I don’t know about you, but I’m suffering from paradigm overload. Everywhere I turn, I seem to see competing visions for the hearts and minds of IT professionals. In the Internet space, first it was B2C (business to consumer), and then B2B (business to business), and now I’m hearing more about P2P (peer to peer). For developers, it’s Sun’s dot.com versus Microsoft .NET. For heaven’s sakes, we’re looking at round three of the Palm OS vs. Windows CE fight.

Be that as it may, I want to look at one more set of competing principles. When it comes to how CIOs and other IT executives organize their departments, most of them use one of two strategies, whether they realize it or not. In this column, I’ll describe these competing strategies and explain why the newer strategy is starting to take root in more IT organizations. I believe it’s an issue that should matter to IT managers because they are directly affected by the organizational method in place.
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Organizing by work
The most common way to organize an IT department is by the work that department has to do. If you have to support end users, then you’ve got to have a help desk and support technicians. If you do development work, then you’ve got to have developers. More importantly for our purposes, you’ve got to have managers to supervise those functions.

To fill those management roles, you look for men and women who’ve either done that kind of work, or better yet, overseen people doing that kind of work. If the IT group is organized by work in this fashion, then the most important criterion for filling any management job will be relevant experience in that particular area.

There are huge advantages to this kind of approach, including these:

  • Past experience is a good indicator of future success.
  • Organizing by work provides clear lines of authority and responsibility among the various managers.
  • If managers (and potential managers) understand that a particular supervisory position will be open in the future, they can acquire the necessary skills prior to applying for the job.
  • It can prevent some hiring mistakes by keeping totally unqualified individuals from running departments they know nothing about.

For these and other reasons, it makes good sense to have developers managed by a former developer and network administrators supervised by someone with their own MCSE.

Organizing by people
If organizing an IT department by job description makes so much sense, why is there a competing method, and why is it starting to gain ground? I think there are two reasons why the dominant theory of organizing by work is being challenged.

  • The continuing shortage of IT professionals shows no signs of ending anytime soon. IT staffs often can’t find the managers they need to fill a traditional organizational chart.
  • The pace of change within IT departments continues to accelerate, often requiring managers to change their “portfolio” of responsibilities more rapidly than in the past.

For these reasons, you’re starting to see CIOs take another look at how they organize their team. Instead of trying to fit the available personnel into a static org chart, they are adapting the org chart to fit the available personnel. In other words, they are organizing by people instead of by the work they do.

How does this work? Suppose you’re tasked with creating an org chart for the IT group at your organization. Don’t determine the number of managers and the scope of their duties by looking at the work the department needs to do. Instead, look at the managers (and potential managers) on hand, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. You then allocate the various responsibilities based on that analysis.

In the end, you still have to have managers responsible for all the major areas of work. The difference is that you’re making those decisions based on the personnel and not on an existing org chart. This approach offers several advantages:

  • It recognizes that people are the IT department’s greatest asset.
  • It is more flexible, allowing companies to adapt to change.
  • It can provide a better fit between managers and responsibilities.

Of course, there’s another way to organize an IT department. If you have people in several different locations, you can organize geographically, placing managers in charge of staff in different offices. In most cases, however, companies don’t duplicate expertise by geography. Over time, they tend to migrate different functions to different offices, so that eventually they are back to organizing by the work.
Either/or, but not both
So which approach is best? Not to cop out, but it really depends on the organization. Beyond dispute, however, is the need for everyone in IT to know how their group is organized. That’s why companies should choose one method or another, and then stick with it. Combining both strategies will only confuse your staff and lead to missed assignments.
How is your company organized? What are the disadvantages to the method in place now? Tell us about your org chart by posting a comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.