A Blueprint For Success Building the Perfect IS Department

The goal of any company’s information systems (IS) department is to serve the business. This service can range from providing cutting-edge design technology to maintaining a reliable administrative system. When a typical internal customer is asked about the level of service he or she receives from IS, the response often is not favorable.

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Generally, IS organizations work very hard with limited resources and competing demands, but they frequently lack clear direction and priorities. With this perception so common, and with outsourcing on the rise, IS organizations need to evaluate their service and ensure that they understand and are meeting their customers’ needs.

To develop into a highly reliable and functional service organization, the IS department must follow four basic steps (see figure).

  • The group must assess current practices to understand the state of the organization.
  • The group must build a foundation for change. Only by developing a clear vision of the ideal state can change be implemented successfully.
  • The plan developed must be executed and implemented within the organization.
  • As the benefits of the improvements are realized, the values and ideals generated must be reinforced to create an organization focused on continuous improvement.

Understanding the Past

To better understand the IS department’s current state, it is valuable to look at how the group evolved over time. This gives team members some perspective and lets them learn from the past without having to recreate it. Many IS teams were formed out of immediate necessity rather than by design. As companies grew to depend on technology more and more, they realized that a dedicated group of people was required to manage it. As the responsibilities of these groups grew, processes and procedures were developed by trial and error. Once the team found a procedure that worked, it became the only way to do it. When the procedures did change, it usually was due to a customer complaint or a new technology demand. These technology demands frequently came from customers in the company who believed they needed the latest and greatest tool or from the manufacturer who discontinued support for the current tool. Once this occurred, the small group of users that was upgraded to a new system with new software became incompatible with everyone else.

Once this cycle of change began, the company was left with the choice of either having an inconsistent computing infrastructure or interrupting the business to upgrade everyone’s systems and software. Both choices are painful. Most organizations, by default, live with the inconsistent computing infrastructure. As a result, the IS group is always fighting the latest fire rather than working on the larger picture of infrastructure, standard operating procedures and documentation. This makes moving forward extremely difficult.

As this situation develops into something unmanageable, the frequent comment is that something should be done. That may be true, but what specifically should be done? That is a question answered only through an objective assessment and analysis of the company and the IS organization.

Assessing the Current State

The assessment of the IS organization will provide information on how the department is serving its customers. To do this, the assessment must focus on the processes in place rather than the technical elements of the infrastructure. Although a technical element such as the choice of computing platform is important, customer service usually is based on how well the customer’s needs and expectations are met. Elements such as project management, work planning and scheduling, communication and team culture are important to the customer. Good project management and work planning and scheduling set expectations for the team while clear communication allows the customer to understand and be a part of those expectations. The team culture is an indication of the overall attitude the IS team member exudes to each of its clients, greatly affecting customer satisfaction.

To ensure objectivity, the assessment should involve a representative sample of people across the company so all viewpoints are considered. The discussion should be based on predetermined questions or criteria that the organization wants to measure and should be led by an unbiased facilitator. This will prevent the team from getting off track or allowing personal bias to sway the outcome. Management support of the assessment is key to its success. If management does not support the objective findings, then the participants will not be honest due to fear of retribution. When the assessment is complete, the results should be presented to the company and made public for all to see. This will encourage open and honest communication during and after the assessment.

Build a Foundation for Change

Now that the IS organization has been objectively assessed, the team can decide what to change. As with any organizational change project, it is important to develop a strong foundation. The basic steps of a successful project foundation are to decide what “better” looks like and to create a plan for getting there. These steps are not successful if the manager of the change process simply develops the answers and publishes them. There must be joint prioritization of project needs among the entire IS organization and a representative sample of its customers. When the combined group of the IS organization, project management and the internal customers reaches clarity on what should be done, they can proceed to develop a prioritized plan.

Once the consensus for the project plan is reached, this combined group must commit to it. This includes agreement about the necessary tasks, the relative priority of these tasks, the overall timeline for the project and resource requirements for the change. Without this clarity, consensus and commitment, the project is destined to struggle during implementation. Unfortunately, this up-front planning is often avoided because it takes time and money while customers are demanding immediate action.

To develop the detailed improvement plan, the group must have an overall direction to follow. This may include information about the organization’s purpose, values and principles. Defining such principles may seem difficult, but they should be kept simple. Every organization’s principles will be based on its unique characteristics, but some general principles include:

  • Computing is a critical business necessity, not a luxury. Just as the phone company provides dial-tone service with high reliability, the IS organization must provide computing infrastructure reliability. Without it, the business is unable to serve its external customers efficiently. The team must ensure that reliability remains high as the project proceeds.
  • Contribute to the bottom line by serving those who create the bottom line. Rarely does the IS organization directly contribute to the company’s bottom line. The only way it can help the company succeed is to serve the people who have direct bottom line influence.
  • Customer service is the prime directive. The only thing an IS organization has to offer is service. Rarely does that team create the products it delivers. Knowledge of the company and level of competent service are all that can separate the internal IS organization from a third-party vendor.
  • Customer satisfaction comes from functionality and reliability. Computing customers want their computers to function every time they need them. Customer satisfaction is determined by how well the system works and with what level of reliability. The IS organization must provide a reliable system that does what the customer wants, not necessarily what the IS team says the customer should want.
  • Processes need to work with the chosen technology. Too often, internal processes conflict with the available tools. People often blame the computer for not doing what they want it to do. This is like blaming a screwdriver for being a poor hammer. It is the IS organization’s responsibility to supply tools that will support the business processes already in place. If the tools are in conflict with the processes, neither will work effectively. If poor processes force the company to underutilize the tools at hand, maybe the processes need to be revised to maximize the benefit of the computer system.

Implement Your Vision

Once the details of the goal are determined, it is up to good planning and project management to implement the project. This planning and management role is often underestimated; don’t be surprised if it becomes a full-time job. Whether an internal or external source leads the project, he or she should be dedicated to the project’s management and understand the organizational change process. Implementation is by far the most visible and lengthy part of the project, but it is not the whole project. It is only as good as the assessment and foundation building that preceded it. Without them, the implementation phase is often disorganized and painful.

Reinforce Your Values

Exercise the values and principles the organization is seeking every day. This means that the company should know and understand the principles and values that were developed during the foundation building process. The reinforcement of values and principles can come through personal example, process measurement and a system of accountability. Process measurement includes things like schedule compliance measurements, backlog trending and amount of emergencies. Accountability is the combination of performance measurement and performance review. Simply stated, accountability ensures that tasks get completed. The process measurements and system of accountability should be developed during foundation building or early in the implementation so that expectations are clearly set.

The IS organization can be a challenging one to improve due to the unique requirements placed on its members. It is important to follow the four steps outlined above to create a great IS organization. First, understand what the current practices are. With that state in mind, form a team to define values and provide a vision of success for the organization. With that solid foundation to stand on, the organization is ready to make the real changes necessary to perform the way they envision. Then, at last, the change must be reinforced for it to become a way of life. When the IS organization is aware of its history, current state and future vision, it is ready for the next step-the revolution.

David M. Bair is a senior consultant with Reliability Management Group. He has experience in managing IS&T projects, especially focusing on new systems implementation and infrastructure improvements. At RMG, he has worked with several power generation plants, transmission and distribution systems and oil refineries working on operational and organizational reliability.

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