Modern IT Organizations - a simple model for reasoning about digital transformation

 

Author: Brian Duffy, Technical Consultant, Ammeon Solutions

In the beginning, when I started working as a RedHat (RH) partner in 2016, I was very focused on Kubernetes and Openshift. The micro-services paradigm, with applications deployed as independent services, in containers, and orchestrated on a highly available platform (PaaS) was just ground-breaking to me. Applications can be deployed and modified faster, components are managed independently as services, so modification is easier, deployment procedures are simpler and the software development life-cycle (SDLC) process can better standardized. On the infrastructure side, because many applications are hosted on the same platform, hardware utilization naturally increases. This translates into real reductions in operating costs for an organization. I was a software developer at the time and this was a huge deviation from the status quo. I wanted to learn as much about distributed containerization platforms as possible.

The past 3 years of my life have been spent working with different Red Hat customers across EMEA. Most of these have been banks or some other form of financial organization. I was invited to speak at the Red Hat Partner Conference 2019 about my experience so far. But when I was preparing for the talk, it occurred to me I couldn’t really define what “Digital Transformation” is? I had some nebulous ideas. I knew it was about increasing efficiency through automation, eliminating manual-error, increasing productivity, reducing operating costs to name a few. But it is not about deploying the same technology solution everywhere either. “Different strokes for different folks” as the saying goes. The solution needs to fit the use cases of the organization. This triggered and internal dialogue that went something like this.

Fig 1. Adapted from [1] and based on [3]; Harold J. Leavitt “Applied organizational change in industry structural, technological and humanistic approaches” 1962

Fig 1. Adapted from [1] and based on [3]; Harold J. Leavitt “Applied organizational change in industry structural, technological and humanistic approaches” 1962

 
 

🤔“I think I’m doing digital transformation. But what does that mean? What’s getting transformed? The entire organization I guess? So I guess I must be facilitating digital transformation by helping people access new technology to automate processes. That means that consultants and solution architects need to work closely with domain experts to identify use cases for automation. So what is an organization exactly?”

A dictionary definition of an organization is “an organized group of people with a particular purpose”. I heard the maxim “People, Processes and Technology” repeated around the office many times. Fig 1 shows a Venn Diagram [5] that encapsulates the relationship between these three organizational components.  

At the core of this diagram is data. The goal or the focus of the organization could occupy this space. But data is what drives modern IT organizations business decisions, development and strategies. Usually these strategies involve scaling on some dimension, either maximizing or minimizing where appropriate. In an industry where data usage is highly regulated, there are many processes designed to protect the bank that are traditionally manual and slow. A process is standardized work. This prevents people reinventing the wheel and makes work reproducible and consistent. The next logical progression when manual work is a standardized process is to automate. Failure to comply with these processes can result in outages, loss of business, or expensive fines from the regulator. This makes banks particularly risk averse, slow to change, and slow to adopt new technology. This can make innovation difficult and scaling tricky. To add to the complexity, organizational hierarchies in banks are deep as opposed to flat structures found in more agile organizations.

Resistance to change is partially a function of strong group forces and partially a function of individual frustration. People become attached to technology and processes over time, especially if the processes are manual, the technology is highly specialized, or a great deal of time and effort has been invested in developing in house solutions. If emotional human resistance is the real barrier to change then acceptance of ideas is the real carrier of change. How do you change an organization? How do persuade people to open their minds to new ideas and accept change? 

People-centric approaches to organizational are the most effective approach. The earliest reference I could find was the T-Group methodology developed in 1953 by the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science (NTL) [3]. It emphasises power-equalization, giving equal power to the changer and the changee, to set goals, to make decisions, communicate, etc. These concept of power-equalization appears agile with its flat structure everyone is a developer style, and lean [6], where a culture of continual learning and improvement is encouraged. Two important psychological concepts for the basis of the people-centric approach; 

  1. Applied Group Dynamics [4] - lecture format, where a single individual is communicating to a group leaves the audience passive and unimpressed, while discussions, a group based activity, is active and pressing.

  2. Client Centred Therapy [2] - applied to groups, where members of the group are given autonomy to set the goals and direction of sessions in a collaborative way. The group is facilitated by an enabler who behaves in a permissive, supportive and non-directive way. 

If this sounds a bit familiar that’s because you might have read about or participated in the Red Hat DO500 course [7] or a residency in a Red Hat Open Innovation Lab.

The lab group based approach usually takes place with a small cross section of an organization off site. According to Leavitt [3] there was more work to be done in assessing the efficacy of off-site labs in disseminating power-equalization methods to organizations when the group participants returned to their role within their organization. It would be interesting to develop objective measures and gather quantitative data to study the effects and compare it to on-site labs and customized consulting engagements tailored to digital transformation.

How did we get from Kubernetes to psychotherapy? I ended up in consulting because of the technology. But for me the technology is the least complicated part of the job. I learned that one changes the world by changing people. Or at least, one can change an organization by;

  1. Changing people by helping them change themselves 

  2. Developing more collaborative efforts between the changer and the change

I realize this is trite. But at least it’s backed up by the literature.

If you would like to know more about Red Hats Open Innovation Lab or Red Hats DO500 course, Please contact Brian and our consulting team on consulting@ammeonsolutions.com

References

[1] Bilyana Anicic “GeoIgnite: Digital Transformation Beyond Buzzwords”, 09.04.2019

[2] C. R. Rogers “Client Centered Therapy”, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951

[3] James E. March (Editor), “Handbook of Organizations”, 1965

[4] M. B. Miles, “Learning how to work in groups”, New York: Teachers College Columbia University, 1959

[5] John Venn "On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings" in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 1880

[6] James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, “Lean Thinking”, 1996

[7] DO500 - DevOps Culture and Practice Enablement