Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Greatest Asset

The Greatest Asset

I'm trying to blog while watching a live video stream from the BBC website of CIA chief George Tenet being questioned by the 9/11 Commission. I have no idea what I'm supposed to blog about, so I'll just ramble on for a while until I hit on a subject.

Everyone has a most productive period during the course of the day when most of their work is done. For some it is the morning hours before lunch; for others it could be late in the night. Unfortunately I fall into the latter category. Over my years of working, I've often done most of my important work at home, at night and often on weekends too.

Time in the office is for communicating with people--meetings, phonecalls and discussions--which I don't exactly consider "work". I would even feel guilty if that is all I do. Work to me means producing something tangible--a presentation, a report or a computer program; something created out of nothing.

This does not mean that all the activities involved in interacting with people are useless. Without teamwork and communications, things cannot move forward. Having been involved in so many IT projects in my career, I can safely say that the most difficult challenge in most projects is people-related--motivating people, making people deliver quality work on time and getting people to work together--and very rarely the technical aspect of it.

People make or break a project. When there's a team that clicks well together and believes in what they do, they can be quite unstoppable. They will overcome all obstacles that stand in their way and they will go the extra mile to get things done.

A lot of the discussions in the 9/11 commission hearings touch on the organizational weaknesses in government agencies which prevented information from being shared and acted upon. Given enough resources, we can theoretically design IT systems that performs consistently and reliably, but there is no easy solution when people are in the critical path of the delivery system. So much depends on the personal motivation of the individual involved.

So we talk about putting "structures" and "processes" in place. We want to minimize room for errors and ensure that people adhere to a set of instructions to guarantee quality of service. "People, processes and technology"--that's the mantra IT consultants always chant. The problem is, when we have too rigid a structure, we prevent people from having the room to exercise their creativity; and when we allow too much flexibility, we rely too much on the brilliance of the individual to ensure quality. A healthy balance between the two needs to be struck. That's what leadership and management is all about.

People is the weakest link in an information system. But it is also people that makes an organization great. Unfortunately many organizations are fond of only paying lip service to this fact. "People are our greatest assets", they'll proclaim loudly in the company motto. But what do companies get rid of first when they are not doing well? Exactly: their greatest asset--people.

No comments: