Down on the Farm

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - Why do we keep IT staffers penned up in their cubicles when they could be more valuable elsewhere?

Want the single-most compelling piece of evidence that we still haven't started learning the lessons of the Internet? Walk into your IT shop and look at all those rows and rows of cubicles. Here, in your IT department, are collected the best programmers, analysts, administrators and operations people you can afford to hire. Right here. In your cubicle farm.

Why?

Why are they here?

There are lots of places you really need those people to be. At the plant in Podunk, watching to see what parts of the factory-floor system actually are used - and which parts are unusable. Down in marketing, haggling out the design for the next version of the Web store. Cheek to jowl with users in customer service, figuring out why their response time gets awful sometimes.

Some of these people should practically be living with users. But they're not.

We've got them all living - or at least working - in these cubicles.

And why? Because we really haven't begun to learn the lessons of the Internet.

If there's one thing the Internet should have taught us, it's that IT doesn't all have to be in the same place. The search engine doesn't have to be on the same server - or in the same state - as the shopping-cart system. The shipping department doesn't have to be part of the same company - or even in the same country - as the sales operation.

They can be just about anywhere - as long as they can communicate really, really well.

Plenty of dot-coms figured that out early on. And some realized they didn't need a cubicle farm full of programmers. All they actually needed was really, really good communication among their developers - wherever those developers happened to be.

Why have so many corporate IT shops failed to figure out the same thing?

With instant, pervasive communications, IT people can connect to do their work from anywhere, anytime. Our salespeople understand that - they go where the customers are. Why don't we?

Part of the reason is history. We've always done it like this. Way back when, programmers needed access to the keypunchers, and later their 3270 terminals had to be wired to the mainframe. Those days are gone, but we keep cramming programmers together because, well, we've always done it like this.

Part of it is poor personnel management. We trust our IT people enough to put the fate of the company in their hands - but we don't trust them to put in a full day's work if they're more than shouting distance from a manager's desk.

(And we indulge the fantasy that, if they're within shouting distance, they automatically will put in a full day's work.)Part of it is a corporate culture that demands face time with bosses and physical evidence that managers are actually managing someone. In that culture, if they can't be seen, they don't exist.

And a big part of it is lousy communications.

Stuffing IT people into a cubicle farm makes talk cheap and meetings easy. It masks poor communication skills and lets everyone conveniently ignore mangled messages, incoherent explanations and empty words. Hey, with all that talking going on, how could people not be communicating?

Right now, there's a price to pay for isolating your IT people in that cubicle farm. It's a price in visibility, in user contact and in business effectiveness. That price - call it the cubicle farm tax - will get higher as business moves faster and you need to understand your users better.

You can refuse to pay that tax. You can start moving your people right now to where they'll be most effective. For a lot of them, that won't be down on the farm.

Or you can pay the tax - and keep paying.

But why?

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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