Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lessons in IT Alignment

In my MBA class we begin with a discussion of a model called the Strategy Triangle. This model illustrates the formation of an organization's strategy through the convergence of a business strategy, organization strategy, and information strategy. The point of this model is that strategy is not simply developed from the business strategy but rather it must be developed using opportunities and limitations of the organizational strategy (people, structures, and processes) and the information strategy (data, information, and supporting systems).

Today I read a great article describing the turmoil at J.C. Penny's and the toll taken on their information technology projects. Reading this article from an IT leader's perspective and using the lens of the Strategy Triangle model it is easy to see, in hindsight, that this turmoil was bound to happen. I see two main issues: frequent changes in leadership and the inability to collaborate to develop a cohesive strategy.

First of all there were frequent changes. The CEO was replaced by a new CEO who lead the firm for 17 months only to be replaced by the previous CEO on an interim bases until the next CEO can start next August. Wow! That is overwhelming change! In addition to this, and perhaps as a result of these changes, there have been three CIOs and three e-commerce leaders transitioning in and out of the organization. Each of these changes represent new directions in IT projects, cancellation of projects, and restarting projects that were placed on hold. The unfortunate IT department had no clear direction and, as a result, was not able to successfully accomplish their strategic objectives.

Secondly, the CEO that was brought in to make changes was very aggressive but appeared to try to drive through his vision rather than observe and listen to find out how to best fit his plan into the organization. The article provided a great example of this. The CEO wanted to rip-out the check out stations and replace these with employees roaming the store equipped with iPods and iPads. These employees would checkout customers using RFID tags attached to the clothing items. It may have been a sound idea but the CEO failed to understand the organizational strategy of the checkout processes where the roaming staff would not be able to remove the RFID tags since they were not able to carry the tools to remove the tags. The CEO was focused so much on the business strategy that he failed to acknowledge the organizational strategy of the checkout processes.

This case further proves the value of the Strategy Triangle. Organizations must understand the opportunities and limitations of the people, structure, processes, and information when developing a strategy. The alignment of business, organization, and information must take place to not only identify the best strategy but to also ensure the strategy can be realized.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Project Management Presentation

Next week I'm giving a presentation titled "The Value of Project Management" for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. This presentation is open to the public and is aimed at individuals and organizations who wish to become more familiar with project management and want to introduce a project management practice scaled to fit their needs. Here is a brief description of the presentation:
Any industry and every organization experiencing change has a need for projects. Projects are used to drive change and innovation initiatives in an organization. Over the years, practices for leading these projects have evolved into an increasingly mature field of project management. In this workshop the purpose and value of project management is discussed and common project management practices are reviewed. Based on an understanding of modern project management practices a plan to introduce more formalized project management practices is developed.
If you are interested in attending for free you can register at http://duluthmncoc.weblinkconnect.com/cwt/External/WCPages/WCEvents/EventDetail.aspx?EventID=1042

Monday, November 17, 2014

Building and Managing Effective Virtual Teams

In my MBA class tonight I plan to discuss virtual teams and how information and communication technologies enable organizations to create a virtual team of people who work together on a project without working at the same location. Through the use of web conferencing, instant messaging, collaborative office automation tools (ie. Google docs), and the emergence of so many other collaborative tools or collaborative features in our tools we are now able to work as effectively as if we were co-located. Members of our teams can work in any location across the world where an Internet connection is available. We can form collaborative teams and have these teams work effectively as if they were located in the same office space.

However, just because technology has provided us with tools it doesn't mean that we are now instantly granted the ability to effectively work as virtual teams. There are many challenges in correctly applying these tools, building the trust needed to work effectively, and providing leadership for these virtual teams. While these challenges exist in co-located teams, the solution to these challenges are different in the virtual team environment.

I came across two articles (here and here) providing some simple advice for developing and managing effective virtual teams. The main point is that building and managing virtual teams is different than managing traditional teams; especially if these team members originate from different cultures. One example is the formalization of roles and processes. In the virtual team environment, the roles of each team member must clearly defined as well as the processes the team will follow. This formalization is different than the more loosely defined rolls and ad-hoc processes we can use with the traditional team. The virtual team members are not able to intuitively grasp the shifting roles or processes as if they were interacting in-person.

Since the virtual team works with more limited communication among the team members it is important to establish norms for the mode of communication, the expectations for behavior in the communications (no background noise or interruptions, etc.), the frequency and timing of communication, and the ability to have one-on-one contact with team members. Establishing these norms early on the in the team formation allows the team members to know what to expect and to figure out how the team will work together. The ability to have one-on-one interactions and spontaneous interactions will help build trust and understanding among the team members.

The commonality between these two articles is the formalization needed to support virtual teams. We need to formalize the roles of the team members, formalize how decisions are made, and formalize how and when the team interacts with each other. This formalization helps to establish the guidelines for operating as a team. Co-located teams do not require such formalization but they are offered the luxury (or disadvantage; depending how you look at it) of having immediate and frequent interactions with each other.

So, if you plan work work as a virtual team or if you plan to lead a virtual team, be sure to first spend time formalizing the guidelines which the team will operate under. This formalization helps the team become more effective by allowing them to focus on the objectives rather than figuring out how to work together.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Human Economy?

I just finished reading a Harvard Business Review article where the author argued that, just as we previously moved from an agricultural economy to a industrial economy and from the industrial economy to the knowledge economy, we are now moving to a new type of economy. This new economy is the human economy where our own humanity is what makes workers valued. In this new economy, the ability to apply our analytical skills is no longer valued but rather value is derived from our ability to demonstrate compassion toward the stakeholders and make decisions that may contradict our typical business goals.

Valuing compassion and our ability to be connected to humanity certainly sounds noble but I don't agree that this is now the new economy. Organizations are currently focused on realizing the value of the data they collected for the past two decades (or more) and found value mining this data for valuable insight and improved decision making. We also currently value employees who are able to turn information into knowledge to improve the organization's performance. This value of the employee's knowledge attributes will remain valued. In other words, I argue the knowledge economy is not going anywhere.

Having said this, I must admit that there is some merit to the human economy the author describes. The results from our in-depth analysis of our vast amounts of data may lead to incredible insight into business patterns and give use the ability to predict future patterns. These analytics practices are intended to help us make better decisions. However, we have to acknowledge that we cannot rely solely on the results of our data analysis but rather use this data as input into our decision making. This is where the influence of the human economy may be needed. We sometimes need to make decisions that fly in the face of the data in order to make decisions that may be incorrect through short-term metrics but are the right decisions when looking at the bigger and longer-term picture.

While I appreciate the author's perspective on the importance of humanity in the future economy, I argue against any notion that we are moving out of the knowledge economy. We are simply balancing the insight our data-driven knowledge provides with our compassion and bigger-picture thinking that only humans are able to provide.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Beyond Business Process Reengineering

I'm preparing a lecture for my MBA students on information systems and the support of business processes. The purpose of this lecture is to illustrate how information systems have enabled the organization to move from siloed departmental information systems to integrated systems that support the entire business process across departments. This transformation really took hold in the 1990s and was associated with the act of business process re-engineering (BPR). This BPR effort served as a means to reconceptualize the firm from departments into processes and to recognized the value of having information stored in a single and centralized location.

I conducted a little research to support the material from the book in order to find the next step; to determine what happens when organizations no longer find ways to continue to increase efficiencies through BPR. In search of the next step I came across a Harvard Business Review article describing a potential next step for moving beyond BPR. One potential solution is the service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach. Using this approach, organizations reconceptulize the firm into a set of loosely coupled services that form the business processes. A service is a specific outcome that can be reused across the organization and, if implemented properly, can be reused by any part of the organization rather than replicated.

Rather than having a tightly integrated business process that is unique to the firm, organizations can now create more generic services that can be combined as building blocks to be used and reused as needed across the organization. These individual services can be developed internally or purchased externally. The reusability and the ease of decoupling the services and recombining them as the organizational needs change make this a much more flexible and efficient method compared to the inflexible architecture of the enterprise systems we constructed as a result of the BPR efforts.

I need to look into this further. I'm more familiar with BPR than with SOA as a means to increase organizational efficiency. This service-oriented method is intriguing but seems a little harder to grasp right now. I wonder if firms are able to quickly grasp and adopt this new method or if there are other methods emerging as the next step beyond BPR.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Technology and the Work/Life Balance

I'm teaching an MBA class on information technology this term. During our next session one of the topics we will discuss is the effect information technology has on the design of work and work processes in an organization. While preparing for this next class, I came across a recent Wall Street Journal article on the use of IT to develop a work/life balance. The author of the article explained how technology has enabled us to increase the number of hours connected to our work and that technology can also help us regain a proper work/life balance.

The author argued that increased meetings, inefficient meetings, improper use of reply all email responses, and managers seeing employee time as less finite as the reasons we are now spending more time outside of work on our work. This, of course, is aided through the use of our smart phones and other connected devices. Through these technologies, we can easily remain available to respond to email and get our work done outside of the normal working hours. The author provided a few suggestions for using technology (software settings) to better manage communications so that we are less likely to feel the need to work during our personal time.

The author focused on technology as a means to manage productivity inefficiencies to free us up from our off hour work time. However, if you look more closely at the efficiency problems, technology is not the root cause to the problem and should not be the main factor in any solution. The problem is not that we all have access to each other's electronic calendar or the reply all button on our email message. The real problem is organizational culture, governance, and our work processes.

While the technology provides the ability to remain connected to work, it is the organizational culture that creates the expectation or the pressure for employees to stay connected to work during off hours. Organizations may be able to place a hold on email messages during off hours but this intervention is not needed if the expectation or pressure for constant connection is not made in the first place. Likewise,  our need to keep up with work after hours is not due to technology making our calendars available for scheduling during the day. We don't need to have technology (software settings) to limit our calendars if we have proper work processes and governance in place to better streamline our work and simplify decision making.

While I may be oversimplifying some of the problems and solutions here (this is only a blog; not a book so my scope is limited), my point is that technology is not the cause or complete solution to the work/life balance. Technology is the tool we use to enable and support our business processes and communications. However, these technology tools should be applied thoughtfully with consideration to the affects on not only the work but the people doing the work.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Project Management Career Paths

In my last blog post I mentioned attending the PMI North America Congress last week. During this conference I facilitated two round table discussions on careers in project management. During these two discussions I engaged project managers in a conversation of career paths within the project management field. I thought I would share the outcome of these discussions.

First of all, the groups noted that there are three categories of career paths associated with the project management field: entry into project management, movement within project management, and movement outside of project management. After establishing these categorizations we then discussed our experiences with each of these categories.

Entry into the Project Management Field
The groups agreed that project management is not an entry-level position. Most project managers begin their career in another role and many are not aware of the project management profession. Once in their career, these individuals eventually move into a project management position either by choice or by accident. The groups found that some people seek out this role once in the workplace while others are placed into this role by necessity based on the organization's needs. Regardless of how project managers begin their career in the field, most do not initially seek the position before beginning their career.

Movement within the Project Management Field
The groups also agreed that, once in the project management field, there is no clear path for advancement. Some noted titles of Senior Project Manager or Executive Project Manager but these titles were closely associated with the types of projects managed and a few project managers noted migration from these higher titles to lower titles when taking roles on other projects. In other words, advancement in the project management field is not the same in functional areas but rather associated with the type of projects they are assigned to.

It was also noted the emerging roles of Program Manager and Portfolio Manager as potential options for advancement in the project management field. The individuals in these discussions were aware of program and portfolio roles and thought of them as opportunities for project managers but had not observed or experienced project managers moving into these roles. It was also noted that most organizations do not have a clear advancement path for project managers but the participants were aware of some firms beginning to have a Chief Project Officer or having a Portfolio Manager at the executive level of the organization.

Advancement out of the Project Management Field
The final career path category we discussed was advancement out of the project management field. All participants agreed there is no one uniform way to advance outside of the project management field. Experienced project managers develop many skills and become known as a person who gets things done. Also, project managers, through their projects, possess a breadth of knowledge of the organization and have a better understanding of how the organization works compared to managers of any single functional areas. As a result, project managers are in a good position to move to functional roles outside of the project management field.

It was also noted that some project managers choose to return to their functional roles they held prior to becoming a project manager. This can be difficult after time since the technical skills wane when project managers leave the field and become more focused on the project planning and leadership.

The two groups consisted of project managers from a wide variety of industries and from professionals with the IT field and outside of the IT field. It was interesting to note the common experiences people shared. Our observations were, by and large, uniform. Additionally, we found common challenges in the profession and we all expressed our passion for the field.

These were useful discussions and it was enlightening to find my own experiences echoed by other project managers in different fields. What is your experience? Is it similar to what we found or have you experienced or observed different career paths?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Experience at PMI Congress 2014

I just returned from the Project Management Institute's North America Congress in Phoenix this week. This was my first time attending this conference so I thought I would share a few observations about the congress and about the project management profession.

The conference was a large event that took place across the stunningly beautiful Phoenix Convention Center. The three days of the conference were filled with presentations but there was still plenty of time to network with other project managers or visit with the vendors in the exhibit hall. Most of the presentations provided excellent perspectives into current project management issues and practices. Although some of the presenters could have been more engaging (especially after a full day of listening to presentations) all of the presenters understood their audience and focused their presentations on a set of outcomes. Since the project management field covers so many areas (leadership, communications, risk, strategy, scheduling, etc) there were many topics to choose from throughout the event.

Attending the conference presentations and speaking with many project managers from around the world I gained additional insight into the project management profession. Project managers from all industries and all regions of the world share common issues and are looking for solutions or ways to improve their project management practice. I noticed many project managers are interested in learning more about designing and building effective project teams, becoming better leaders, improving stakeholder communications, developing better project plans, and dealing with challenges (risk) that occur during the project. In addition to these operational interests I also found many project managers interested in program management, portfolio management, and agile approaches to project management.

During two of the mornings I led discussions in project management career paths and founds some common concerns and observations from the attendees. I'll share these findings in my next blog post. My experience at PMI's North America Congress was a good one. I may not attend the PMI Congress every year but I certainly see this as a valuable event for project managers and encourage others to attend a congress in the near future.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Solution to Automation

I just finished reading Nicolas Carr's The Glass Cage. This is Carr's most recent book in his series of books dealing with the influence of technology on society. In this book, Carr discusses automation with a thesis that automation removes us from the processes, dulls our skills and knowledge, and reduces our role in our work. Carr argues that, through automation, humans are relegating to monitoring processes and stepping in to handle exceptions; both of which we are not very good at doing.

Throughout the book Carr makes compelling argument for the need to understand the downside of automation. While we often focus on the benefits of efficiency, accuracy, and cost savings of automation, we tend to ignore or downplay the role automation has on changing the nature of work and our role in work. He offers plenty of examples of automation changing the nature of work and makes a particularly strong case for airline pilots.

Carr provided many insightful reflections on automation but offered little in terms of specific solutions. The approach of human-centered automation rather than technology-centered automation was suggested and the author pointed to video games as a better model for automation. In this approach, technology is used to enhance our skills and help us accomplish our goals rather than taking over the process and having us step aside and monitor the work.

In a brief section of the book Carr described his experience with the game Red Dead Redemption and how he, as the user, was coached by the software to perform a task, provided with feedback (death of his video game character) and allowed to reattempt the task until it was mastered. This example helped illuminate the human-centered design but I would have liked to see him apply this concept to examples of automation of work. Although I appreciate this example (and Carr's admission of playing Red Dead Redemption which helps me justify my affinity for Assassins Creed) I would have liked to see more of the book dedicated to applying this human-centered model.

If human-centered design is the solution to better apply automation to our work, we must develop a better vision of what this looks like and strategies for how we can apply this to our work. This is not an easy task since technology-centered automation promotes efficiency, accuracy, and cost savings while human cannot make these same claims. Do we offer enough value to work for organizations to abandon the benefits of technology-centered automation? We must first answer this value proposition before we can hope for change.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A New Role for the IT Department

I'm preparing to teach an IT management course for our MBA program next term and I want to begin the course by showing what the modern IT organization looks like. When I was reviewing articles on IT organizations I came across a great article explaining how some IT organizations are becoming sources of revenue for the firm. This is quite different than the typical cost center role the IT department played in the past.

Thanks to the Internet and the emergence of cloud computing as a viable option for enterprise applications, distribution of centralized software and hardware services has never been easier. IT departments are now able to partition their data to sell extra capacity and their proprietary software to other firms. This means that an IT department in a small insurance firm is now able to create new sources of revenue for the organization by selling access to in-house developed software. In some cases, organizations are able to sell access to purchased software as well.

Over the past few decades, in-house developed applications have taken a backseat to purchased "off the shelf" applications from software vendors. Perhaps, as more entrepreneurial IT departments continue to find profit in selling their own software, we will see more organizations move to developing their own software again. This will result in more software options and software more closely integrated with specific industries.

It will be exciting to see the trend of renting out in-house developed applications and services continue. However, I have concerns over these organizations' ability to provide adequate support and the willingness to offer ongoing enhancements or customizations.