Opinion: On-the-job seasoning of an IT pro

Like most IT managers, I always aimed to create a bottom-line impact through the use of technology, reduce the mystery surrounding IT and adopt standard business management techniques. Unfortunately, these efforts generally didn't have the intended result. Most CEOs still don't seem to grasp the potential of business transformation coupled with IT. But this is our fault as much as theirs.

What can we do to remedy this situation? The answer lies in training, but I'm talking about something more than a class for your business executives to learn how to use a spreadsheet. I'm talking about a widespread learning environment -- a culture of learning.

Of all the manufacturing and distribution firms I've worked for, only one successfully created a learning environment for all its senior managers that became the prism through which we managed staff and related to one another. This 100-year-old food-processing company has always believed that things should be done the right way. It doesn't shy away from change and feels that it's fair to ask new senior managers to learn about the company before directing their employees to follow them into uncharted waters. In fact, all employees learned the company culture by receiving on-the-job training.

New managers had to spend four months away from home, trimming and tying meat, coating poultry with spices, loading cooking trees, unloading metal containers of cooked product -- performing the majority of the most laborious jobs in the plant under demanding conditions for 10 hours each day. We ate our lunch with everyone in the cafeteria. All of our experiences were recorded weekly for peer review and suggestion.

I completed the hands-on training but didn't fully appreciate the lessons learned until one year later, when assembling an ERP request for proposals. My time on the factory floor helped me understand how those operations could benefit from a properly implemented ERP system. For example, line personnel wanted to see how their efforts in total production and scrap containment compared with those of other plants in order to promote best practices that worked; facilities managers dreamed of a global spare-parts inventory that could be queried using multiple word combinations, parts characteristics or parts dimensions to avoid unnecessary purchases and speed the right parts to a machine; and management wanted to know more about retail-store case temperatures and storage practices compared with our internal standards by using a passive data-gathering process that our distributors used. Having worked alongside all these people, I didn't have to guess what would be beneficial for them and provide value-add for the company.

But as I said, I've worked for only one company that pursued this sort of training. Still, I think all managers should understand the ins and outs of many of the routine procedures within their organizations and take the time to perform these tasks. If your company doesn't provide this type of training, ask your human resources director and your boss if you can help design a program. Then let others know what you're doing so that they begin to see the value of this sort of training. And carry this thinking into other areas; if a business re-engineering project is planned, for example, be sure to perform hands-on training beforehand.

In the end, you will be better able to identify and project the positive effects of IT because you will have a much clearer appreciation of your firm's true identity and what your users really need.

David Bowes has over 20 years of diverse customer-focused IT management and consulting experience. You can contact him at dbowes@optonline.net.

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