Improving the human system in IT

Managers of fast-paced information technology work environments often are so overwhelmed with their daily operations that little time is directed toward improving the human system within their IT environment.

Human systems fail when maintenance (performance measures, counseling, rewards) and upgrades (training, promotions, increased responsibilities, organizational changes) are not made part of the equation.

We maintain our networks and telecommunication systems to ensure that customers have constant connectivity. However, the human system required to maintain such operations must also undergo the same attention to detail.

Numerous books have been written with varying views about how leaders should approach the management of its human system. A favorite of mine is "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization," by Peter Senge. This book, published in 1990, presents five disciplines that can serve as catalysts for change in any organization. The information is ageless and can be applied today to bring about lasting and meaningful changes to any organization.

The five disciplines — personal mastery, mental modeling, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking — form "learning organizations." As described by the author, learning organizations embrace the human system. And like mechanical systems, they maximize the use of available assets to improve performance, productivity and customer support and services.

My interpretations of each of the five disciplines are provided below, along with some real-world examples.

Personal Mastery Personal mastery is about the person gaining valuable information through personal experiences and education and applying that life knowledge toward future personal growth. It is about gaining control of self, setting directions and mastering one's environment.

Leaders with strong personal mastery enable their organization to grow and take on a life of its own by bringing about a sense of trust and direction. The leader should be the fifth tire — always there but only called upon when needed.

Mental Modeling Mental modeling may be used to identify the perceptions and attitudes of members of an organization (leaders, managers, supervisors and employees) in many areas. Once mental models are known, leaders can work to affect negative mental models or to improve the positive views.

Mental models may be used to introduce innovative ways of doing business or to present new approaches to problem resolutions. As an example, the introduction of telecommuting into the workforce will require some changes in the "mental model" of leaders, managers, supervisors and employees. Some supervisors may perceive telecommuting as a degradation of their authority and have visions of employees "goofing off." Employees may view telecommuting as a way of improving family life and increasing productivity and one's contributions to the organization.

Systems Thinking Systems thinking brings about a view of the organization as a whole and how each "part" is closely tied to the "system." Employees who embrace systems thinking will look at their jobs from a broader view — how their contributions affect the organization. If one asks an employee what his job is, that employee may quote his job description. Ask the employee how his job fits into the "systems" view of the organization and you may get a blank look.

The Army Reserve Command chief of staff, Brig. Gen. John Yingling, directed each employee to create a "smart book" containing (among other things):

The vision, mission and goals of the command, the staff section and the individual. The person's job description. A personal briefing describing the individual's "job." The employee's support form. Samples of typical staff actions performed by the employee. This simple tool has increased the employee's level of awareness and created a greater understanding of how he or she fits into the overall "system" of the organization. Employees can make greater contributions if they knew how their "world" fits into the "universe" of the organization.

Team Learning Team learning is a discipline that some organizations placed into practice long before it became fashionable. Leaders can and should use teams to explore new ideas, create a sense of belonging, bring organizations together and empower groups of people to resolve critical issues.

Imagine an organization that takes its board members offsite to create the organization's vision statement and then returns to force-feed the vision to its employees. There is no sense of ownership, no buy-ins.

The Army Reserve deputy commanding general, Maj. Gen. Craig Bambrough, is effectively using team learning as a way of bringing about lasting change to the organization. His Strategic Planning Initiative Resulting in Teamwork, Transformation and Trust (SPIRIT3) campaign has been well-received by the employees of the organization.

Shared Vision Shared vision embodies an individual's personal and organizational vision and brings together those key elements to create a shared vision of the organization. Employees are encouraged to create their own vision (both personal and organizational) of the future and to share those visions with the organization. What better way to plot a highway (mission) for success if everyone who sees the shared vision also creates the road. A rocky road will imperil success, but a smooth road will make the trip a breeze.

In general, keep in mind that employees are willing to make changes in their work environment, but strong positive changes can occur best when employees become involved and share in the destiny of the organization.

Ramos is policy manager for the U.S. Army Reserve's Chief Information Office.

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