June 21, 1999Make Teamwork Pay
IT Teams are delivering hard-dollar benefits
By Teri Robinson
t a time when demand for IT talent far outstrips supply, teamwork is seen as a solution to many ills. For one thing, collaborative work and software are making teamwork more practical. But companies and individuals must be willing to undergo cultural changes if they want to reap the rewards.
"For teamwork to reach its potential, the business mind-set has to evolve to a new level of trust, understanding, and empathy," says Anthony Dziedzic, head of ARD Associates, an IT coaching firm. "Each team member has to accept behavior that is contrary to most learned business cultures."
Beyond intangible benefits, teamwork is becoming a matter of survival for some companies. In the case of privately held Ford Office Interiors Inc. in Boulder, Colo., teamwork actually saved the business. For a few years, CEO Steve Louden watched his small company steadily lose money, even though gross sales approached $2.7 million.
Productivity was low because Louden couldn't seem to get his 17 employees to work as a team. He was on the verge of selling the business when Universal Consulting Specialty, an integration firm, offered help. As part of its effort, Ford Office Interiors created a "constitution" that outlined its ongoing commitment to employees and their commitment to the company and each other. "A lot of things came out about employees' needs, expectations, and perspectives," Louden says.
Workers now agree to cooperate as allies and to follow an issue-resolution process that encourages them to resolve conflicts. They turn to Louden only if a resolution can't be reached. He, in turn, promises to get back to them within 10 days. "There's an accountability there that wasn't there before," Louden says.
Ultimately, the process resulted in the creation of a profit-sharing plan, and Louden is recruiting new employees suited to the team-and cutting those who can't or won't blend in. The team has also gained a hand in training new employees. Overall, the efforts not only created a better place to work, but produced hard-dollar results: "We've reduced the debt and now save about $18,000 per month," Louden says.
Small businesses may find it easier to resolve conflicts than large companies, but expectations for IT personnel are changing as well. Teamwork has created a more pleasant, productive working environment and reduced conflict at the Pentagon, notes Kevin Brown, a Windows NT administrator at the agency. And although he's seeking technical help, the interviews Brown and his teammates conduct with prospective employees include lifestyle-type questions to determine personality types as well as technical skills. "Even if they're not fully qualified, but they fit in with the team, we will select them," Brown says.
In the past, IT had a negative connotation in many companies. People would say, "Oh no, here's an IT person to tell me what I have to do," says Ed Cornelia, VP of sales and marketing at Athenium LLC, maker of a team-learning system called TeamThink.
IT professionals also have a history of being isolated from the rest of the company-and even each other-to protect their own turf. "Programmers stayed at their desks and no one knew what they were doing," Brown says. " It was a form of job security."
To shake that image and break the habit of imposing technology on the enterprise, IT departments must figure out "how to best float an issue and have everyone understand one another's perspectives," Cornelia says.
The Meta Group takes the concept further, saying a company's success is tied less to the systems it uses, and more to a company's Collaborative Coefficient, which Meta defines as the ability to collaborate with business partners and customers. By working together, employees better understand how the information they garner is used throughout the company's operations.
Teams can't guarantee success. ARD's Dziedzic warns that the benefits can disappear over time, unless the enterprise stays focused and committed to them. "Success is often short-lived because the process did not get to the heart" of the organization, he says.
Nevertheless, it could be that teamwork is an idea whose time has come.
Teri Robinson is a freelance business and technology writer based in New York. She can be
reached at Teri8994@aol.com
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