Teamwork for Techies

Bye-bye, lone programmer. Here's how to get far-flung IT professionals to collaborate.

Collaboration is all the rage among corporate executives these days, which means IT is busy providing systems that turn that vague concept into a real business benefit. But what happens when it comes time for techies themselves to collaborate?

IT folks carry the stigma of being particularly noncollaborative, but the stereotype of the loner programmer barricaded in a cubicle is not necessarily accurate. "It depends so much on the organization that you work in," says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Many IT departments have not valued collaboration, operating instead in a command-and-control fashion that stifles the collaborative skills of their employees, he says.

That could be a problem, because effective collaboration is increasingly seen as an imperative throughout the enterprise, including IT. As IT departments are downsized, with low-level tech jobs outsourced or replaced by managed services, the remaining staffers -- who are often dispersed throughout the world -- must not only work more closely with business units, but also share knowledge with one another to avoid having to continually reinvent the wheel.

The good news is, their prickly reputation notwithstanding, IT employees can be as collaborative as anybody else, Hammond says. Here's a look at some companies that have had success in tapping the power of IT collaboration.

Applied Materials: Changing a Top-Down Culture

Applied Materials Inc., a $5 billion semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Santa Clara, Calif., is a classic example of a company working to shift the way its IT employees interact.

In the past four years, Applied Materials has completely overhauled IT, with the goal of cutting costs, improving service levels and driving business transformation.

CIO Ron Kifer has reduced the IT workforce from 580 full-time employees in 2006 to about 250 today, outsourcing much of the commodity-type work. The remaining employees are charged with focusing on strategic initiatives that add value or produce revenue.

Recently, the IT organization switched from operating as several different independent regional departments to functioning as one global IT team, says Jay Kerley, corporate vice president and deputy CIO, who has overall responsibility for IT operations. (Kifer focuses on business transformation.)

IT staffers "have to be able to collaborate in near-real-time," says Kerley. "They have to know how to engage with customers in a global, multi-time-zone operation."

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