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How your IT shop can become “self-actualized”



In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his hierarchy of needs in the paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow’s hierarchy, often depicted as a pyramid, illustrates that humans have essential psychological and physical needs that must be met in order to realize their maximum potential. At the base of the pyramid is a foundation of physiological needs such as water, food, air and sleep; the pyramid’s apex culminates with “self-actualization”: self-awareness, concern with personal growth, less concern with the opinions of others and interested fulfilling their potential). If you are not familiar with the theory, see this link for a good overview.


I have found that, in order for IT organizations to obtain the equivalent of self-actualization, which I call “strategic innovation and partnership,” certain basic needs must be met. Failure to do so will almost always prevent reaching the top of the pyramid. The overall concept is depicted in the accompanying graphic.


As one moves from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, the capabilities described move from mostly tactical to mostly strategic, from commodity services to industry/company-specific ones. Those at the bottom, because they tend to be more generic in nature, can be contracted out with a focus on the best quality of service for the best price. Those at the top are best performed by employees of the company, who have deep knowledge of the company’s strategies, business model and goals and who have their compensation and long-term incentives linked to company’s success. When fully implemented, the IT organization will likely have fewer employees but these will be of a higher caliber, have deep business knowledge and be focused on strategic innovation and high-quality service. Some of these basic concepts were described by Gartner more than 10 years ago in a model the firm described as IS Lite. Here is a description of the hierarchy starting from the bottom.


Routine operations and maintenance


This is the basic “blocking and tackling” that any IT group must get right. Sadly, many don’t and, as a result, find it difficult to progress beyond the reputation as a poorly performing service organization. To get this first stage right, the service desk must be responsive and staffed by competent, knowledgeable and responsive people. Too many organizations seek to “outsource the help desk” as a way of cutting costs. Focusing only on low cost here almost guarantees poor service, lack of credibility and staying stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. Never sacrifice quality for price here.


Likewise, routine operations and maintenance of data centers, networks etc. need to be invisible to the rest of the business. Traditional IT metrics such as uptime, network performance, etc. need to consistently meet or exceed service levels. From the standpoint of those outside of the IT organization, if asked about the company’s IT infrastructure their answer should be, “Their stuff always works and it is a good value.”


Incremental changes and upgrades


There are two items that IT organizations need to stay on top of in the second step if they wish to progress further. The first is process: managing changes and upgrades in a seamless manner that keeps software and virus protection current without causing major business disruptions in the process. The second is strategy: being proactive and having a clear and sensible plan to keep software and hardware up-to-date, balancing the need to be timely without being on the “bleeding edge” unless you are in an industry where bleeding edge is the norm. Believe it or not, I have recently spoken with people (perhaps you are one of them) at companies who are still running Windows 98 on their PCs. Falling this far behind impacts not only the IT group’s credibility but may impact business performance as well.


Several years ago, I was recruited to fix a poorly performing organization. One of the first things I found was that the average age of the company’s PCs was about five years (this was in the mid-1990s). The company’s philosophy was to give employees a PC and that it was to last the rest of their career! The net effect was that the machines simply couldn’t run the company’s software plus they frequently malfunctioned. The IT department looked incompetent when the problem was largely one of not proactively addressing refreshes of technology. Fixing this one was easy and did a lot to restore the organization’s credibility, not to mention reduce a lot of stress.


Emergencies and opportunities


I group these two together because the skills required to properly respond to both are basically the same. Both require the ability to quickly diagnose a situation, formulate a response, mobilize resources and execute the plan. All of this must be accompanied by good communications and follow-up. Organizations that develop the discipline to respond to both emergencies and opportunities with equal speed and competency gain further credibility as both competent problem-solvers and innovators capable of quickly and decisively responding to new business opportunities. I place emphasis on the word “and” because most IT groups are pretty good at emergencies but lack the ability to respond to opportunity. Why is this?


I believe that the problem usually lies in three areas:


  1. Self-image: Too often the IT group sees itself as an operational “service function” instead of as a critical contributor to business growth. This is a leadership issue that starts with the CIO, who must be a credible leader and must continually set the tone for how the organization responds to opportunity.
  2. Aversion to risk: Risk-aversion is a common malady among IT professionals and, consequently, among IT organizations. This is both a cultural and a leadership issue that must also start at the top. One of the first questions one must ask is, “What behavior do we consistently reward and what do we punish?” If mistakes are punished instead of treated as opportunities for learning and development, expect your staff to play it safe and shy away from trying anything new.
  3. Failure to recognize opportunity when it knocks: I addressed this in an earlier post, which can be found here.


Strategic innovation and partnership


At the apex of the pyramid resides the Holy Grail of IT performance, an organization that can both drive and enable strategic innovation and is viewed as a valuable partner throughout the organization. These organizations excel at all of the lower steps in the pyramid, which gives them the credibility and respect needed to rise to this level. How do you know when you are there? I suggest two ways.


First, look at the several maturity models in existence for IT performance. Commonly used ones are the CMM, CMMI and, more recently, Gartner’s IT Score. Organizations that reach levels 4 and 5 usually fit bill.


Second, if you are a CIO or senior IT leader, ask yourself this: When you talk with business leaders, what do you talk about? Is it the latest help desk fiasco, network outage or why you continue to use an obsolete operating system on your PCs? Or are you talking about how you and your organization can respond to opportunity?


Several years ago after beginning a job at a new company, one of the senior leaders asked me how I would know when I am being successful. I responded that when we talked we would be talking about the future instead of the present. That is a good benchmark.


Finally, the competencies needed by staff in order to perform at this level may be quite different. Begin preparing them now. Referring back to the diagram, internal staff need several key competencies.

To manage the top of the pyramid, competencies required include:

  • Business savvy
  • Innovative thinking
  • Talent development
  • Performance management


To manage the bottom of the pyramid, competencies needed include:

  • Vendor management
  • Metrics
  • Continuous improvement


The great football coach Vince Lombardi reportedly began every fall training camp by assembling all of the Green Bay Packer players, holding up a football, and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Lombardi was a great coach and his teams were winners because he understood the importance of mastering the fundamentals. The same applies to IT organizations. Get the fundamentals right and your organization, like Lombardi’s Packers, are on your way to becoming winners.


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Related links:

The CIO’s New Year’s resolution: A new year, a new you

CIO ethics check: 5 moral pitfalls to avoid


Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.

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