Strengthening IT Accountability – Lack of Accountability, a Symptom of Lack of Organizational Clarity
A very insightful comment in my blog from a well respected IT management consultant, Vaughan Merlyn, motivated me to write this follow up article. IT Accountability is an interesting topic and there is a lot to uncover and delve into. In Part One, I wrote about accountability as something that does not only happen when things go wrong — it is taking ownership from the beginning. It is continuous rather than something that has an end point. There are three important areas where IT accountability comes into play: (1) IT Accountability in Operative Teams; (2) IT Accountability Cost Management; and (3) IT Accountability to improve service delivery. These are just three of the many facets of IT organizations where accountability is an important driver for success. They are meant to illustrate the meaning of IT accountability and to provide examples.
Part Two aims to tackle the challenges on how to deal with the problem of lack of IT accountability. According to Mr. Merlyn, lack of accountability is a symptom of a lack of organizational clarity. I agree withVaughan. The main reason why IT leaders fail to address the accountability issue is a lack of clarity on what the team is accountable for in the first place. Accountability matters as much as any other IT capabilities. The key to directing individuals and teams towards success is to clarify the organizational purpose up front. The organizational purpose is a declaration of what the organization wants to be and, in broader terms, what it wants to achieve. It provides meaning to the day-to-day tasks, triumphs and setbacks that make up the daily operative grind. A lack of purpose will create disconnection among the different levels of the IT organization. Teams and individuals will not know why their effort matters. They cannot connect their work to a larger story. Their work becomes a matter of going through the motions. When that happens, team members lose accountability.
The following statement is Vaughan Merlyn’s assertion on this subject:
“If organizational purpose is not clear (i.e., the goals, values desired business outcomes and guiding principles for a given capability are defined and well understood?) then organizational commitment (i.e., sponsorship and accountabilities) will be lacking or confused. With weak organizational commitment, ability (i.e., clear processes, well-defined roles, competent resources filling those roles, appropriate tools and technologies supporting the processes) will be deficient. And with deficient ability, there is virtually no way accountability (i.e., criteria for success and related performance requirements) can be meaningful.”
Root Cause: Lack of Organizational Clarity
When there is a lack of organizational clarity, it will be harder for IT managers to inspire people because they don’t have a clear direction, performance measures and objectives to follow and to communicate to their teams. This disconnect will open the door for individual managers to interpret directions, formulate objectives and determine their own priorities. On the other hand, for IT team members, it will lead to inconsistent performance of day-to-day operations that will cause low morale and productivity. It will be impossible to expect accountability from team members who may ask themselves the question—“How do we know if we are doing a good job? How do we know if we are fulfilling our obligations to the team and we are achieving results for the company?” Without organizational clarity, chances are you will have a lack of accountability from your people.
Creating the culture of accountabilty starts with the IT leaders – to me this process is always top-down. They define the IT strategy and vision based on the desired results and business strategy of the company (IT to Business Alignment). The desired objective of IT or the entire company could be to: become the easiest to conduct business with, be the most innovative organization in the industry, have technological excellence, increase profitability, or create the best sales and distribution network. IT leaders must clearly understand the business strategy of the firm which it provides services to. They must also work to provide the right IT strategy, platform, experiences and actions to achieve these results. The role of IT leaders is to communicate this organizational purpose clearly to the whole team. It requires persistent effort and a clear message to get the right commitment. By doing this, they can be certain that their subordinates know or are reminded what they are accountable for. This is where IT leaders make all the difference. Leadership is about reminding people what it is that we are trying to achieve—and why it matters.
Photos courtesy of Renjith Krishnan and Sheelamohan
Unfortunately, accountability in some IT organizations has become something that happens only when they are dealing with major problems. What you have is a working environment with members taking responsibility only when things go wrong. That is, when someone or some group has to own and be answerable for the consequences that impacted the business operations and later on work on reactive solutions. This kind of accountability seldom works because it is founded on the wrong principles.
Accountability in IT happens when IT team members or teams take responsibility in performing functions and work to achieve objectives. Here they take ownership of the services they provide to the business. This kind of accountability impacts both IT services delivery and ultimately, the company’s results. This kind of accountability makes things go right and far from being a punishment for failures. This kind of accountability develops the culture that produces people with the right attitude and managers that execute the right IT strategy. Highly accountable IT organizations have that commitment at all levels — from top management to IT operators that manage day-to-day functions.
IT Accountability in Operative Teams
In my current occupation, I am fortunate to lead a team of professionals with a strong sense of pride in what they do and with the goal of contributing to the organization. That sense of pride translates into a positive attitude and best practices that govern how we work to provide the best service to our internal customers. I once told my team that what I admired most about their work is their culture of shared responsibility. I like that each one has a sense of ownership of the team’s overall performance. They have the initiative to perform certain functions within the scope of their responsibility — very mindful that they are accountable for keeping business operations running efficiently. In our team, doing things above and beyond for the sake of customer service is daily routine. To me, that’s accountability in every sense of the word. The way we hold ourselves accountable defines the very nature of our working relationships, how we provide support to the business, how we work in projects, how we respond to problems and how we interact.
IT Accountability in Cost Management
Accountability in cost management practices is one of the most important areas where IT can really impact the business’ bottom-line. IT leaders need to start by responding to the following questions: What are my cost drivers? What business objective is driving spending? Is spending aligned to the business strategy? Is IT cost transparent and does business understand the value? Accountable IT confronts these tough questions together with their business counterparts. The practice of shifting the focus from IT cost to one of business value no longer works, especially during these tough economic times. It has to be a balance of both. IT needs to be accountable for the business cases that go with its project portfolio. I think that the biggest challenges in IT are those that deal with the intersection of both technology and business — how the cost of investment in certain technologies translates to business value. IT management needs to be at the forefront in taking responsibility for cost efficiency and value creation of their products and services. IT management needs to understand what drives IT cost. The basis for effective cost management is understanding cost structure and analyzing the costs flowing through that structure.
IT Accountability for Improved Service Delivery
Better accountability improves service delivery performance. But how does this work? IT accountability for improving IT services delivery is not simply a question of providing the technology needed to run its business or ensuring service availability. It is also about its service culture as well as better partnership and alignment with the business. In short, the challenge is as much about partnership and customer relationship as it is about providing the right IT business solutions. Service culture is one of the softer elements of the IT organization’s identity but it’s extremely important when you want your organization to have a strong sense of accountability in delivering excellent services. Essential to improving partnership with the business is a deeper understanding of the business strategy, objectives and the service levels that are required. How do we engage business leaders? What is the current and evolving business strategy of the company? How can IT be leveraged to gain competitive advantage? How do we manage ongoing innovation and process improvements? Does the business understand our capabilities to maximize our value? How do we communicate and manage perception about IT services? These are some of the difficult questions and challenges that must be addressed head on by IT leaders. There must be a structure used to allow learning from business engagement about strategies, core elements and innovations to improve service culture.
Although the concept of accountability is often reduced to ‘answerability’ or ‘enforceability’, a more complete understanding includes the actions that take place at every level and every internal customer touch points. Again, accountability does not only happen when things go wrong—accountability is taking ownership from the beginning. It is continuous rather than having an end point.
Photos courtesy of Salvatore Vuono and Michal Marcol.
We’ve all heard the saying that leading by example is one of the most powerful ways of leadership. But ironically, it’s often the most overlooked. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi once said.
The best way to create culture is to transmit culture. The most obvious ways to transmit culture is through teaching and coaching. IT managers and staff look up to their senior leaders for directions. IT leaders should not limit their engagement with their employees with discussions about operation work. They should engage their subordinates in other meaningful ways so as to help them develop themselves.
The best IT teams must have a culture of continuous learning. In IT organizations, developing employees is not optional, it is a necessity. Development is necessary to acquire the skills and learn the knowledge needed to keep up with new technology and processes in order to achieve business goals. Additionally, development programs in volatile and competitive organizations like IT are important in attracting and retaining employees.
Information Technology needs future-oriented leaders. Arguably, it is the most unpredictable and most innovative area of the company. If the CIO is not forward-looking, IT will most likely neither be as competitive nor at par with competitors who are relentlessly pursuing innovation. IT leaders are fascinated about the future. They are relentless about change and impatient for progress. CIOs should always be looking forward to new technology and practices that are developing, searching for new processes, tools and methodologies and experimenting how it will make sense in business in the future.
- How many types of developmental conversations occur in your organization?
- How can you create a culture of learning that goes beyond traditional classroom training?
- In what ways do your communication tools and practices help build your team’s skills for participating in conversations about goals, changes, and barriers they face?
Photo coutesy of Ivy Remoreras Photography.
The senior vice president of the shared service organization that I work with is retiring after 25 years of service to the company. In a farewell gathering last week to honor his years of service and great accomplishments, 25 selected employees (old and new) took turns to share 25 business lessons learned from our retiring boss. Many of those 25 employees who stood and spoke about the 25 business lessons accompanied them with remarkable stories. They were stories that in many ways embodied the values and meaning of each of the business lessons. Being relatively new to the organization, I felt that the hour and a half of stories and messages provided me a glimpse of the organization’s founding stories, its key tenets, culture and identity. I felt a stronger sense of belongingness and understanding that I know will only help me in how I interact and collaborate with my colleagues.
Stories are powerful messages that shape the organization’s understandings of relationships and of how members deal with the mix of harmony, successes and failures that are always present in the workplace. These are past events that people talk about internally—and even externally. In some cases, leaders choose what stories to tell and immortalize. They are stories that best represent the organization’s values and culture.
Stories can also be critical experiences, major incidents, conflicts and problems that the members of the organization experienced together. The way leaders and members approached, worked through and solved critical experiences help shape the group’s dynamics. The daily actions and decisions of leaders and managers signal appropriate responses to wide-ranging issues. Because of social influence, leaders are the single most important factors and determiners of organizational culture.
Organizational culture is influenced by the leadership style. In other words, the personality, philosophy and experience of the leaders get embodied in its group’s culture. Leaders facilitate the development of organizational culture through different embedding mechanisms that align culture with the organization’s common goal and strategy.
The group’s culture provides structure and meaning to its members—in many ways it controls members’ interactions with one another and with external parties. In this post, this concept is applied in the Information Technology (IT) group setting. The IT group culture can influence the success of the IT organization. Culture is socially constructed through leaders that embed their beliefs, values and assumptions upon the group that it leads. The culture of any IT organization is formulated and impacted by several variables. The strongest and the most obvious is the influence of its leader. According to E. H. Schein, leader’s primary embedding mechanism is seen in how they pay attention to, measure and control aspects of organization’s operations and decision making. They initiate great conversations that tie cultural norms to the organization’s goals. If the current culture is not aligned with the new realities, leaders need to be the catalyst to create new understanding and help individuals select new behaviors and, eventually, beliefs. Leaders must also define, clarify and reinforce understanding of the actions and beliefs that build the desired culture.
To examine how IT leaders influence the IT organizational culture and IT branding let’s use some of E. H. Schein primary embedding mechanisms and apply it in the IT perspective. Each one comes with a set of questions you can use to assess the impact of such embedding mechanism in your IT organization right now:
What Leaders Pay Attention To, Measure, and Control on a Regular Basis
Although performance measures presented in the leader’s reporting dashboard change from time to time, most of the leaders that I know only pay attention to a small set of key performance indicators. IT leaders rely on a subset of key measures that they believe is the best indicator of the overall performance of the organization. As an IT manager, you know what your CIO is looking at and controlling most of time. Your CIO gets your attention and tracks certain aspects of operations based on these key performance indicators. In some instances, the CIO will try to drill down and find more information about a perceived problem and base his request for action on this. The performance measures that IT leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis dictate the importance given by the organization to a service, a problem or a project.
It is but a natural tendency for managers, staff and different groups within IT to keep track of the performance measures that IT leaders are more attentive to. More likely, these people discuss these controls in daily IT operations meetings. Some will even set alarms so as to act swiftly on incidents before they become major problems. Performance measures and controls are powerful mechanisms that IT leaders use to forge a working culture based on what they think is important. How current are your departmental metrics? Do they measure against your current organizational objectives? Do they reflect the coming changes and help prepare your team for new ways of working?
How Leaders React to Critical Incidents and Organizational Crises
Companies in this day and age rely on an integrated set of digitized platforms and infrastructure to run and manage its business operations. When a critical IT incident occurs, it often impacts mission-critical systems and processes that affect business operations. These days, it is not hard to imagine how something like this can directly impair the ability of the company to serve its customers. These kinds of problems could unfavorably hurt the company’s profits and reputation in the short term. When a major IT incident disrupts most critical processes of the company, the credibility and reputation of the IT organization is heavily dependent on their perceived preparedness and responses during the situation. The CIO is at the forefront of disaster recovery measures and business continuity management and continues to work hand-in-hand with business managers. For mature IT groups, the planning, work and infrastructure that that is used to run disaster and business continuity situations are completed way before major incidents occur.
Business continuity and disaster recovery is part of an organizational learning process. In the wake of a crisis, IT leaders adopt a learning orientation and use prior experience to develop new routines and behaviors that ultimately change the way the organization prepares and responds to crisis. The best leaders recognize this and are purposeful and skillful in finding the learning opportunities inherent in every crisis situation. Is your organization proactive about problem management, disaster recovery, and business continuity preparedness? What can you do to better build your team’s capabilities to manage critical incidents and crisis situations?
How Leaders Allocate Resources
IT leaders have control on the allocation of resources in the organization. This applies to operational and projects resource assignments. The CIO controls the budget allocation to key projects, resource assignment to operations areas, and the time IT members spend on certain initiatives. On the other hand, the CIO also controls how and where to slash resources during budget optimization. How leaders allocate the resources of the organization creates a natural signal to its members about their priorities and what they think creates more value to the company. His or her interpretation of the business strategy and the expectations of the company’s shareholders impact the leader’s decision making process. Resources mean money and time. Therefore, when the CIO decides on the operating and capital budget portfolio allotment, this provides managers an indication of where in the organization best efforts and priorities are expected.
Another strong indication of the CIO’s priorities can be observed on how he spends time. To better understand the job of the CIO, Peter Weill, MIT profession and co-author of the book IT Savvy, examined how CIOs allocate their time. CIOs allocate time in four major areas: managing IT Services, working with non-IT colleagues, working with customers, and managing enterprise processes. Time allocation varies a lot because of individual management style but in most cases, where the CIO spends the most time sends a strong message. As an IT leader, examine how you spend your time. How do you think it impacts the desired cultural values of your organization? In what ways should you change your managerial regimens to better present, explain, and reinforce the desired culture?
Deliberate Role Modeling, Teaching, and Coaching
We all naturally know that leading by example is one of the most powerful ways of leadership, but ironically it’s often the most overlooked. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The best way to create culture is to transmit culture. I think the most obvious ways to transmit culture is through teaching and coaching. IT managers and staff look up to their senior leaders for directions. Leaders should be engaged with IT operations but their engagement in it should not be limited to supervising and running operations but also guiding, teaching and coaching managers.
Information Technology needs future-oriented leaders. Arguably, it is the most unpredictable and fast innovating area of the company. If the CIO is not forward looking, it can’t provide the business with a platform to continue to be competitive and at par with competitors who are relentlessly pursuing innovation. IT leaders are fascinated about the future. They are relentless about change and impatient for progress. CIOs are always looking forward to new technology and practices that are developing, looking for ways of plotting a course of new processes, tools and methodologies and experimenting how it will make sense in business in the future. How many types of developmental conversations occur in your organization? How can you create a culture of learning that goes beyond traditional classroom training? In what ways do your communication tools and practices help build your team’s skills for participating in conversations about goals, changes, and barriers they face? What can you do to better build your team’s capabilities for participating in transformative conversations? Is learning embraced at all levels?
The values and priorities of the IT leader- may it be the CIO, CTO, IT VP or IT Director— are reflected in the culture of the information technology (IT) organization. This is true also for other organizations, big or small, that has its members working together for some time. A positive organizational culture reinforces the core beliefs and behaviors that a leader desires while weakening the values and actions the leader rejects (Kaufman 2002). A negative culture becomes toxic, poisoning the life of the organization and hindering any future potential for growth. Obviously, there is an inevitable bridge joining organizational culture and the level of success it enjoys (Peters and Waterman 1982).
Photo courtesy of Ivy Remoreras Photography.
Branding IT Organization Part I talked about branding in general and how IT branding is linked to the Process Culture maturity of an IT organization. This time, I will further define the concept of IT branding and how it relates to team culture. Jose Rivas, a colleague of mine, posted this as a comment in my last article:
“Branding is something that everyone in IT does every day– it is how the user community perceives you. I believe that branding is a reflection of the culture that drives the IT organization, or any other group for that matter. Purposely branding IT takes a lot of thought and effort. It requires a clear vision, effective communications within as well as outside IT, strong executive sponsorship and a well-motivated organization.”
I couldn’t agree more with this opinion of Jose Rivas on IT branding as a reflection of the team’s culture. Branding has a lot to do with human perspective and the forces that are created in social and organizational interactions. It has a lot to do with your group’s identity and culture.
IT Brand Identity and IT Branding
IT Brand Identity marks the tangible representation of your IT brand. This representation can be in different forms – your mission and vision, your service offers, culture and style. It is what you stand for. IT brand identify is the set of values that exists in your customers and employees’ mind as a result of interaction and associations with your IT organization.
IT Branding is the process of building and improving IT brand identity. This identity or culture is shared by employees and groups that control the way you interact with each other and with stakeholders outside of t he company. It is the value you create that gets reinforced every time your internal customers interact with anyone in your team and any facet of your service.
Improving your IT brand: Why bother?
Below are just some of the rewards IT organizations can derive directly or indirectly from having a strong IT brand.
- IT will run more efficient operations because they align all decisions with the mission, vision and values that underpin their promise.
- Internal customers (business) are willing to invest more in IT because they believe it will deliver outstanding benefits.
- Quality of IT services concretes internal customer loyalty.
- Business supports IT projects because they know that IT creates value in the company.
- It is easier for IT to communicate new service offers.
- IT will find it easier to attract and retain good employees because applicants believe in the quality of the workplace based on the advance knowledge of the caliber of the brand.
- IT will increase its value and management support
The bottom line for IT managers and employees is that if they do not become conscious of the team culture in which they are embedded – those cultures will control them. This process is complex and multifaceted. Every IT team must learn how to become a team. They have to find their identity and use it to their advantage.
Photo courtesy of advanceweb.com.