Managing digital convergence

As the lines are rapidly blurring between voice, video and data technologies, veteran manager, Bob Currier, offers 4 suggestions on how corporates can make the technological transition without going crazy or alienating the staff.

Not long ago the worlds of the telephone technician, the camera crewmember, and the data dude were as different as the rain forest and the arctic tundra. Telephone repairmen carried punch-down tools and butt kits, camera operators lugged a 30-lb. Sony and struggled with high-powered lights, and the network staff fiddled with routers.

Today you're likely to see a voice technician installing and configuring network-attached voice-over-IP phones, or video technicians setting up H.323 network conferencing facilities.

The lines are rapidly blurring between voice, video and data technologies, and the corporate financial folks are starting to ask the big question, "Can we achieve cost savings and operate more effectively if we combine our voice, video, and network staffs?" In many cases the answer is a resounding "yes"--there are significant benefits to be gained by combining these staffs in a single organization. But there are also many pitfalls and wrong turns for the unwary to take.

Case in point: I had hoped to be able to leverage the skills of our telephone installation technicians by training them to configure and install workgroup switches and patch panels. My reasoning was sound--using the installers to do the basic installation and configuration would free up my engineers for more complicated projects. What I hadn't taken into account was the difference in employee classification. The installation techs are hourly and are entitled to overtime. The network engineers are salaried and don't receive overtime--and all of our network installations are done after hours and on weekends. Using the hourly installation technicians to perform after-hours work would have drained my overtime budget after the first project.

As a survivor of several reorganizations and a manager in a newly-formed enterprise communications infrastructure group, I've had to rapidly adjust to different management structures, deal with combining dysfunctional teams and navigate the murky waters of university politics--all while keeping the network fully operational.

To make the organizational transition without going crazy or alienating your staff, I offer the following four suggestions.

Meet with each staff member. When you combine voice, video, and data teams into a single organization, you're going to find yourself managing people you don't know. The only way to get to know them is to meet with them one-on-one. Group meetings just don't work--employees, already nervous due to the big restructuring, often don't feel comfortable speaking their minds when in the same room with their boss or their peers.

I like to have half-hour individual meetings with all employees and let them tell me how they're feeling, what their concerns are, and where they see their career going. Having individual meetings with a 50-person staff can seem overwhelming, but you can get it done in a week if you clear your calendar and allocate 30 minutes for each employee.

Don't set your changes in stone. Never change an organizational structure without leaving room for adjustment. My recently-departed boss always preceded reorganization announcements with this statement: "This isn't the last word in changes. If the new structure isn't working, we can and will make changes. We won't lose good people by blindly following an organizational chart." I recall very few changes that were undone, but simply knowing that we had options made us feel more comfortable.

Deal quickly and firmly with prophets of doom. Rumor mongers and prophets of doom can make morale plummet incredibly fast. Don't let them get started. The quickest way to crush a rumor is to not let it become one in the first place. Share as much information as you can, as quickly as possible, with your staff. You might feel uncomfortable sharing strategies that aren't fully baked, but do it anyway; info hearing the plans directly from the boss can go a long ways toward calming choppy waters. I recently heard about my impending reorganization from a vendor. Turns out the vendor had been at a cocktail party with senior management and been "brought into the loop" on the upcoming changes before the affected managers had been briefed.

Drop the reins to gain control. Taking on new groups and staff can be very stressful--there's no way you can do it all by yourself. If you've been managing the networking staff and now have responsibility for voice, video, and data, you need to let go of previous projects in order to concentrate on the big picture. Pass the baton to staff members that have been looking for opportunities to advance. Let them manage the projects, and make sure that you stay in the background. Be there for them if they need you, but don't micromanage. As my recently-departed Chief Information Officer used to tell me: "Drop the screwdriver." Keep your hands off the keyboard and stay out of the data closets and let your staff make you proud.

Each new organization brings different challenges, pleasures, and frustrations. Be flexible, listen to your staff, and be willing to relinquish some control. You'll be surprised at the results.

Robert Currier has been in data networking for more than 15 years, the last five as Director of Data Communications at Duke University. Currier is an accomplished writer, public speaker, and photographer. His credits include product reviews in Network World, features in PC Computing and photographs in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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