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Self-directed work teams encourage collaborative IT

No one clings to hierarchy like the data center team, but with DevOps and cloud architectures, SDWTs are finding their way into the racks.

Nontraditional management functions empower employees, but you'll need patience to reap their potential within the hierarchy of a data center.

As competition increases, companies need agile, flexible and on-demand IT services. IT technologies have developed more intelligence via virtualization, automation and cloud. But the systems themselves are only part of the equation; a similar transition needs to occur with management.

Self-directed work teams (SDWTs) group employees with different skill sets -- from just a few employees up to several dozen participants. Typical SDWTs have five to 10 members.

Rather than the hierarchical management structure common to data centers, an SDWT takes charge of a whole process, requiring intense IT collaboration. SDWTs take corrective actions to resolve day-to-day problems on their own. The concept purports that people closest to the customer and the end product can forge productivity breakthroughs. Firsthand knowledge allows them to plan, control and improve operations.

With less rigid processes in place, companies are able to respond faster to technological change.

Collaborative IT offers many potential benefits. One is that less bureaucracy enhances productivity because the group does not have to wade through several approval layers. With less rigid processes in place, companies are able to respond faster to technological change.

Another is that the sense of ownership an SDWT brings to a project boosts quality. Traditional structures minimize skills at every level, often making lower-level work boring. Empowered SDWT employees develop more in better working conditions, ones where they're given greater opportunity for expression. At companies with fewer, simpler job classifications, employees' commitment to the organization may rise, and the conditions can attract top talent.

IT on the outside looking in

Self-directed work teams are common in various areas of the business, such as customer service, logistics and front-office functions. But not in IT.

IT values traditional work processes, especially in the data center. But collaborative rule may mesh with emerging disruptive technologies, like cloud, to increase self-directed work teams' presence in the IT space.

To bring IT into the trend, some groups -- especially those that adhere to Agile principles -- adopt the SDWT concept for software development. In these groups, there is close collaboration between the programmer team and business experts; face-to-face communication; frequent delivery of new solutions; tight, self-organizing teams; and constant churn of code, according to the Agile Alliance Consortium, which thinks that the best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. These teams reflect on ways become more effective, then tunes their behavior accordingly.

History of SDWT

The concept of self-directed work teams is more than 70 years old: The term skunkworks project emerged during World War II as Lockheed designed new aircraft. Since the 1980s, corporations increasingly have talked about redistributing power, authority and responsibility from the top of the organization to the lower layers.

DevOps results from an Agile ripple effect felt further into IT infrastructure groups. Here, software development teams work closely with data center personnel to allocate needed IT resources during the application development process. The model has gained traction in software quality testing, which typically is done near the end of the development process. Providing developers with the tools and IT resources to test software more frequently during this phase helps companies deliver higher-quality applications.

How to break down silos and hierarchy into SDWTs

It isn't easy to accept new management principles. When companies implement self-managed teams, supervisors become coaches. A manager's role is to make decisions and instruct team members in ways to tackle any situation; a coach guides team members and helps them improve their decision-making skills.

Self-directed work teams don't take shape overnight. They go through several stages of increasing involvement on their way to self-management. Businesses need to be patient because this journey can take between two and five years.

Train early and often

Effective self-directed work teams develop via comprehensive training, which is even more exhaustive than typical IT training. Employees learn to work effectively in teams and develop skills in problem solving and decision making. They also learn basic management skills so they can monitor their own processes. Everyone must be cross-trained in every other team member's job to enable IT collaboration. It is not uncommon for self-directed work teams to spend 20% of their time in ongoing training.

The best time to offer training is when the team forms.

Start with an understanding of team work and critical thinking. Self-managed groups risk working without plans. They may spend so much energy developing new processes that no work gets done. Because controlling the process is new, they may underestimate the amount of time necessary to complete a task, and have trouble meeting deadlines. Project management training is required as the team takes shape.

The self-directed work team model exposes a team to the possibility of abuse. Since no one is in charge, the group may not set deadlines, or it may push deadlines back. Draw a fine line between controlling the process from above and setting realistic team goals.

About the author:
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in data center issues. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at

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How do you encourage self-directed work teams and cross-team IT collaboration?