should not infer that these opinions are the opinion of or have been endorsed by any current or former employer.

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