Gestalt Thinking and The IT Department

gestaltLast week I spoke to someone who was doing some consulting work at an international school. They were trying to assess what was causing the various problems. It was not money or resources. It seemed the administration was trying to make things work. So as we began to speak she asked me a few questions about the organizational structure. I gave her a very clear answer and opinion. She told me what I told her was contrary to every other person she has interviewed about these problems.

I told her I firmly believed that if a school can support and afford it, the technology structure should be formally defined as Educational Technology (EdTech) and Business & Operations (BusOps).

I told her that certain plans and projects should fall into each of those divisions and be managed according to strategic plans and initiatives. In other words, the IT Department needs a clear focus, people need to know their main roles, and the regular school administration should be involved in tracking and accounting for the IT projects.

If a school cannot afford the staffing to support a real separation, then the policies in procedures governing the IT department should clearly define priorities, standards, and
any and all division of work.

In my current role I have a 70 page policy manual that is growing. It will soon be, after much debate, split into an EdTech/BusOps model. Various types of projects will start to be filtered directly to people who can do those projects autonomously, because those projects were planned and budgeted.

Does this mean as a department we will never meet and plan? No. It means after we meet and plan with the school administration, we each should be able to do our work with some oversight. I ask for oversight all the time from the network engineer, and he asks for my oversight on projects that impact the classroom. As a team we make timelines, we debate over priorities and resources, and we constantly allocate jobs to each other.

However, when the year is coming to a close, and it is time to reflect, we have projects that each group of people has completed or failed to complete. We can report on issues related to EdTech separately from issues related to BusOps.

But here is the problem, and I know this all too well because I use to be “the problem”. I was the IT coordinator and integration specialist who would blame the IT engineers and support staff for everything. I accused them of not being diligent and focused. I believed they did not care. I saw them as the weak link, and eventually I took it upon myself to manage them from that perspective.

It worked. Things seemed to be better and more organized, but there was a huge downside. Firstly, I was still completely dependent on them for supporting the school, I could not actually do all the work alone. Secondly, they were so afraid to make mistakes that I could not expand the technology past a certain point.

So I had to change. The first thing I had to do was listen. I found that these people had not always been the way they were. They had been marginalised, blamed for issues they predicted but were unable to resolve due to funding, and no one had given them any sort of additional training or time to pursue learning.

Of all these things, the last one I consider nearly insane. I do at least 6 weeks worth of training a year just to stay even, if I want to really grow, I need a solid 8-12 weeks of training. I do this mostly on my own time and spread the training over the entire year. My contract allows for professional development, and in the past, my contract also allowed for professional development. The engineers and IT support people were allotted nothing. No time. No training. How could they improve?

The next move I made was to make a list of everything they had done, and done well.
I clearly started communicating these things to everyone, and in every way I could. I wanted them to be able to own projects and successes as individuals in a department.

Finally, I started telling teachers and staff to back-off. No more verbal demands. No more undocumented communication. No more narratives about slow internet. I made reporting issues a formal non-email process, and jobs were assigned based-on skill set and location. If we were short staffed, everyone did their best to cover any and all jobs.

Essentially, I split the department by separating the projects and responsibilities.  I was able to see who had skills that needed development, and I planned and funded professional development for the team.

The end result was also a huge policy manual and a smooth running department that could walk into a problem and walk out with a plan.

This was along time ago, but I still follow the same practices. A team should be able to do things that are greater than the sum of the individuals’ qualifications.

Plan. Budget. Divide. Conquer.

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

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About Tony DePrato

about.me/tonydeprato
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