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September - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Finding-and-nurturing-'T-shaped-people'
L Gopalakrishnan
Monday, September 3, 2007
Introduction

Traditionally, ‘high performance teams’ has been synonymous with ‘teams with good HR practices’ in management parlance. Organizations talk about team bonding, alignment, and the need for a healthy manager-employee relationship as some of the building blocks for creating high performance teams. While all the traditional HR-centric theories still hold good, there is a new dimension that is evolving. That is the concept of ‘technology foundations’ for high performance teams. This theory is fast evolving and organizations need to take note of it to continue to succeed in today’s competitive world.

The need for Technology Foundations

Let me first mention a few global phenomena that are making ‘technology’ a necessity in high performance teams. Till recently, India was known for low cost IT labor. Quality and reliability were not words people, in those days, associated with Indian IT talent. That, however, has changed rapidly and now India is renowned for quality and predictable deliveries. India is the crucible for world’s software and that does not surprise us any more. But given this background, there is an inherent desire among Indian companies to move up the value chain. This is true with product as well as service companies. There has been an increasing demand from customers to value add to the solutions that are provided. Not only should the solutions be fundamentally enriching, they should also be applicable directly to the customer scenario. So, irrespective of the type of the company, the need exists for a higher level of contribution. ‘Innovation and global leadership’ are two necessities in the game to contribute at a higher level.

Whether it is the need for more innovation or a need to lead global programs, the essential ingredient is ‘technology’. To innovate, teams obviously need a good technology footing, which is understandable. But interestingly, even global leadership in programs needs more technology foundations. It is ‘knowing and leading’ that works well today, as opposed to blindly leading.

Mindset

Based on my experience in the industry and my personal experiments and successes, I give here a few tips that will help create good technology foundations that aid us evolve and sustain high performance teams. The first of these is the need for a shift in the minds of all executives in the IT companies in India. They have to work towards high productivity that equals that of a typical IT person anywhere else in the world. This demand for high caliber equivalence in productivity and the desire to contribute at higher levels will automatically push teams in the direction of technology foundation, global thoughts, and leadership.

Assessing the technology foundation areas

Given that goal, how should teams go about developing those technology foundations? The leadership in any team needs to first determine the technology areas where it wants mastery. In development-oriented groups, we need niche technology skills that include operating system knowledge and programming languages among other things. Examples could be Linux, Windows, J2EE and C. There is also a need for domain or product knowledge, especially in service companies. Examples are, knowledge of banking domain, knowledge of Peoplesoft products. There are several emerging technology areas that a group may need to have knowledge in. Some examples are emerging trends around virtualization, latest middle ware concepts and technologies; and storage technologies. There is also a need for knowing several standards in the industry that need to be applied at work. Thus, ‘technology’ is a huge list and the first priority in any high performance team is to determine the ‘list of technologies’ that are applicable to them. There could also be unique requirements in certain areas. For example, in some parts of what I am working on in Oracle, we need what we call ‘T-shaped people’. That is, people who know both breadth and depth, which is a big challenge. The complexity of creating the technology foundations is directly proportional to the technology set that the team needs.

Creating the ‘Technology Foundations’

There are three aspects to look at when it comes to creating ‘technology foundations’, viz., nurturing, augmenting, and retaining the technology foundations. In any group the existing technology capabilities are to be measured first. That needs to be compared with the list of technologies the team needs. This will arm the management team with a list of technology areas that are ‘gaps’ on the floor.

Nurturing or breeding knowledge around these areas calls for a multi-pronged approach. At a starting level, training programs need to be created around common areas and the list of such programs published to all employees so that each of them can make use of what he or she needs. There could be some select workshops to which employees can be sent. These two help as good starters but they are not sufficient. Frequent technology presentations within the group will help creating a baseline on the tech areas. The presentations could be as frequent as weekly, and could be presented by engineers themselves or external guest (tech) speakers. There may also be a need to let senior engineers in the group to interact frequently. Forums may have to be created to help that communication. As teams mature, it may be a good idea to create ‘architecture councils’ where top technologists from within the group will brainstorm and arrive at solutions and design them in a succinct way. I call this the ‘3-tier approach’ that covers engineers, senior members, and top end techies in the group. The management team of the group needs to design these structures and provide necessary budget too. Individual managers need to factor these times as ‘learning times’ in their project plans so that employees can accommodate the forum activities.

Nurturing is a long drawn process and it takes some times even a couple of years for teams to attain a good level on ‘technology foundations’. An alternative and quick way for the same is to hire high-end technology professionals with expertise on specific areas that the group may be looking for. Finding good technologists is a difficult job, but it is not impossible. Interestingly, there are some experienced people from other countries, who want to work in India, especially in Bangalore, since it is the ‘happening place’. Though rare, it is worthwhile looking for such people. Some experienced people want to be managers and do not want to serve as technologists. But there is a growing and encouraging trend among engineers to choose to remain on the technical side. Organizations should put in place a system to nurture these technical people and help them move up the technology ladder.

While the above two approaches will help create the technology foundations in your teams, there is a strong need to create an atmosphere where it is sustained. Creating challenging opportunities for top performers is a must. Such opportunities serve to motivate the engineers. The reward and recognition schemes should give technologists their due share and attention. H.R. should work hand-in-hand with the business team to create reward and recognition schemes and ensure that they are well understood by all employees. Good technologists need to be encouraged to present papers in good external forums or participate in standards committees. An atmosphere of ‘innovation’ should be created among the groups, encouraging them to come out with original technology ideas. In the group that I handle in Oracle, we have a forum called ‘R&D Forum’ which encourages people to come out with creative technology ideas. Such measures help sustain the technology foundations that are created in high performance teams.

Clearly, creating and sustaining technology foundations in high performance teams is not a simple matter. It calls for good analysis, good plans, and smooth execution methods that are supplemented by good measures to identify and select the necessary technologies. It is a lot of hard work, but my experience says that it is worth as it gives the high performance teams a competitive advantage in this flat world.

He can be reached at gopalkrishnan.lakshmi@oracle.com
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