Teamwork for Techies

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

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That meant changing from command-and-control management to "matrix-style management," which aims to solve problems by bringing together people from across the IT organization, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, he explains.

To successfully effect that change, Kerley felt he needed a baseline model of current communication patterns. So earlier this year, he surveyed IT staffers, asking them to name the people they went to when they needed information, feedback and advice on ideas, or help with projects.

The answers produced a map of interactions that illustrated that communication was happening along traditional chains of management but also among people who were serving as hubs of collaboration. About half of those "highly networked individuals," as Kerley calls them, were the managers you'd expect to be consulted, but the rest were rank-and-file workers that people felt comfortable asking for help.

He brought 12 of those people together to discuss how to encourage a matrix style of collaboration. The team agreed that some IT staffers were inhibited by language and cultural barriers and others by a lack of confidence or leadership skills.

For example, although English is spoken throughout the company, some workers for whom it's a second language might not understand certain jargon or colloquialisms. And Japanese employees sometimes wouldn't speak their minds in meetings because the concept of openly debating ideas is foreign to their traditional management culture, says Kerley.

To address those communication barriers, the company provided personal coaching for its entire staff, including all 250 IT employees. "We talk about their careers, the changes in the [work] environment and how they can be more effective [collaborators]," says Kerley. "And we reinforce the fact that these changes are here to stay and they have to adapt to them."

The company also launched a leadership development program in which groups of 40 IT employees are mentored by Steve Finnerty, a former CIO now on staff at Applied Materials. (The company plans to cycle all IT employees through the 10-month program.)

The goal of the leadership development program is to train IT employees to work with one another and with people in other business units to achieve common goals. The company also makes sure to recognize particularly successful collaboration, giving awards to those who "exemplify core values of matrix collaboration."

In addition, Applied Materials has made changes to become less U.S.-centric and more sensitive to the needs of international employees. It started an optional program, called Applied Anywhere, which equips employees with tools that enable them to work from wherever they are.

One goal is enabling communication among global employees without tipping their work/life balance out of whack, says Kerley. Applied Materials employees in India, for example, no longer have to go back to the office at 9 p.m. to participate in webconferences or teleconferences scheduled during regular working hours at the company's California headquarters. With Applied Anywhere, they can log in from home.

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