Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Short-handed and Resource Rich

Note: This is one in a series of blog entries exploring the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Director of Technology. Please be sure toread the whole series! 

"How many people on your staff?" I'd struck up a conversation with a technology director at the TCEA 2012 Conference. She was riding herd on Google Academy flyers and sign-in sheets, an exciting job that made her look like a shepherd without a flock since they'd all gone to attend workshops. "I'm the only one," she responded, "chief cook and bottlewasher."
"You mean you do the networking and the instructional stuff," I inquired incredulously, "all by your lonesome?"
"Yes," she replied. Her hard smile spoke of grim determination and commitment to a job well done. Of course, given there was no one else to complain about, no other staff members whose unhappiness kept them from getting the job done well, Louis L'Amour's quote in the mouth of his characters came to mind: One is stronger when he stands alone (a poor paraphase).

As I reflect on that chat with the tech director, I realize I forgot to ask the most important question of all--how do you do it?

The truth is, a part of me didn't want to know. I suppose I was sufficiently awed that any one person could be a technology demi-god--a position I turned down early in my career that paid, quite literally, less than a teacher making poverty line pay. Still, in the years I've been in edtech, one lesson has been driven home--A small team of tech-savvy individuals can accomplish quite a bit. The reason why is the technology itself makes data-collection, information/idea dissemination easy to accomplish. 

The image below was making the rounds on social networks near you--G+, Facebook--and when I imagine what life is like in organizations that are short-handed, resource-rich environments, I can't help but smile a bit.

In every organization I've been in, I've always been short-handed. You know, so much so that I wonder if it wasn't perfect training for the kind of world many of us have found ourselves living in as budgets are slashed and we're left trying to figure out how to implement. In these environments where a small team specializes to the nth degree, there's a danger that cross-training will fall by the wayside and we'll end up with the "tyrant competente," a made up term that describes a person like the one below:

An individual contributor is a person whose technical competence is judged in terms of singular rather than interdependent action. The more unique the individual output, the more powerful the person becomes. The overapplication of the technical paradigm by an individual can lead to a negative state called the tyranny of competence.
Source: Robert Quinn's Tyranny of Competence 
The tyranny of competence results when ONE person become THE person in the organization that can do stuff.  
“Knowledge was not meant to be locked behind doors. It breathes best in the open air where all men can inhale its essence.” ― Louis L'AmourThe Haunted Mesa
We have to ask ourselves, what do we do when key staff members supporting critical district systems your District has purchased and upon which it is dependent, leave or "play it close to the vest?" Each person's competence in a singular area--and no one else on the team who knew how to do something--puts Districts in this situation.

Often, Districts that find out a staff member is leaving will do the following:
  1. craft a transition plan,
  2. schedule a series of meetings to explore how, not what, this person was accomplishing what s/he had been tasked with doing.
  3. assign new roles to other staff and
  4. adjust the deadlines and expectations (usually, longer and down, respectively)
When we face "brain-drain" situations, when we have allowed people to become tyrants of competence, we have to remember to be grateful. Going forward, we can put the following in place:

  • Hire new staff that can 1) work as a team and 2) have the skills to be technically competent.
  • Change the culture of his remaining workers to ensure that the focus is on teamwork.
  • Establish a model of teaming and learning that does not make any one person a tyrant of competency.
But that's not enough. When you're short-handed, key personnel are gone, you have to pick up the pieces. You fundamentally have to learn how to rely on technologies and ways of communicating that differ from what you've done in the past that put you under the thumb of tyrants of competence.

In my own work, I see cross-training as an absolute must-do. If you have one person in charge of a massive system--such as a learning management system that tracks high quality professional development and is used for federal funding reports--then rotate the job among available staff. If you have a network gal who is the only one who can do network configuration, then you have to cross-train. "No" is not an acceptable answer...we must teach each other what we know so that when we get hit by a truck at a gas station, the organization won't be left scrambling to figure out what to do.
"The radical ideas of today are often the conservative policies of tomorrowand dogma is left protesting by the wayside." Louis L'Amour, The Walking Drum
Perhaps, more importantly, we need to consider what technology we have available to help us rethink out approach to the work we are about.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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