Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kehoe - The German General Staff Model and IT Organizations

By John Kehoe - 15 October 2008

A couple of stories caught my eye this month and dovetail with a model I’m investigating. First, a column, Meet the IT Guy, outlines the typical, hackneyed view of the IT archetype (still funny stuff). The second, an excerpt from Numerati in Business Week, examines IBM’s effort to model consultant abilities and cost to map the right people to the right job and model how a successful expert is created (neat for high level experts, but a bit scary for lower level consultants).

This leads me to the characteristics an IT organization needs to excel. Curiously enough, they are descendents of the German General Staff (GGS) from the period between 1814 and 1900).

Staffing Model

The German General Staff (GGS) was created at the end of the Napoleonic Wars as a reaction to the military officer corps being staffed by men who purchased their positions. The "commissioned" officers (as in, paid for their commission) were on a quest for personal glory. As a result, they fought by rote, did not create new strategies, got a lot of men killed and wasted resources. The GGS mission was to create a professional officer corps to change that mindset and with it, achieve better results.

Candidates for the GGS were rigorously vetted for competency and motivation before an invitation was extended. Once in, GGS officers were categorized in two dimensions: motivation and competency. This can be represented in a 2 x 2:

This is how the GGS staffed the right person for the right role.

Clearly, in any organization, a mismatch breaks the lot. Play the mental exercise of putting your people in these positions. It is easy to find an implementer in a manager position or a manager in the general’s seat. Recognizing the mismatch makes obvious why things bog down or spin out of control.

Organizational Values

The GGS instilled the following values in its members:

  • Dedication: By investing in an individual, that individual is more committed to the organization
  • Motivation: Devise good strategies that are efficient, flexible and victorious
  • Dissemination: Get the ideas into the field
  • Doctrine: Get a common process in play
  • Innovation: Think outside the box to adjust to the circumstances
  • Philosophy: How do we go about our business? What are the ways and means we chose to use or not use.

Now, why put forward the GGS as a role model? Because the Germans where the first to do it. Today, every major nation has some sort of joint military command and training structure. In order for a military to succeed in a campaign, it must leverage every resource to maximum productivity and align tactical activities with strategic goals. The most successful operations – the most successful businesses – have the concept ingrained from top to bottom.

This approach makes clear how important it is to place each person to his or her abilities. Suppose a junior level person is designing a technical architecture for performance management. This mismatch is a high risk for the organization and the individual. Don’t axe the person because they perform poorly, move him or her to a task commensurate with their ability. Make clear that this move is not a punishment, just a rebalancing of the skills portfolio. If, however, a person falls into the lazy/incompetent quadrant, well, you know what to do.

Another interesting characteristic of the GGS is that it rotated people off the line into staff positions, and then back to the line. Many IT organizations have one set of people who put code into production and a cadre of architects in staff (or non-line) positions. Or they have people managing projects in their own way, ignoring efforts of a central PMO to create consistent and professional PM practices. Either is an example of an organizational separation within IT, with “central office” people on one side and “executors” on the other. By rotating people in and out of staff positions, IT policies are more likely to be actionable and not academic. There is also more likely to be buy-in and not resistance to IT standards. Perhaps less obvious, it contains the expansion of IT overhead as there are few career "staffers:" everybody will be back to the line before long. Finally, it makes IT less of a cowboy practice, and more of a professionally executing capability.

Mapping the Concepts

How do we map the GGS to an organization to measure its potential?

  • Dedication is obvious by the rate of employee exit and replacement. IT is a highly mobile profession; "healthy" IT organizations will have 15% turnover or less.
  • Motivation is recognized by the creation of value, not the number of overtime hours worked. Do we deliver in a timely fashion? Are we receptive to other organizations? Do we know and appreciate the impact of our action and inaction?
  • Dissemination is judged by joint cooperation. Do tasks get done in a timely fashion across a joint team? Do people know the resources and responsibilities around them?
  • Doctrine can be summed up simply by asking: do rules define the exceptions or do exceptions define the rules? If our rules are exception based, we have a problem. We have multiple options and cannot rationally consider their impact.
  • Innovation is the game changer that gets us ahead of the competition. What can we change that drives revenue or improves margins?
  • Philosophy defines the actions we accept and reject. What motivations do we accept or reject? Are they telegraphed throughout the organization? For instance, we should have profitability as our guide. How to we achieve it, growth or cost cutting. Does advantage come from outsourcing or offshoring? How do we balance the other 5 values?

The GGS was not a rarified career opportunity devoid of delivery expectations and obligations, but provided a means by which to circulate expertise and provide experience. It offers IT a straightforward way to fashion planning and career development, as well as a means to incubate ideas and individuals. It starts with a clean sheet of paper, a cup of coffee and insight into your business, organization and services portfolio. Give it a try today.

About John Kehoe: John is a performance technologist plying his dark craft since the early nineties. John has a penchant for parenthetical editorializing, puns and mixed metaphors (sorry). You can reach John at

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