The Perfect IT Department
Go find an IT department manager and ask them what the perfect IT department looks like. They usually come up with statements involving silos, and change control. A good manager will even show you their long term plan and reference some frameworks. There is nothing wrong here, the question is very hard and the solution is not easy. To further understand this you may need to talk to another person. If possible someone who has been in the department actively for more than 15 years. Chances are what you will find is an employee who transitioned into the job from somewhere else in the company. There is a good reason for this.
IT departments are young
20 years ago I had the choice between a degree in computer science or one in a new field called "Management Information Systems" That was it, no other IT degrees such as networking or security.
Fourteen years a go we didn't have YouTube, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
Ten years ago in IT our biggest struggles were surrounding blackberries and their integration. The cloud had just been launched but was just another fringe technology. No one even knew the term BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).
Today, new opportunities are arriving with names like hyper-converged and shadow IT. With these problems it is not uncommon for an IT resource to be hired for a one skill and find themselves doing something completely different in a few years because their skill is obsolete.
The Magic Bullet
The rapid growth and very young field has left us with a bit of a tech soup to sort through. Given this state, how are CEOs and business owners supposed to build that dream department when the underlying job functions are shifting so quickly? With Sr managers so rare in IT we turn to managers who have been successful in other areas of the company. However, by poaching from other departments we risk the Peter principle. Unfortunately in IT we see this a lot. But it does work out often enough that companies keep risking it. At first these managers may try to apply the same tactics as their old department. These managers are good at their jobs and quickly find out that the same tactics do not apply in IT. Senior members of the department struggle advise the manager. However, the tech landscape has changed drastically from when were on the ground floor. So everyone does their best and start looking at other companies for successful recipes to build their IT department. These recipes are known as frameworks in the IT world.
They will discover many different ones, the first few will be the intimidating ITIL and ITSM; each with child philosophies that have broken out over the years. They may look for flexibility with Agile and Lean IT; which attempt to take a more fluid approach to IT. If they are lucky they might even find a company that fully implements one of these solutions.
This is the dirty secret of most IT departments. We go to conferences and talk to peers and fellow executives afraid that someone will find out that our department is an absolute mess. Then we have a few drinks and talk about what really is going on and find that we are all in the same situation.
OK, enough with the doom and gloom. What can we do about this? I think the better question is: What is wrong with it?
We are young as a field but are trying to apply metrics and standards from disparate fields. Frameworks are a great idea but does it work for every department in the same way? The answer here is a resounding no. You have to look at what your company does and the opportunities facing it. Creating the ideal department isn't as simple as looking at a framework, slamming it into place with a nice five year plan and voila you have the perfect IT department.
I have worked with many IT departments and have attempted to sort out what was best. But I was stuck on a simple question: "How do you define an IT department?" Do they need to have two employees or a hundred? Maybe it only counts as a department when they hit a thousand. Does working with a department count consulting?
I have seen many theories around proper change control, culture development, and silo breakdown. They are all great ideas and work great in many situations but companies are unique and so are solutions. So how do we even begin to get a handle on things?
Devising the perfect IT strategy is much like cooking the perfect chili. There are a thousand and one ways to cook chili. It is the mutt of the cooking world. We all love it but no two recipes are quite the same. The best chef can make you a bowl and it will taste just fine but it won't win every workplace chili cook-off. Some people like red, others like white, some swear by ground beef and others by shredded. Then you have chicken and veggie chili which are great in their own right.
The point is, if you like white chili and it tastes great it doesn't mean you are a failure because your chili is not red like the competition's standard. A personal chef might ask you what you like, and compile something special just for your palate. This is a real treat if you ever get the chance to have a personal chef.
Translate this to running a IT department. Stop trying to follow recipes exactly. Do more taste testing. Finally, what you really need is a personal chef who will work with the ingredients they have and perfect them. It may be that your company has a great recipe that is well loved but could use a little less salt and more spice. Sometimes you have a bad ingredient that needs to be dealt with. It could also be that everyone hates the current recipe and something new is needed. It takes a personal chef to determine what direction you are able to go in.
To sum up, the perfect IT department is the one which has a chef who can adapt to the current landscape while keeping the flavor that makes the company great. A fair warning though, don't take a master mechanic and expect them to cook.