Knowing how to share limited resources is a valuable skill. Already as children, we learn how to share our toys, how to resolve fights over who is first on the swing peacefully, and how to ask around nicely before grabbing the last piece of cake.
It is sometimes illuminating to think of IT - systems, people, processes - as a "corporate toy". Because the need for IT is so pervasive, and because IT tends to be centralised into a single department, competition for this "toy" arises all the time.
But why is it so difficult to resolve this problem once and for all? Why is skilled and conscientious project management across the organisation not enough? It is not that IT managers do not care about their area holding up projects. To the contrary - most of them would gladly relinquish their role as guardian of a bottleneck. The issue is the special nature of IT work, and it is worth recapping the key challenges:
- Small commitments stack up: As part of routine support and maintenance, individual IT engineers make commitments all the time ("yes, I'll look into why you have no wireless coverage in this meeting room", "yes, I will get your laptop ready for your big sales trip next week", "yes, we will rustle up another test server" etc.). - It takes mature issue tracking systems and processes to consistently anticipate when the sum of those small and to an extent random commitments adds up beyond the available manpower.
- Dealing with breakdowns: A substantial proportion of IT time goes into dealing with unexpected events: server failures, communications outages, security breakdowns, backup failures, etc. While any IT manager will know how much manpower to set aside for dealing with such issues on average - there is in reality no average week, and failures have an uncanny tendency to happen all on the same day.
- Specialist bottlenecks inside IT: From the outside, IT departments may look like a homogeneous bunch of techies who are experts for anything computer-related. But we know that, in reality, IT departments consist of highly specialised individuals. There may only be one or two people who can e.g. quickly change the structure of a key database or reconfigure the corporate network to support a particular kind of traffic. What is more, two seemingly unrelated IT tasks may internally depend on the same specialist.
- IT work is creative: Many IT tasks do not progress steadily. The right analogy is not bricklaying but writing or composing where periods of inspiration and rapid progress alternate unpredictably with creative slumps. Good IT managers have a feel for the averagerate of progress, and they also know what environment is needed to boost it, but they still struggle to predict or influence when those bursts of progress occur.
Being aware of the above undoubtedly helps to share IT resources more efficiently, especially when managers from inside and outside IT learn to trust each other and to communicate across the "techie/business" divide. However, the disappointing news is that there is no silver bullet. Satisfying the concurrent competing demands on IT in the most productive way remains hard work.
But there is an altogether more positive perspective, too.
Think back to the analogy of children having to share toys. Or, in a family, having to share the attention of their parents. Or having to share their friends with others. While a child's tears over not being able to get something can be rather wrenching many parents would agree that dealing with the limited availability of resources ultimately makes children stronger and is an integral part of growing up.
So what benefit can companies gain from dealing with the limited availability of their IT resources? How does it make them stronger?
The answer is quite simple: Handling competition for IT resources forces absolute clarity in an organisation's strategic priorities. A mundane decision such as whether fixing the sales director's laptop takes priority over re-running yesterday's failed finance data backup touches the heart of what is dear to a company.
Another example: Should the top software architect be assigned to devising a document management system for Legal & Compliance - or to cutting down the number of bugs in the product that is due to be released next month? And should the senior database specialist spend time on setting up a CV database for a major recruitment drive - or investigate why overnight calculations of performance metrics have recently slowed to a crawl?
Some of these IT decisions can have such fundamental implications that they theoretically should be taken at board level. This is of course completely impractical - but the leaders of an organisation cannot shirk establishing priorities and principles as the foundation for others to take those decisions on their behalf. Examples include the attitude towards taking risks, the balance between change and stability, the relationship between employees and the organisation, or the positioning in the marketplace.
And here is the positive consequence: Establishing a foundation of strategic priorities and principles, communicating them, and aligning everyone to them is, by pretty much any management theory, a crucial ingredient for making an organisation successful. In other words, the scarcity of IT resources may hold back individual projects but it can ultimately make the whole company stronger.
The message for company leaders is clear: When yet another project is constrained by an IT bottleneck - consider it an opportunity to check your organisation's fundamental priorities, and to convince yourself that people in the organisation actually know and live them.
By Sebastion Hallensleben
Sebastian Hallensleben works in the UK and Germany as an IT leadership consultant and strategy facilitator. This follows an in- house career of turning around, building, and managing IT teams in which he has worked with development, infrastructure, database, and support professionals in a variety of industries. He always welcomes contacts and connections and maintains the IT Leadership Forum on LinkedIn.