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Everything you need to know about IT teams
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Computer “nerds” may have a reputation for working in isolation in garages and basements, staring at monochrome screens and flashing cursors, living off pizza and avoiding all interactions with the outside world. While this may be the stereotype, it is not the norm for IT professionals. Information technology is a team sport. Working as an IT team allows brilliant individuals to create remarkable systems, processes, solutions and results. IT teams are typically small groups of practitioners who are able to develop, deploy and maintain large-scale systems to keep modern businesses running.
Every IT team is different, based on the culture and needs of its company, the experience and skills of the team members and the types of systems on which they are working. Some IT teams are technology generalists, working with a wide range of systems and services. Other IT teams are specialists, focusing on specific technologies (such as networking or Web services) or a specific type of system (sales support, manufacturing, logistics, etc.). Some IT teams only focus on technology, while others may include data specialists or analysts with deep business-process experience. IT teams are successful because they are the right group people to overcome whatever challenge is presented to them.
While each IT team is unique, there are a few common reasons why IT teams are formed. Some IT teams are permanent, while others exist for a temporary period of time to achieve a specific outcome, and are then disbanded.
These teams are focused on operating technology infrastructure (such as networks, data centers and Web services), monitoring them and ensuring services and systems are available and performing normally to support business operations. These teams are often called IT service management (ITSM) teams and their main objective is to keep the IT ecosystem up and running. Operations teams are permanent and frequently sophisticated monitoring and command-center-type infrastructure support them.
These teams are assembled to solve a specific problem, implement a system or make a change. Projects are, by definition, temporary endeavors, so once the project is completed, it is common for the team to either disband (with team members assigned elsewhere) or the entire team to be transitioned to a different project. IT project teams are typically focused on a single release or group of releases, but very rarely “own” a system once it goes live.
These teams are similar to both operations and project teams. IT support teams are permanent, which (like operations teams) execute IT service management functions to help keep business operations up and running smoothly. The work of these team is also similar to project teams as they also address specific problems. IT support teams are often thought of as an operations team assigned to complete many mini-projects each day.
These teams (also sometimes known as IT business-support teams) are permanent and tasked with owning, managing and improving the IT systems of a specific business process. These teams are often staffed with analysts, project managers and data experts and partner with project teams to deliver specific outcomes.
The specific roles and responsibilities of an IT team depend on the team’s assignments. Some IT teams are assigned to drive specific project outcomes while others are responsible for delivering long-term productivity and profitability of business processes. All IT teams have some similarities though. The primary purpose of any IT team is to help deliver business outcomes, so business staff members don’t have to become technology experts. IT teams manage the technology, so the business staff can focus on business activities. Some of IT teams’ common roles include:
IT teams are different from business-process teams in that they are staffed with technology experts and people who are specialists in understanding how technology can be applied to enhance business performance.
Many IT teams are data stewards for their organizations. Since business data is increasingly stored and managed in IT systems, IT teams are often best positioned to understand the company’s data, how it relates to other data and the data’s use.
One of the primary activities of IT teams is using technology to automate business processes. Process automation involves understanding the business processes as well as the technology and adapting system workflows to integrate with the activities of the business staff.
Most business processes rely on more than one IT system to be successful. IT teams are typically responsible for developing, operating and maintaining integrations between the company’s IT systems as well as with 3rd party systems and services.
IT teams are the stewards of the company’s portfolio of technology investments. Not only are they responsible that systems are operating properly to keep the business running, but also manage the total cost of ownership of IT systems and make technology-lifecycle decisions.
Companies invest an enormous amount of time and money to implement IT systems. To ensure a maximum return on that investment, IT teams must continuously maintain and upgrade systems to keep them current and help them evolve to accommodate changing business needs.
IT systems are a critical part of company operations. IT teams are assigned not only to build and run these systems but also to keep them secure. Assessing, managing and mitigating security vulnerabilities and technology-related risks are important parts of the IT team’s job.
Most IT systems include some sort of 3rd party components. Telephony infrastructure, cloud services and 3rd party software are common in most business environments. The IT team is not only responsible for providing service assurance on these systems, but also managing and facilitating relationships with external technology suppliers and support teams.
This is perhaps the most visible role of IT – fixing technology systems when they malfunction. IT teams often provide helpdesk, field support and incident-response services to address technology disruptions.
As a company’s technology environment expands, so does the size of its IT organization. Many different organizational-design models can work within IT; however, it is most important to ensure each IT team (and sub-team) has a clear scope of responsibility and authority to make decisions about the resources they deploy and the technologies they implement. Here are some examples of typical IT team organizational structures, one of which may be how your IT department is organized:
This organizational structure was one of the first IT-team constructs and was the default organizational structure during much of the 1990s. It is essentially a hierarchical organizational structure and classified by technology area, for example, a networking team, a data center team, a database team and a Web team.
This organizational structure was developed in support of large platform systems, such as ERP, HRM and CRM systems that became popular during the early 2000’s. In this organizational structure, IT teams are aligned to business-process functions and serve as a semi-, self-contained IT organization for that business unit.
Complex IT projects often require resources from multiple disciplines, and with a variety of skills and experience. Since project teams are temporary, companies often employ matrix-management approaches, wherein project resources remain aligned to a primary organizational structure (business- or technology-aligned) and are assigned to project teams which may be coordinated with other parts of the IT organization.
The digital transformation of business and the increase in integration of technology services and business processes has led many IT teams to consolidate with business-process teams. These hybrid business/IT teams often contain both business-process experts with little technology experience as well as technologists and data experts.
Collaboration technology and the wide availability of broadband Internet access has reduced the need for IT teams to be co-located to be effective. Virtual teams are common within the IT industry, enabling companies to leverage both specialized experts and low-cost technology resources from around the globe. Virtual teams are particularly effective for short-term project efforts where team members are also responsible for continuing their day-jobs.
PMOs are centralized organizational structures designed to provide governance, coordination and centralized decision-making across distributed IT organizations. PMOs often drive such activities as budgeting, release planning and risk management where a high degree of cross-functional coordination is required.
Centers of Excellence (CoE) is an organizational structure used in combination with other IT teams’ structures (such as business-aligned teams or matrix-project teams) as a way of capturing, developing and sharing best practices across the organization. CoEs promote controlled innovation without the risk of autonomous IT teams developing inconsistent ways of working.
IT projects are temporary endeavors and are designed for a firm conclusion and then the disbanding of the IT team. This can cause challenges for career planning and human-resource management if there is not a structured plan for reassigning resources. A common approach is to organize IT resources into standing teams that move as a unit from project to project. When one project is completed, the entire team transitions to the next assignment.
Derived from consulting business models, some companies organize IT resources into pools based on job disciplines. When projects and other IT needs arise, resources are pulled from the bench and assigned to an engagement. When the effort is completed, the resource returns to an unassigned state and is reallocated elsewhere.
Global companies often structure a portion of their IT organization as localized teams aligned to specific geographic regions. This is particularly prevalent in situations where language, cultural factors or regulatory requirements necessitate a localized presence. Geographically-aligned teams are often used in combination with centralized IT-team structures, PMOs and CoEs to facilitate global standards and minimize IT costs.
Since 2009, many IT teams have been organized according to Agile and Scrum methodologies, which promote the use of small, self-organized teams. Some companies have attempted to implement Agile and Scrum methodologies within the context of existing IT organizational structures and found it culturally difficult. Implementing Agile or Scrum often requires a reorganization of both resources and changes to operational processes.
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The disciplines found in an IT team are often as diverse as the charter of the team itself. While the team may be perceived as being a group of technologists, many of the job disciplines of people working in IT are now non-technical. They include a blend of business and operational expertise targeted at helping the IT team deliver outcomes that have maximum impact on the business functions being supported.
Project managers – Coordinate team member activities.
IT teams do not use one standard set of processes, because IT teams may have a wide variety of assignments requiring different sets of processes. Companies may also define a set of corporate standards with which all IT teams must comply to ensure, for example, centralized decision-making, portfolio management, risk management, information security and service assurance. It is most important for each IT team to establish and define a set of processes that can guide the activities of individuals on the team and ensure the team’s resources are utilized effectively and efficiently. There are 3 sets of standard IT processes that most teams use as a starting point for process development and all IT professionals should be familiar with them.
The basic construct of a software development lifecycle has been known for decades and is the starting point for the processes in most IT teams. Although its name implies it is only for software development, some variant of the SDLC is used as the underpinning structure for developing IT systems and services of all technology types. The SDLC is a process framework focused on developing new IT capabilities. These could be entirely new systems or changes to existing systems.
The SDLC starts with some sort of need or opportunity and ends with the fulfilment of that need through some type of technology capability. The SDLC is a series of activity stages intended to capture and clarify the need and develop appropriate technology responses.
Each of the stages includes a group of activities that are performed with the objective of moving the unit of work to the next stage. The SDLC is closely related to what is commonly known as “waterfall-project-management” methodologies, however, it is also supportive of modern Agile methods. It is important to understand the SDLC isn’t used as a prescriptive set of tasks, but rather to provide the IT professional with a general idea of how business needs are translated into IT capabilities through the activities of IT teams.
The IT infrastructure library is one of the most widely recognized and adopted process frameworks within the IT industry. While the SDLC is focused on driving change (in the context of projects), ITIL is focused on driving value to the organization through the operation of IT systems and services. Similar to the naming confusion with the SDLC, the name ITIL should also not be interpreted as constraining its use only to IT services. ITIL can be used to manage business services and hybrid business/IT services as well. Much has been written about the origins and history of ITIL, but for the IT practitioner, it is most important to understand ITIL is essentially a continuous-improvement cycle (a derivation of the Deming cycle).
The ITIL framework consists of a series of 5 life cycle stages that are executed in a continuous loop. While the stages are often numbered in the following order, most IT service-management professionals recommend thinking of continual-service improvement as the starting point for ITIL-related efforts.
SDLC and ITIL processes clearly overlap, as do the activities of different IT teams within an organization. While it may be tempting to try and combine them into a single methodology, very few IT teams are assigned to manage the end-to-end service lifecycle. ITIL is an important tool for scoping the effort of an IT team and determining what types of processes are needed, so the team successfully achieves its goals.
During 2004, understanding the SDLC and ITIL would have been enough for most IT professionals to recognize the role of their IT team and how they fit into the bigger picture. The developing popularity of Agile methods is changing the IT process landscape. SDLC and ITIL frameworks were both designed to optimize the holistic activities of the entire IT organization of a company, not the activities of an individual team. Agile methods (including Scrum and SAFe, for example) promote the premise that IT teams are more effective by focusing on smaller chunks of work, leveraging self-organizing teams and delivering changes more frequently. Instead of separating duties, Agile methods provide IT teams with a high level of autonomy to define their own processes and ways of working – customized to their unique team dynamics and team goals.
Agile methods are modernizing the way IT teams operate. The Agile Manifesto is a good place to start to learn about Agile, but it isn’t a prescriptive set of processes. Agile should be considered as a set of principles for how and where to leverage existing frameworks, such as SDLC and ITIL, and where to customize to achieve peak IT team effectiveness and efficiency.
Modern IT teams, like the businesses they support, can benefit significantly by using technology to orchestrate processes, manage data, facilitate stakeholder and team interactions and track work in progress. The types of systems an IT team needs will vary based on its size/scale, the purpose of the team and the need to interact with others. A small IT team may only need a few basic capabilities, while the IT department of a major, multi-national enterprise may require large and robust tools and systems to support the IT function. Some of the key tool capabilities that IT teams use are:
Ticketing systems –Used for tracking user requests, support issues, requirements and tasks that must be performed. Ticketing is the core system IT teams need to perform support functions.
IT functions are a critical part of any modern business. They manage the company’s technology investments. They manage the data that informs decision-making. They defend the company from information-security risks and they enable the company to evolve with changing business needs. IT teams are at the core of what makes this function successful in fulfilling its chartered purpose. IT teams provide a context for highly-skilled individuals to work together, share ideas and collaborate on the wide breadth of activities required to build, evolve and operate a company’s IT systems.
IT teams may have a general charter, performing activities, such as service operations, or have been established for a specific purpose (such as implementing a new software). The job disciplines of IT team members may be technical, or they may be business-oriented. IT teams leverage existing process frameworks, such as the SDLC, ITIL and Agile methods, and support those processes with tools and software that help team members work well together. What makes IT teams unique is their common focus on using technology to improve business productivity and performance.
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