Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The IT Cross-Training Myth (That Never Dies)

I'm overdue for some deep technical stuff, but for now I need to express my pseudo-philosophical side a bit first.  I promise to post some geeky stuff soon, but in the meantime, drink some wine and ponder my stupidificationary tales of peculariarty...

(deeeeeeep inhale...... exhale.... and fart.)  let's start.

We've all heard "SMB" (small-to-medium sized business).  Then there's MLB.  That's medium-to-large sized business, not Major League Baseball.  Depending upon who's rule book you follow, that's anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 computers/user accounts at the bottom end, up to whatever.  In those types of "enterprise" environments, the IT staffing environment is often well-organized (on paper), and there are distinct structural lines of communication and command.  In most; not all, but let's keep moving.

Depending upon the budget situation, which tends to follow economic cycles and industry lines, the staffing may or may not be aligned to what (a) IS being done, and/or (b) NEEDS to be done.  When it's out of wack, it tends to go in one of two broad directions:

  • Too much staff, which is like a hammer looking for nails to pound, or,
  • Too few staff, where most of the real "worker-bees" are struggling to handle multiple distinct roles, let alone putting out daily fires.  

Regardless of which type of environment exists, there's often that tired, old, edict that gets spewed out from the suit gang like tropical storms spew from the western coast of Africa to become hurricanes:  "Cross-Training".

Not the kind that Nike sells.  I'm talking about the kind where you get pulled into a room and given a nice, puffy, soft, sweet-smelling speech about how everyone is going to magically learn what the other folks in their department/division/sector/team/workgroup/squad/platoon are doing.  Not just "learn" what they do, but HOW they do it, to the level (supposedly) where anyone (read: ANYONE) of the other IT staff could "fill-in" to address a crisis situation.  By the way, this speech usually comes with a fresh side order of seasoned fries and a request to start documenting all the stuff that you do every day (aside from slacking off).

I've been working in IT for about 35 years.  I have NEVER seen this plan work.  Never.  I've never even heard of it working.  I've poked my head into quite a few different, diverse organizations from private sector to government, from small to large, from education and medical, to municipal and industrial.  Nobody I have ever spoken with, emailed, IM'd or grunted at in a McDonald's serving line, has ever even heard of someone's cousin who lived next door to a friend who knew a lawncare person that grew up with the Uncle of the neighbor who drove the bus to the elementary school of the kid who heard about another kid that knew of someone who married the best friend of another friend who took violin lessons from a lady that heard of this EVER working as intended.


I have no doubt it's been tried with passion and desire; tried with extreme effort and intent.  I'm not saying the folks involved haven't given it their best shot either.  The problem is that the model itself is inorganic and doomed to failure.

A bee doesn't learn how to be a butterfly.  A dog doesn't learn how to be fish.  Sure, a dog can swim and a bee and fly from flower to flower.  Neither qualifies as filling the other's role however.  I'm sure some of you are laughing, scoffing, hrmph-ing and puffing too.  "This Dave guy doesn't know shit."  That may be true.  I do know about shit though.  In fact, I stepped in some today while throwing the ball with my son, but that's for another story.

The goal is often lost in this effort: To gain efficiencies from avoiding staff bloat, while mitigating dependence on individual staff skills and experience (read: holding the employer hostage). But when you shuffle a bloated staff, or distract an overwhelmed staff, it's like a quarterback throwing the ball out into the parking lot.

Here's the fundamental problem with the IT cross-training model:

In scenario (A) where there are too many staff for the jobs at hand, there's no gain because the staffing is still inefficient, and now even more inefficient because they'll never retain the results unless they make a permanent transfer.  Cost is being flushed down the financial toilet already.  All that this new approach does is swirl the turds the opposite direction (remember that stuff about north/south of the equator?).

Also, in scenario (B), which is much more common, by the way, the problem is rather obvious:  In order to take time to learn another role, you have to give up at least one (usually several) other roles; resulting in performance and quality lags. Each hour they're away from job number 1, the issues pile up, and the digging-out effort is geometrically scaled, at best.

Also, if the person really wanted to learn about job number 2, they would have already put in some effort or a transfer request to indicate as such.  Did anyone bother to correlate that with the cross-training mapping list?  I doubt it.

Let's say you are one of those in an under-staffed IT shop, and your official duties include AD accounts management, password resets, group maintenance, and the usual admin toiletries.  Meanwhile, your real daily tasks include WSUS, GPO's, dealing with server issues, networking issues, firewall issues, backup issues, patching, patching and more patching, the ever-exciting application conflict and prerequisite horrors, tracking licenses, tracking inventory and don't forget...... DO-CU-MEN-TA-SHUN.  Which nobody has time for (unless you work in scenario A of course).

Ah, the smell of documentation.  That whole "operationalize" stuff.  It smells like, like.... like.... victory.  Oh wait, that's the stuff I stepped in earlier.  Never mind.

So, now you're told to drop all that you normally do for a day to go sit beside the foul-smelling person who handles the firewall and web filtering stuff, and learn about what they do all day.  Or maybe it's the storage folks, or the InfoSec folks, or the application developers (they have great coffee you know), or the tier 1 desktop support shop (the best place anyone could dream of, right?).  You've ignored your normal stuff for a whole day.  Nice.

Then you come "back" to your old, coffee-stained, scratched and dented desk, with that same Dilbert calendar page pinned on the cube wall, and you've got two days of backlogged problems to work through. Your desk phone message light is also blinking.  You may want to check that.

Meanwhile, all that stuff you took notes about (you did take notes, right?) is gradually fading from your brain.  After another day of yet more small tasks and a few bigger ones, some sports chatting, a couple of meetings and phone calls, it all starts to slip further and fuuuurrrrtheerrrrr away.  By the next Monday, you're right back into your regular routine.

In short time, you can barely spell the job title of the other person you sat beside and the note pad is stained with coffee rings and covered in more papers.  Net gain?  Zero.

Sure, there's potential.  It's not quantifiable by any means though.  I've yet to find one analyst who can show me a concrete example where this concept has played out to anyone's measurable gain.  The only gains I've ever seen are perceptual (it sure feels good to ignore the usual pains for a day or two, and management gets to say they've "executed" another process improvement plan.  they love that "execute" word don't they?).

It's a nice, easy to sell, easy to grasp idea.  But like peace in the Middle East, it just never seems to happen.  I mean, come on: How hard can it be for two people to sit and talk through their differences and just get along?  Hmmmm?  After all, the stakes are so much higher, it has to be more likely to work itself out than dealing with your silly little IT staffing challenges.  Right?

Every time I sit through another meeting where this topic is raised, it reminds me of how my parents used to look at the "latest teen sensation" and moan and roll their eyes.  Then I hit 40, and then 50 and realized what they were seeing.  It's the same old thing, wrapped in newer terminology and a prettier PowerPoint slide deck.  It's not a pig.  It's a pig with lipstick this time!!  Yeah!

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