Is your IT department scalable?

Software deployment and hardware implementation aren't the only parts of the IT department that should be designed with scalability in mind. Growing the department also involves the human factor – and the way the IT staff is structured and the way its members work together can determine whether growth comes easily or with great difficulty.

When we think of scalability, we tend to think about hardware and software, but the capacity to grow up and out always applies to your organizational model and personnel structure. The problem with many small-company IT departments--along with sales, accounting and other departments--is that, much like the network itself, they "just grow that way."

In fact, most IT departments start out as one person, and in many small companies, that person doesn't necessarily have formal training or even a lot of expertise with computers and networking. Often IT duties get placed on the shoulders of an employee whose "real job" (i.e., primary responsibility) is something else. Often this is whoever in the company knows the most about computers (and often the level of his or her knowledge is "just enough to be dangerous").

As long as the company stays small, the number of users is low and networking needs are relatively simple, this can work, after a fashion. The resident "computer expert" handles small problems and consultants are hired for larger or more complex jobs. The problems occur when the company outgrows this model.

Creating a scalable department structure

It’s not surprising that when a company reaches the point of needing a full-time network administrator--usually when they decide to give up the workgroup networking model and implement a domain, or when they decide to host their own mail server, web server, etc.--the person who’s been handling those duties on a part-time basis may be offered the job. After all, this person is familiar with the company’s policies, hardware and software, and users. And he/she may have learned a good bit about networking through the trial and error process of taking care of things on a part-time basis.

Bringing in an outsider has the potential to create new problems: a newcomer may be less familiar with your way of doing things and could "shake things up" among your employees. On the other hand, building the department from the ground up with qualified professionals is likely to make it easier to grow the department in the right way later on, as your needs dictate.

Accountability and division of administrative responsibilities

The most common problem that occurs when a one-person department needs to expand is the difficulty that person may have in delegating both tasks and responsibility. An IT person who’s used to doing it all may not want to let go of absolute control over IT decisions, but as the organization and network grow, it’s necessary to divide responsibilities among different people.

One reason is that the workload will eventually become too heavy for one person, but that’s not the only reason. Division of responsibilities can also protect the company and provide for more accountability. If there’s only one person in the organization who knows how the network infrastructure is set up, what the administrative passwords are, how to get in touch with your hardware vendors and other critical information, the company could be in big trouble if that person were to leave suddenly (either voluntarily or involuntarily). Thus, you should begin to divide responsibilities before you’re forced to do so by the workload.

You know how important it is to have a backup of important data, and to have backup hardware (such as a fault tolerant RAID array so your data is safe if one disk crashes, or a server cluster so there’ll be a machine ready to take over if a critical server fails). The need for redundancy applies to key IT personnel, as well. There must be someone else who can do the admin’s job if he or she is gone, either temporarily or permanently.

This doesn’t just make your IT department more fault tolerant; it also makes it more scalable. It’s easier to expand the department when people are cross trained and able to do multiple jobs, as opposed to having every employee jealously guarding the proprietary knowledge that goes with his/her position.

Teamwork and the chain of command

Another factor that can affect the scalability of your department is the organizational model on which it’s based. The traditional corporate command structure was almost paramilitary in nature; there was a very strict chain of command, with each employee having a very clearly defined rank within the organization. Communications were primarily limited to those directly above and below you in the line of command, and "jumping rank" or "going over the head" of your boss to discuss any important business matter was verboten.

The more modern business model, especially in the IT world, is the "team" approach. Everyone works together to get the job done, with little regard for position or rank. Free discussion and debate are encouraged and ideas and criticism are (theoretically, at least) welcome from all members of the team.

Which organizational structure works best?

The paramilitary structure, because of its rigidity, is less easily scaled because employees are traditionally hired in at the bottom rank and expected to advance within the company or department. When the department needs to expand, it’s more difficult to recruit persons with the special areas of expertise you may need because of the structural impositions.

The team structure, when misapplied, can result in a chaotic "rule by committee" atmosphere where little gets done and departmental expansion results in more personnel to clog the gears further and slow down progress even more. This misapplication of the team concept is responsible for the management problems in many of today’s companies. It’s based on the premise that the company or department is just one big happy family, with everyone equal and no one really in charge.

How efficiency and scalability go hand-in-hand

The most scalable organizational structure borrows components from both models and combines teamwork with a defined command structure. An efficient team works together smoothly, and different members may even take on different roles at different times, but each member has a specific role for the duration of a particular project. And if team members disagree, someone has the final authority to call the shots (imagine, for example, how a football team would function -- or not function) without a quarterback.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, this most efficient form of organizational structure usually also proves to be the most scalable.