Has IT got it all wrong?

commentary Perhaps it is time to update the traditional structure of IT departments.You know how it goes, you want a career in IT and you start off at the bottom of the ladder -- help desk.

commentary Perhaps it is time to update the traditional structure of IT departments.

You know how it goes, you want a career in IT and you start off at the bottom of the ladder -- help desk. Help desk is basically the job where wannabe techies start out, and look to move out of ASAP so they can really start their career. Then they pick their field of expertIse, whether it be networks, servers, security, etc, and start racking up certifications. If they prove themselves technically, then they might just get a promotion and perhaps manage a team of people and keep moving up through management.

It is this kind of structure and management thinking that I think will be turned on its head... eventually. There has been a lot of talk on the need for IT staff to have better communication skills but at the moment I don't think IT staff actually believe it. And I think it will take more than just communication skills to make a difference, it will require a complete change in culture of IT departments.

I had an interesting coversation on this topic last month with Grant Inwood, IT manager at the Parliament of Victoria -- he has turned that typical structure on its head and he has great success. By changing the structure and culture of the IT department he turned it from being a hated department to one that the staff respected and held in high regard.

The parliamentary staff thought the IT department was a hindrance to business and help desk staff were condescending -- a complaint I don't think is unique to the Parliament of Victoria. Inwood's approach was to break down the technical silos in the team and turn the focus to customer service. He demanded everyone had to know the aim of the business and where they fit in the company's goals, and they had to start seeing themselves as customer service providers.

I didn't actually want to come but my manager made me.
To achieve this, the staff all had to attend personal development and soft skills courses and were told that they were to be no more experts, instead he wanted well-rounded, multi-skilled professionals. The help desk role changed from being a career starter to a career maker. Inwood started hiring staff without technical backgrounds and said the best way to get to management was through help desk.

Inwood says the old structure -- the one favoured by many IT departments -- is wrong and that the IT industry has a bit of growing up to do. He attributes his success to making the team feel better about themselves, which they learnt through the personal development courses.

The issue of personal development and soft skills courses is an interesting one. I recently attended a time management class aimed at IT workers; the breakup of the class was one journalist (me), one human resources manager, and a handful of IT workers, and the only people that wanted to be there were the non-IT workers. As the teacher went around the class asking everyone why they were there, each IT worker said "I didn't actually want to come but my manager made me". And apparently this wasn't just my class, it was the typical response.

In an article I wrote a few months ago in Technology and Business called "Turning techies into managers", Ian Wilkins of News Interactive told me he also thought the IT industry had yet to mature. He was planning to send his IT staff on a variety of soft skills courses, but they were reluctant to attend, not seeing the need or value.

"IT is such a young industry, it hasn't matured yet and the people haven't matured yet -- I am not saying they're kids, but they don't understand why they need to have soft skills," he said.

This reluctance is interesting considering the multitude of literature on needing interpersonal skills to succeed in IT -- why is that IT workers don't feel the need for these skills?

Perhaps it is because those values aren't being reinforced within the culture of the IT department. It is one thing to say you want staff with communication skills, it is another to make sure the culture and structure of the department matches those aims and rewards those skills.

I think the change from a technical to a customer focus will eventually be widely adopted, but why do we have to wait? Maybe it is finally time for the IT industry to grow up.

Natalie Hambly is Assistant Editor of Technology & Business. Does the structure of IT departments need a rethink? E-mail edit@zdnet.com.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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