Collaboration strategies for your IT staff

Collaboration is all the rage among corporate executives these days, which means IT is kept busy providing systems, tools and procedures that turn the vague concept into a real business benefit.

But what happens when it comes time for techies themselves to collaborate? That, as the saying goes, is a whole other kettle of fish.

IT folks carry the stigma of being particularly noncollaborative, but the stereotype of the loner programmer barricaded in a cubicle is not necessarily accurate. “It depends so much on the organization that you work in,” says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research who studies high-performance application development teams.

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“In any organization, you get what you value,” Hammond says — and traditionally many IT departments have not valued collaboration, operating instead in a command-and-control fashion. “As a result, these organizations have turned off the collaborative — and more importantly, the creative — skill sets of many of their employees,” he says.

That could be a problem, because effective collaboration is increasingly perceived as an imperative for corporations a trend that information technology isn’t immune to. As IT departments are downsized, with low-level tech jobs outsourced or replaced by managed services, the remaining IT staffers — who are often dispersed throughout the world — must not only work more closely with business units, but also share knowledge with one another to avoid having to reinvent the wheel.

The good news is, their prickly reputation notwithstanding, IT employees can be as creative and collaborative as anybody else, Hammond says. In a survey of application developers last year, Hammond found that nearly half of the respondents said that they wrote code outside of their jobs and some 20 per cent said they participated in open-sourceprojects. “That’s a hint that these folks are interested in collaboration,” he says.

What’s the best way to nurture that desire for collaboration and creativity in your IT employees? Computerworld checked in with several companies that have had success in tapping the power of IT collaboration. Here are their stories.

New York hedge fund: A wiki for the common good

When Mark joined a large New York hedge fund last year as a manager of technology, he was flummoxed when he tried to locate information on the firm’s software applications. (Per his company’s policy, Mark asked that neither his full name nor the company’s name be used.)

The hedge fund’s IT staff of 70 was fragmented into more than a dozen different groups, and each separate group maintained information on its own infrastructure. This information could be stored anywhere, including one person’s in-box. “I would send an e-mail asking for documentation, and I’d get four different responses with four different versions.”

Mark had used a wiki to consolidate such information at his previous employer, so he decided to try it at the hedge fund. One problem: The wiki would be useful only if everyone contributed, but he didn’t have the authority to make everyone do that. He supervised only five of the 70 people on the IT staff.

So he used a combination of the carrot and the stick. First, he and his staff built the wiki and filled it with some basic content, establishing a consistent format and structure. For each application, the content included contact information for the vendor, which version of the software was installed, and start-up and shutdown procedures.

Next, Mark explained the reason for the wiki to the two managers who directly reported to the CIO and asked for their support. He convinced them to mandate that their teams put all of their documentation in the wiki and make its use an evaluation point in their employment reviews. That was a powerful stick, Mark says, because bonuses can make up anywhere from 10 per cent to 50 per cent of a hedge-fund employee’s take-home pay — even for IT staffers.

But more important, IT employees flocked to the wiki because it was so useful to them. “They realized the weakness of the previous system, where nobody knew where the documentation was,” he explains. “They were glad someone took the initiative to do this.” Bottom line: with just a bit of prodding, most of the IT staff was willing to collaborate, especially once they understood the goal and how it would ultimately help them.

The wiki, which has been in place for almost a year, has become “one of the IT department’s most important systems,” Mark says. “Now it has a special section in the disaster recovery plan. It’s one of the first systems that we have to bring up because it has all the supporting information for all of our applications.”

Applied Materials: Changing a top-down culture

Applied Materials Inc., a $5 billion semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Santa Clara, Calif., is a classic example of a company working to shift the way its IT employees interact.

In the past four years, Applied Materials has completely overhauled IT with the goal of cutting costs, improving service levels and driving business transformation.

CIO Ron Kifer has reduced the IT workforce from 580 full-time employees in 2006 to about 250 today, outsourcing much of the commodity-type IT work. The remaining employees are charged with focusing on strategic work that adds value or produces revenue.

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Recently, the IT organization switched from operating as several different independent regional departments to functioning as one global IT team, says Jay Kerley, corporate vice president and deputy CIO, who has overall responsibility for IT operations. (Kifer is focused on the overall business transformation project.)

IT staffers “have to be able to collaborate in near-real time,” says Kerley. “They have to know how to engage with customers in a global, multi-time-zone operation.”

This meant changing the culture from traditional command-and-control management to “matrix-style management,” which aims to solve problems by bringing together people from across the IT organization, regardless of where they fit in the management hierarchy, he explains.

For matrix management to work, employees must have the ability to communicate their ideas effectively, ideally engaging with and debating other team members. That, in turn, requires a certain level of confidence and maturity, he says, noting that such behavior was not necessarily encouraged under the old management structure.

To successfully effect that change, Kerley felt he needed a baseline of current communication patterns. So earlier this year, he surveyed the IT staff, asking them to name the people they went to when they needed information, help with projects or feedback and advice on ideas.

The answers produced a map of communication lines, which illustrated that communication was happening along traditional chains of management but also between and among people who were serving as hubs of collaboration. About half of these “highly networked individuals,” as Kerley calls them, were the managers you’d expect to be consulted, but the rest were rank-and-file workers that people felt comfortable asking for help.

He brought 12 of these people together to discuss how to encourage a more matrixed style of collaboration. The team agreed that some IT staffers were inhibited by language and cultural barriers, others by a lack of confidence or leadership skills.

For example, although English is spoken throughout the company, some workers for whom it’s a second language might not understand certain jargon or colloquialisms. They needed to be encouraged to speak up when they didn’t understand something. In terms of culture, Japanese employees would sometimes not speak their minds in meetings because the concept of openly debating ideas is foreign to their traditional management culture, says Kerley.

To address those communication barriers, management initiated a process, called advanced development planning, that focuses on personal coaching for all employees, including all 250 IT employees. “We talk about their careers, the changes in the [work] environment and how they can be more effective [collaborators],” says Kerley. “And we reinforce the fact that these changes are here to stay and they have to adapt to them.”

The company has also launched a leadership development program in which groups of 40 IT employees are mentored by Steve Finnerty, a former CIO now on staff at Applied Materials. (The company plans, eventually, to cycle all IT employees through the 10-month program.)

Finnerty, who was previously CIO at Kraft Foods and director of information systems at Johnson Controls, was passionate about mentoring and already did a lot of it on his own time, says Kerley. So even though mentoring wasn’t officially part of Finnerty’s current job as vice president of technology and vendor services at Applied Materials, Kerley tapped him to help with internal leadership development.

The goal of the 10-month program is to train IT employees to work with one another and with other parts of the business to achieve common goals. The company also makes sure to recognize particularly successful collaboration, giving awards to those who “exemplify core values of matrix collaboration.”

In addition, Applied Materials has made changes to become less U.S.-centric and more sensitive to the needs of international employees. It started an optional program, called Applied Anywhere, that equips employees with tools that enable them to work from wherever they are.

Although the program serves different needs for different employees, one of its prime values is enabling communication among global employees without tipping their work/life balance out of whack, says Kerley. Applied Materials employees in India, for example, no longer have to go back to their office at 9 p.m. to participate in webconferences or teleconferences scheduled during the regular working hours at the company’s California headquarters. With Applied Anywhere, they can log in from home.

The most recent communication survey, taken just six months after the baseline survey, already shows improvement, says Kerley. “We’re seeing a change in how interactions happen” — and even once-reticent Japanese employees, he says, are now actively participating in brainstorming sessions.

SAS Institute: Bringing subsidiaries into the fold

Fostering global collaboration can be especially difficult when your international IT staff doesn’t report to headquarters.

That’s the situation at business analytics vendor SAS Institute Inc. The $2 billion company has 550 IT employees — about 350 at its Cary, N.C., headquarters and another 200 spread among subsidiaries worldwide. Each subsidiary is a separate legal entity with its own management and its own IT staff that’s free to set up systems in whatever way supports their local workforce the best. That can mean a lot of IT people reinventing the same wheel, says Mark Filipowski, a senior IT project manager in Cary.

So in 2007 SAS launched a worldwide IT collaboration program to foster open, consistent communication among these scattered IT employees, and to identify and reduce duplication of effort and increase efficiency, says Filipowski, who also serves as worldwide IT liaison for the program.

The program consists of a series of meetings — usually via a conference call or a WebEx videoconference — among IT employees who share common interests. There’s a leadership meeting of about 15 IT managers every six weeks, as well as quarterly meetings of various technical specialists, such as those involved with networking, virtualization or storage.

The groups use Microsoft SharePoint to plan meeting agendas — each individual participant is asked to post information on current projects and their status — and to publish reports about the meeting on the corporate intranet. “Those meeting reports are probably one of the most important resources in the IT department,” says Filipowski, because they serve as common repositories of information about all current projects and their statuses.

The meetings aren’t mandatory, since IT staffers at subsidiaries report to managers at their local offices, not to central IT. But most IT employees are eager to participate, says Filipowski. “They are yearning to understand where they fit in the organization,” he says.

Indeed, Koen Vyverman, manager of technical support and IT/MIS in SAS’s Netherlands office, says participating in the meetings helps him feel less isolated.

More important, however, is the fact that the collaboration makes Vyverman’s job easier. He and his staff of two support 130 people and 200 systems in the Netherlands office. “The only reason our small staff can handle that is because we collaborate [with other offices in Europe] and with headquarters in Cary,” says Vyverman, who once won one of the two Worldwide IT Collaboration awards that SAS gives annually.

Kraft Foods: Cubicles down, collaboration up

If collaboration can be encouraged in the virtual space by more effective use of online tools, it can be encouraged in the physical world by effective design of office space. Kraft Foods Inc., which prides itself on a culture of collaboration, is trying to foster even more collaboration in both areas, with its IT department leading the way.

In the virtual space, the Northfield, Ill.-based company experimented with technology to enable its 1,800 IT employees worldwide to participate in its annual IT leadership meeting held earlier this year, says Lorraine Casler, director of enterprise content management for information systems at Kraft Foods.

The meeting brought together leaders from the information systems department and the enterprise shared systems department to discuss strategy. Through an online collaboration centre, employees were encouraged to contribute comments and ask questions during the meeting. The collaboration centre also hosted blogs, podcasts and videos by attendees. About 40 per cent of the attendees blogged and 10 per cent posted videos or podcasts, according to a Kraft spokesperson. An average of 1,000 IT employees followed those posts, he says.

In terms of physical space, a couple hundred IT employees in the company’s Northfield headquarters have moved into office space redesigned to promote collaboration.

As part of the company’s workplace transformation project, the new design got rid of offices and cubicles and replaced them with a large open area with enclaves for meetings and private conversations. There isn’t any assigned seating. Workers keep their personal belongings in lockers and any files or office supplies in rolling “footstools,” says Casler.

The change was mandatory, and Casler admits that some employees didn’t like the new arrangement at first. “In the old command-and-control culture, the bigger your office the more important you are,” she acknowledges. But thanks to a careful change management process and proper training and support, most employees settled into the new space.

She says that having managers out on the floor with employees rather than behind closed office doors has strengthened relationships. “Once you get over the fact that you don’t have an office, you start feeling more engaged,” she says.

Collaboration goes ‘high-bandwidth’

As more and more companies encourage, or even mandate, collaboration, IT may finally put the stereotype of the lone programmer to rest. Forrester Research’s Hammond has found that collaboration in high-performance development teams feeds on itself, in the same way that members of professional sports teams win championships by working together.

If companies set up the right ingredients — bringing talented people together and challenging them in an environment in which “spontaneous innovation can happen” — then IT employees will excel, he says.

“If you put them in a situation where there are other people that are as good as they are, then, bam, the collaboration just starts to happen,” Hammond says. “It goes high-bandwidth.”

Frequent Computerworld contributor Tam Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. She can be contacted through her Web site,

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