IT collaboration done right

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.

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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.

"In any organisation, 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 organisations 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% said they participated in open source projects. "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? We checked in with several companies that have had success in tapping the power of IT collaboration. Here are their stories.

Applied Materials: Changing a top-down culture

Applied Materials, a $5 billion semiconductor equipment manufacturer, 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.

Recently, the IT organisation 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."

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