The IT Generalist and the Tribal Maven

In the quest to cut costs but not knowledge, too many companies have atrophied their technical capabilities and especially their staff skills.

As many IT shops go the way of outsourced, off-shored, and laid off, a transformation is taking place:  those shops are losing their specialties.  Body shops deliver their promise of cheaper labor, though sometimes not of cheaper projects, and almost never of better deliverables.  Cutting out the expensive “varsity” team and using the “junior varsity” team to fill the gap is frequently an exercise in unfulfilled expectations that can run into years to get back to a previous capability level.

One key reason for the shortcomings is that relatively cheaper staff almost always comes with generic and relatively less expertise, despite the acronym soup on the resumes.  Don’t kid yourself--this trend is producing the IT Generalist, and eclipsing the specialist.  Managing projects and teams is challenging enough, but this direction is far more difficult.  More typically, the leads and managers are somewhat generically skilled, too.

A second key reason is that the relatively few varsity players that remain are typically placed in management or support positions.  Often, their greatest value is having an established “tribal” knowledge of who to reach and how to navigate the bureaucracy to get things done, though this is tangential to their formal responsibilities.  These Tribal Mavens have been around enough to know the right people and the right tricks to circumvent the new, disruptive constraints of the transforming organization.  While their knowledge is critically important, their skill sets may not match their new jobs.

The eventual result is that the IT shop becomes ever more generic, further from an ability to maintain specialties required to align with the culture of its own organization.  But the tribal maven, meanwhile, also experiences atrophy.  No longer using their technical skills, their marketability begins to wane.  This is particularly difficult when the organization reaches a tipping point in their transformation and the tribal knowledge is outdated or no longer applicable.

While I don’t have an easy answer to this trend, I do have a simplistic suggestion for it: foster leadership internally, and also partner with outsourced solutions that will include shoring up the leadership gap.  As Tom Peter’s said “you can’t shrink your way to greatness.”  Investment in leadership across various levels is the secret ingredient that makes cutting costs and transforming a business a judicious success. At the very least, don’t kid yourself.

What are your experiences or thoughts to circumvent this trend?



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