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“Beyond Silos—Sounds Great. But How?”

- February 9, 2011 - 1 Comment

So I go traveling for a few weeks and suddenly, it seems, everyone’s talking about moving “beyond silos”.  This is a subject near and dear to my heart, but I’m also a pragmatist. Many prescient sages have been warning for years of impending organizational shifts in IT—“Be prepared, or be doomed! Conquer your fear!” is the executive summary of many an article.  This is easier said than done, of course. What’s often left out is the “how” of leading an organization through such a transition, perhaps because until recently there were few case studies from which the prognosticators could glean best practices.

So here are a few considerations, and some examples of how to address them.

How fast do you want to change?

Or more importantly, how fast is your organization willing to change?  The tempo of change has to be matched to organizational culture to some degree, but even more important is culturally aligning the process of change.

First, let’s look at a top-down, ninety-degree-turn, all-in approach. A few years back, the late Sun Microsystems decided they wanted to outsource their data centers. As with many things (“the network is the computer”) Sun was way ahead of the curve in their thinking. They recognized that in a heavily outsourced, SaaS-based environment, their IT people were going to be spending less time managing equipment and a lot more time managing services to the business. They also recognized this represented an enormous shift not only in skills but in psychological orientation. IT management was unwaveringly clear that the change was non-negotiable, but the change management process, described on page 10 of this report, managed to bring the great majority of existing staff along through the shift. (There are several other interviews with less radical, yet still change-oriented IT leaders in the same Economist report.)

At Cisco, we tend to take a more collaborative, frequently bottoms-up approach to change. To start with, IT management simply added a common, unified SLA that would be meaningful to business stakeholders on top of existing domain-based SLAs, and then left it to the IT teams to figure out how to implement it. That signal of new expectations—and reward schemes—led to those teams coming back to management with ideas for reorganizing themselves to meet the new requirements.  Part of the new organizational structure, as many have predicted, was a greater role for Enterprise Architects to help bridge gaps between the silos.

Small-to-midsize enterprises are often the quickest to adopt new methods of doing IT: they have fewer people to convince (often a single person wears several different hats already), generally less entrenched processes and for them, nimbleness can clearly be a matter of survival–always a great incentive.  Yet a clear cultural bias for effective change, demonstrated consistently by senior management, can help override fears of being punished for altering the status quo at the IT operational level.

What do you change?

People, process, technology.  Some start with cool new technology, and only belatedly realize how it will impact their existing processes—this was frequently the case with early efforts at server virtualization. Others realize it all too well and shy away from adopting anything beyond the tried and true, even as it requires more and more workarounds to maintain. The pragmatist realizes that wherever one starts, the other areas will be affected, and plans upfront to address all three more or less in tandem in the course of a measured transition.

In the case of Cisco IT, the original psychological/organizational shift was the first step in a process realignment that led to our CITEIS project, an IaaS/private cloud initiative. (If you ever have the chance to get a briefing from Cisco IT on CITEIS, take it—it’s fascinating.)

UCS is a critical component of the CITEIS plan due to its unified architecture and operational simplicity. I talked previously about how UCS does/doesn’t affect organizational structures here. VMware also features prominently, and there’s a serious emphasis on well-thought-out service orchestration and automation. You can read more about CITEIS, and how it’s being implemented in our new data center in Texas, here.

If what John Manville describes feels a bit massive, well, it is—we’re a big company.  The endeavor has not been about overnight transformation, but about steady, focused progress with clear milestones towards a well-defined, quantifiable set of objectives that all stakeholders agree map to business objectives.

Those same characteristics are equally important in any change plan, regardless of the size of your organization or the desired/expected tempo of change. For one final word on this subject, watch the video (second from the left) of Mike Cisek, IT Director for Pitt Ohio.


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  1. Jay Fry at CA has some great observations about this topic as well: