Collaboration is all the rage among corporate executives these days, which means IT is busy providing systems that turn that vague concept into a real business benefit. But what happens when it comes time for techies themselves to collaborate?
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 Inc. Many IT departments have not valued collaboration, operating instead in a command-and-control fashion that stifles the collaborative skills of their employees, he says.
5 ways to foster collaboration
* Define the goal of collaboration and explain the benefits.
* Highlight how collaboration helps employees handle their own workloads.
* Recognize and reward effective collaboration.
* Provide tools that are easy to use, that perhaps even mimic consumer technologies such as Facebook. The tools should require little or no training, so employees can just jump in and use them naturally.
* Garner the support and encouragement of top management.
That could be a problem, because effective collaboration is increasingly seen as an imperative throughout the enterprise, including IT. As IT departments are downsized, with low-level tech jobs outsourced or replaced by managed services, the remaining 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 continually reinvent the wheel.
The good news is, their prickly reputation notwithstanding, IT employees can be as collaborative as anybody else, Hammond says. Here's a look at some companies that have had success in tapping the power of IT collaboration.
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 work. The remaining employees are charged with focusing on strategic initiatives that add value or produce revenue.
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 focuses on business transformation.)
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."
That meant changing from command-and-control management to "matrix-style management," which aims to solve problems by bringing together people from across the IT organization, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, he explains.
To successfully effect that change, Kerley felt he needed a baseline model of current communication patterns. So earlier this year, he surveyed IT staffers, asking them to name the people they went to when they needed information, feedback and advice on ideas, or help with projects.
The answers produced a map of interactions that illustrated that communication was happening along traditional chains of management but also among people who were serving as hubs of collaboration. About half of those "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 those people together to discuss how to encourage a matrix style of collaboration. The team agreed that some IT staffers were inhibited by language and cultural barriers and 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. And Japanese employees sometimes wouldn't 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, the company provided personal coaching for its entire staff, 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 also launched a leadership development program in which groups of 40 IT employees are mentored bySteve Finnerty, a former CIO now on staff at Applied Materials. (The company plans to cycle all IT employees through the 10-month program.)
The goal of the leadership development program is to train IT employees to work with one another and with people in other business units 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, which equips employees with tools that enable them to work from wherever they are.
One goal 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 the office at 9 p.m. to participate in webconferences or teleconferences scheduled during 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 are now actively participating in brainstorming sessions, he says.
A 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 about the firm's software applications. (Per his employer'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 group maintained information on its own systems. That information could be stored anywhere, including one person's e-mail in-box. "I would send an e-mail asking for documentation, and I'd get four different responses with four different versions," he says.
The case for collaboration
A recent survey of more than 500 executives, IT decision-makers and business unit leaders worldwide found that businesses are trying to enable greater collaboration across their workforces.
More than 80% of the respondents to the survey, sponsored by systems integrator Avanade Inc., said they believe that enterprisewide collaboration is a key to business success. Three quarters of the respondents said that they plan to increase their use of communication and collaboration tools in the next year.
Why all the emphasis on collaboration? Markets are becoming more dynamic, product adoption rates are accelerating, and innovation cycles are getting shorter, says Markus Sprenger, director of information management and collaboration at Avanade, which is jointly owned by Microsoft Corp. and Accenture PLC.
In the midst of those changes, corporations are finding that their traditional management structures aren't able to keep up.
"Our clients are having to change their organizations, moving away from hierarchical structures where people do repeatable tasks to a more matrixed organization where people come together to solve problems as projects," says Sprenger. "Everybody is a part of two or three different teams and has several jobs."
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 the combination of a carrot and a 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 employee reviews. That was a powerful incentive, Mark says, because bonuses can make up anywhere from 10% to 50% 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."
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 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 communication among those scattered IT employees, 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 teleconference or Web-based videoconference -- among IT employees who share common interests. There's a leadership meeting of about 15 IT managers every six weeks, and quarterly meetings of various technical specialists, such as those involved with networking, virtualization or storage.
The groups use Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint to plan meeting agendas -- individual participants are 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 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.
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 world 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, both online and in-person.
In the virtual world, 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.
The meeting brought together leaders from the information systems department and the enterprise shared systems department to discuss strategy. Through an online collaboration center, employees were encouraged to contribute comments and ask questions during the meeting. The collaboration center also hosted blogs, podcasts and videos by attendees. About 40% of the attendees blogged and 10% posted videos or podcasts, according to a Kraft spokesman. An average of 1,000 IT employees followed those posts, he says.
To foster in-person collaboration, a couple hundred IT employees in the company's Northfield headquarters have moved into office space redesigned to promote interaction.
As part of its workplace transformation project, the company 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 acknowledges 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 says. 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," Casler says.
As more and more companies encourage, or even mandate, collaboration, IT may finally put to rest the stereotype of the lone programmer. Forrester's Hammond says collaboration in high-performance development teams breeds success, in the same way that cooperation enables members of professional sports teams to win championships.
"If you put [IT employees] 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."
Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy. You can contact her through her Web site, TamHarbert.com.