Human performance – the essence of IT effectiveness

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Effective IT leaders pay attention to four core organizational effectiveness “levers”: Business integration, process maturity, technical architecture, and human performance.

Ranked in order of importance, human performance comes first. Next comes human performance. Human performance comes after that, followed by human performance.

As evidence: Outstanding employees can overcome poor business/IT integration, while even the best-integrated IT organization won’t withstand poorly performing employees.

Top-notch employees can also overcome badly designed and implemented processes. The reverse is not true: No matter how good your process designs and management are, inept employees will cause them to fail.

The best technical architecture can, perhaps, limit the damage incompetent employees can wreak, but even that weak outcome is optimistic; meanwhile, “code gods” can overcome technical architecture that’s a complete mess.

No matter what your goals, strategies, hopes and vision, are, when it comes to getting the results you’re responsible for nothing comes close to the importance of how well the humans you’ve recruited, encouraged, coached, retained, and promoted perform.

As a leader and manager, it’s up to you to create an environment that fosters strong performance. Fostering it entails:

Leadership: In this context, leadership includes such techniques as listening (and especially organizational listening), followership, persuasion, and facilitation. Never fear – it also includes setting direction, but in this IT effectiveness model that’s covered under the IT/Business Integration banner.

Staffing and skills management: You need the right people, with the right skills. This entails effective recruiting, and treating employees as well after you’ve recruited them as you do while recruiting them. It also calls for training and education so staff bring the skills you need to the work they do.

Oh, and, by the way, “recruiting” really means “sourcing” – if you need a particular skill in the short term, but expect that need to go away, bringing contractors on board should be part of staffing as well.

Compensation and rewards: Designing compensation so it encourages strong performance and not perniciously embedded dysfunction isn’t easy. Here’s a link to get you started: “Poor Joe,” 10/22/2007.” To put a bow on it, constantly remind yourself of the role money plays in business communication. It isn’t an incentive, or a reward. It’s the company’s loudest voice, explaining what the company values most far more effectively than the best speechifying and executive charisma have to offer.

Organizational structure: The org chart, but not only the org chart. Beyond this are such elements as corporate infrastructure, key performance indicators and other corporate metrics, and accounting systems and what they inhibit or encourage.

Team dynamics: It’s rare for any employee to work in isolation. More often, employees work in teams, which is to say interdependence is the norm. Which is also to say business processes and practices are vulnerable to distrust among the team members who have to make them work.

Culture: We keep coming back to culture, and for good reason. Culture is how we do things around here, making some courses of action implicitly approved and others intrinsically unacceptable. Culture defines the social landscapes within which employees operate.

Beyond this, culture defines affinities and group memberships. In that guise, culture defines which teams are automatically trustworthy and which ones to view with suspicion no matter what they do.

Bob’s last word: The logic in favor of viewing human performance as the most important factor in driving organizational success is compelling. As stated earlier, it’s that great employees can overcome everything else, while poor ones can make failure unavoidable.

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether generative AI can replace human beings, much of it little more than whistling in the dark. Example: “Artificial intelligence cannot replace human talent and creativity, it can only mimic the human brain.”

Putting on my Captain Obvious hat, if generative AI can mimic the human brain then by definition if can replace what human brains can do.

The better news is something discussed less often – whether generative AI can mimic human initiative. Eventually it will; I’m hoping I won’t be around to see it when it does.

Bob’s sales pitch: Speaking of not being around when it does, it’s time. Looking at the level of correspondence, comments, and declining subscriptions, I’m declaring 2023 to be my victory lap. So if there’s a topic you’d like me to cover in KJR, let me know via the Contact form.

This week on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide: 7 IT consultant tricks CIOs should never fall for.” It’s about how many consultants fix what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed, plus 6 other common consulting misdeeds.

Comments (17)

  • This is one of your best. And I’ll be sorry not to receive it when you retire- I have enjoyed it immensely and forwarded many, many copies.

  • This is one of the only forums I’ve been following for more than a decade; and I keep learning from it. Your retirement from this forum will leave a hole.

  • Long time reader, rare time commentor – thanks for sharing your insights before, during, and after the blogging sensation. I’ll certainly miss your wit and wisdom.
    If it doesn’t cost you much, please consider moving from weekly to random, “when the spirit strikes” postings. I’m on a few lists like that. I’d love for you to continue to dole out your gems of wisdom as you see fit, but if you choose a complete retirement, you certainly deserve it!

    • Thanks for the compliment, and the suggestion. Don’t know if I’ll “go random” or not, but as an alternative (once I’ve stopped being weekly, that is), consider going to the Archives and clicking someplace random on the screen.

  • Thanks for years of good, thought-provoking reading! I have been a reader for many years and while I don’t always agree with your viewpoints, I have always appreciated them. I wish you all the best in the future!

  • I have been reading your columns and blog posts since the 90s. You’ve been the only “must read” during that time. You’ve sparked my thinking on many subjects. I appreciate your work. I like Robert’s suggestion of “when the spirit strikes.”

    Wishing you the best!

  • You, Tom Peters, and Bob Sutton are the most impactful authors on my professional life. Thank you for the articles, newsletters, and books. As a result, people think I am smart.

    An aside, your father’s films were legendary on my dorm floor in college.

    • Thanks, Greg. But I’m pretty sure you were smart already … until, that is, you and your dorm-mates watched Wizard of Gore. I figure that experience would have counteracted anything I might have brought to the table.

  • As others have said, I too am a long time reader and have found so many of your columns insightful. The fact that you can rerun them and they are still relevant 10 or 20 years later is masterful. I will miss them. However, ‘letting go’ is also often necessary and appropriate.

  • Two comments from a long time reader:
    In 2001 you wrote “But scientists can become as paralyzed as lawyers by the need for yet more data.” My wife recently had brain surgery. She casually asked the surgeon “Are you a perfectionist?” I think she was hoping for a “Yes, I am.” He thoughtfully replied at some length why during brain surgery is no time for worrying about perfection. Surgeons who were perfectionists just couldn’t deal with the unforeseen eventualities in the OR (His example was something like “My suture isn’t exactly where I want it. I should pull it out and redo while the patient bleeds to death.”). Or as I put it “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”

    Secondly, I have attributed to you for well over 20 years a quote that was above my desk whilst I worked “When dealing with the future, people need clarity not certainty.” It helped remind me that when I was asked those hard questions (“Are there layoffs coming?”), I seldom had any certainty but could add some clarity (“I haven’t heard anything.” or “Why are you asking?”).

    Thanks for the years of thoughtful engagement. I’ve wondered why/how you kept this up so long after I retired (15 years now!). I sort of thought of us as colleagues. I often mentioned you as one of my mentors in this crazy industry. You brought some sanity to my work life occasionally. (And I would be remis if I didn’t thank you for reasonable political asides which occasionally challenged me to not just believe that the “other” was awful – even if he was.) Blessings on your future years of not working hard!

    • Thanks, Phil. One of the stranger aspects of publishing for as long as I have is that readers like you remind me of material I’ve forgotten about. Now that you’ve reminded me, I’m delighted to get credit for it.

      So again, thank you!

  • It’s been a GREAT run, Bob! You definitely deserve to declare victory and enjoy…whatever. I’ve been a long-time reader since the early 90’s and really, really enjoyed spending time with you in person. I’ll miss these writings to be certain! Best wishes!

    • Kirk … if you’ve been reading my stuff since the early 90s, aren’t you about ready to retire as well?

      Either way, thanks much for the compliment. Very much appreciated.

  • Sorry/Happy to hear you’re taking the long break. I too have been reading you for 20+ years and enjoyed it immensely.

    Re: this week’s article and AI – I don’t believe AI will replace human talent any time soon either, but I think it WILL make bad or poorly designed systems more workable/resilient because AIs won’t be as prone to performing poorly (i.e.: not following the defined process). This, of course, presumes the AI is not poorly designed/implemented…

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      On the AI-building-systems front I keep wondering what the system documentation will look like for a system built by generative AI. Will it be what humans need to work on the system, or what another AI might need?

      Makes my head hurt.

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