Archive by Author

What role does empathy play in the OST culture?

27 Apr

And now, for a Lesson in the Greek… Empatheia!

Empathy. Say it a couple of times… heck, say it out loud twenty times in a row. Say it until it has no meaning for you anymore then back off, wait a minute and write it down on a piece of paper in front of you – then study it for a bit. Think on it. What does it mean to you?

Empathy.

Here is a word we hear all the time. But what does it really mean and why is it important? Why is it a valuable trait in our work and home lives? What does it truly mean to be “empathetic”? How can we increase our empathy and be thoughtful about employing it?

empathy

The etymology of the word empathy is from the Greek word “em” which in English translates to “in” and “pathos” which translates to “feeling”. Put it all together and the actual entire Greek word is “empatheia”.

“Empatheia”.

So the ancient Greeks had a word which roughly translates to “in feeling” and which we use to describe an ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or, in other words, to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” Our usage of the word indicates that it is outside of ourselves and focused upon an external agency. I can “see it from his side”. I can “walk a mile in her shoes”. I can “feel your pain”. So, clearly the word and the idea has a strong place in our interpersonal relationships – as supported by the use in our popular vernacular. But is that the extent of it? Is that all there is to this? And how does it relate to our OST world?

Here are some thoughts I have around empathy in our world.

First off, from the perspective of our OST employees and teammates, empathy is the core foundation of our first belief, “honor our people and their families first”. We internalize the needs of individuals and their families and make them our own. We recognize when we need to put them first, ahead of ourselves and ahead of the needs of OST. We are constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to recognize a need and make sure it is met. We sacrifice our time and efforts to make sure that others get what they need, and we have expectations that others will reciprocate when we need. The reason we can do this is because we are actively “in feeling” with our OST family members and that allows us to care for them and their needs in a way which is not reflected in society as a whole – especially in the context of a corporation.

Empathy is a strong player in our second core foundation as well, “we will delight our clients”. How can we delight our clients if we are not “in feeling” with them? In other words, if we do not understand the true needs of our client how will we ever be successful in delighting them? There are those who believe that simply completing a task or project “on time and on budget” is the definition of delighting our client but I know it goes much deeper than that. To truly delight a client, it is not enough to just do what they ask, we need to understand what they really need and help them to get there! We need to be “in feeling” with them and taking our knowledge and skills and leveraging that understanding to build solutions that give them what they absolutely require, which is often quite different from what they have asked.

Look at our next guiding creed, “we serve with humility”. There are many definitions of service, but in this case  we mean that we provide “acts of helpful activity or aid”. Disregarding the obviously redundant nature of that definition (thanks for that dictionary.com!) it is clear to see that without an understanding of the need, without being “in feeling” with the one we are serving it will be very difficult to provide service which is of value. And how about that last little bit… “with humility”. What does that mean if not serving the individual in such a way that they feel (“in feeling!”) that the servitude is motivated by caring and compassion – not from a self-centered or selfish desire, but truly for the benefit of the one being served. As one being served you cannot feel that servitude is of pure motivation (which I believe is required in order to really feel good about it) unless it is delivered with humility.

Back to our usage of empathy as supported by our popular vernacular. Focused on others and aligned to interpersonal relationships, but is that the full extent? What about being “in feeling” with ourselves? What about giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt from time to time? What about recognizing the flawed humanity we all are and giving ourselves a break occasionally? We all need to remain aware of the fact that we need to serve ourselves too, and in order to do so we need to understand our own feelings and motivations. This blog post is not a suitable forum for a full exploration of this topic, but I know that some amongst us work on ourselves through therapy and coaching, while others meditate and journal. (Some of us stand thigh deep in freezing rivers in rubber pants waiving a stick too… there are many ways to explore yourself!) I’m sure though that many of us are not working on this enough, and that is something we should all spend more time on, time thinking about and taking thoughtful action to be more empathetic to others and ourselves!

We say it all the time, and we live it as well; we are a family at OST. We care for one another, we serve one another and we honor one another. At work and outside of work. And you know what else? We bicker and we argue and we dishonor one another as well, just like a real family! And just like at OST, the tenant of empathy is important at home with our own friends and families. Some of us are better at it than others… and some of us need to work on it a bit – both at work and at home. Safe to say that none of us are as good at it as we could be though!

As I close these thoughts today, the last thing I am thinking about is the role of empathy in design and design thinking. If you examine the approach and focus of human centered design, it is all about empathy. Empathy in understanding the user’s feeling towards a product or a service. Being “in feeling” with the user such that decisions and directions become more clear, and results are demonstrably better. If I had to point out one thing that I have found personally valuable from our close partnership with Visualhero as we have worked to merge our teams, it is the constant examples of empathy as it relates to our clients, each other and ourselves. Probably because of the design ethos which values empathy so greatly, the team at Visualhero practically oozes empathy in every single thing they do or say.

So… I am currently “in feeling” with you, kind reader, and see clearly and understand without question that you have had enough… so I will thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this far and bid you “Avtio” for now!

 

Director of Professional Services

Director of Professional Services

John Vancil is a twenty-eight year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $29 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, Data Analytics, Design, ERP and Advisory Services, Security, and Managed Services. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not serving the OST team, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family.

When work-life balance doesn’t come easily

6 Apr

One morning last week, I left Lambeau, our dog, outside.

Now, normally this wouldn’t be an especially notable incident – after all dogs are sort of built to be outside – however in this case I was not SUPPOSED to leave the dog outside. I was SUPPOSED to walk the dog, make sure he had some water and leave him to lounge around all day shuttling between the couch and the easy chair to await our arrival back home as a family that evening. This would be his regular and expected daily schedule – leaving him outside would certainly be considered as aberrant to the norm.

I did not realize I left the dog outside. Certainly, if I had realized, I would have taken steps to get him back inside into his preferred environment prior to departing for the office.

So, fast forward to around 10:15 am and I am having a discussion with coworkers, John and Andrew. It was a really good discussion, we were making great progress and finding lots of areas of agreement and alignment – and then my phone beeped. And then it beeped again. So I excused myself to check it and it was a text from my wife, with a picture of Lambeau and the following question:

“Problem with Lambeau this morning? Glad he was still here when I got home.”

vancil- work life balance

Uh-oh.

I shared the content of the message with the group, and Andrew commented something about what’s the big deal, it’s a dog. To which John responded “Lambeau is not the problem, Amy is the problem.”

And of course he was right! The dog had no issues with the situation, in fact as I understand it, he was excited and energized by the whole adventure. Amy, on the other hand, was not pleased. And rightfully so, I might add. I had a responsibility to my family and the dog to make sure I met my commitments and paid attention to the things which are important to us as a group. And I did not – I let myself get consumed by the day ahead of me, the meetings and discussions and the problems at hand waiting to be solved and I forgot about my responsibilities to my family.

So first off, I apologized to Amy and professed the probable need for a lobotomy – which I offered might be self-administered or if she preferred she could do it herself.

And then I started thinking about the situation, and examining why it happened. What could possibly cause me to forget these responsibilities?

You, dear reader, have most likely jumped to the conclusion already. The conclusion that I came to was that I had done a poor job of establishing and maintaining the boundaries of my work – life balance. I let my focus and attention move solely to what was ahead of me in my work day and allowed that to take over my conscious thoughts and intentions. In other words, I absent mindedly forgot the important things right in front of me for the other important things down the line.

It is easy to do, isn’t it? Our work life can be pervasive, and we carry it around with us all day and all night on our smart phones and tablets. I can grab my phone or my iPad and surf my email at any time – and I often do. I respond to emails at all hours and when I have an idea I will pick up the phone, capture it in an email and shoot it off to someone. I respond to texts as they come in and even when the phone isn’t in my hand, thoughts of work are not far from my mind. This is not singular to me either, I notice it all around me.

And guess what? Every time I send an email at 9:00 pm or give in to the 3:30 am idea I had when I couldn’t sleep and send it off to someone, what am I doing? I’m setting expectations for others! That is not good! “John does his email at 9:30 pm, I guess that is what is expected!” This is an expectation I don’t want to set and should not be setting. We want our OST team members to be able to go home and be there for their families and in the “life” side of their world. We want our OST team members to be able to shut things down and recharge – to have outside interests and hobbies and passions which relate in no way to OST and are allowed to get their full attention. We want our OST team members to be able to regulate their work-life balance, and the key word there is balance!

So… what to do? I’m not totally sure at this point – but for sure I have decided to be much more diligent about putting down the phone when I get home. I have decided to be purposeful about separating my thoughts from OST and focusing on my family and personal responsibilities and interests. I have decided to carefully evaluate the situation any time I am thinking about emailing or communicating outside of traditional work hours so that I do not send unintended messages to others.

How successful will I be? Time will tell… I know there will be times and circumstances where I will break my rules – and that will just have to be okay. There will be good reasons for it. But in the main, in the norm, in the day to day, my goal is to find that point where we have more equilibrium and set my fulcrum right there!

And if you have left the dog out lately, euphemistically of course, I think you should spend some time on your work –life balance too… just a thought.

 

Director of Professional Services

Director of Professional Services

John Vancil is a twenty-eight year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $29 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, Data Analytics, Design, ERP and Advisory Services, Security, and Managed Services. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not serving the OST team, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family.

IT as a Competitive Advantage – The Real Imperative for Managed Services

3 Feb

A number of years ago I was interviewing for the Information Technology Manager position at a commercial furniture company in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. From an initial perspective, the role looked like a great fit for me, a solid company which wanted to grow and do great things in a niche market and an immature information technology strategy.

As I was interviewing with the President of the company, he and I were sitting in his office discussing the role and our respective approaches to technology and leadership. They were a year or so into (and digging out from) the implementation of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system which had not gone well at all. They were struggling with communication to their market and independent rep sales force and they were experiencing consistent outages and failures of technology and systems. They really needed help from someone who could come in and get their arms around the situation and have fast, meaningful and positive impact.

We were having a great discussion until I asked him to whom the IT Manager would report, and his answer was the Controller.

At this news I told him that with all due respect in this case I did not feel like this would be a good position for me, and I did not want to waste any more of his time or that of the organization.

As you might guess, this declaration took him by surprise. To his credit (and my relief), he was intrigued and asked me to explain my position.

I told him that the only reason to implement information technology within an organization was to drive competitive advantage. The investment and mindshare demanded by a mature information technology strategy could only be justified if it drove and realized an improvement in competitive advantage for the organization. Some examples;

  • The ability to make “widgets” faster in order to get them to market sooner
  • The ability to make “widgets” at a higher quality in order to increase customer satisfaction and drive market sales.
  • The ability to make “widgets” cheaper and therefore drive higher margins which left more capital to invest in the organization.
  • The ability to deliver accurate invoices quickly in order to realize improved cash flow and lower accounts receivables this yielding the opportunity for better financing and faster response to markets.
  • The ability to drive external branding driving more clients to the door improving sales and results.
  • The ability to manage order to cash – allowing for efficiencies and higher profits allowing for further investment in the organization.
  • The ability to communicate quickly, efficiently and accurately with all links along the supply chain from supplier through customer.

I went on to explain that the person who was tasked with leading a part of the organization which was charged with driving competitive advantage needed to clearly understand the strategies and goals of the organization at the highest level. That person needed to be a part of the leadership team of the organization, reporting to the person tasked with developing and driving the strategy, having visibility to the goals, and strategies That person needed to be focused on and integrated with the entire organization and should be viewed as a part of the strategic leadership of the company.

Having the IT Manager report to the Controller was a sure way to stifle the creative leveraging of information technology for competitive advantage. The viewpoint of the Controller’s team is centered around cost efficiency, low risk projects, back office operations and financial pressures. Investment designed to drive competitive advantage could be stymied as being too expensive or risky before it ever reached the eyes of the staff or president. A focus on cost reduction would run counter to enhancing strategic direction.

We spent some time exploring this idea, and he promised to give it some thought. In the end, he offered me the position, reporting to him. I accepted and spent twelve great years providing leadership in various roles from IT Manager through Vice President of Technology and Customer Satisfaction.

Why do I tell this story? Because it sets the basis for a further discussion around focus within an IT organization and how that focus can be enhanced.

If we accept the premise that the purpose of information technology within an organization is to drive competitive advantage, how does that stance influence the structure and direction of the information technology team? My contention is that it should influence the team to focus on those things which provide the greatest competitive advantage and value to the business, and should offload those things which do not.

Consider the following graphic as an illustration of my point:

vancil - 1

Plotting IT initiatives (projects or services) into the different quadrants based upon the amount of domain business knowledge (vertical axis) required to successfully complete or implement the initiative and the amount of competitive advantage (horizontal axis) that the initiative will drive yield a very clear indication of those upon on which the information technology team should be focused.

  1. Lower Left Quadrant – Requires a low level of knowledge of the business and does not drive competitive advantage.
  2. Upper Left Quadrant – Requires a high level of knowledge of the business and does not drive competitive advantage.
  3. Lower Right Quadrant – Does not require a high level of knowledge of the business and does drive competitive advantage.
  4. Upper Right Quadrant – Requires a high level of knowledge of the business and drives a great deal of competitive advantage.

Clearly the information technology team should be focusing on those initiatives which fall into the upper right quadrant. The amount of domain business knowledge required indicates that we need people who are already within and understand the business, and the high level of competitive advantage yielded shows the importance of the effort. Outside influencers to initiatives within this quadrant should be selected to fill gaps in the existing team and bring specialized knowledge and capabilities.

What of the other quadrants?

At the upper left we have initiatives which require a great deal of business domain knowledge yet yield little competitive advantage. These initiatives should be examined and questioned. Why are we doing this? Is there a different way that we should do this? If it is determined that an initiative should be pursued in spite of the low competitive advantage yield, then how can we do it without impacting our team of highly business knowledgeable people? In other words, with whom can we partner to make these projects happen?

At the lower right we have projects which require little in the way of domain business knowledge yet yield great competitive advantage. We will absolutely pursue these projects, so how can we do so without impacting our team of highly business knowledgeable people? These initiatives are ripe for being handed off completely to a trusted partner with only minimal involvement by existing IT staff, so who can we employ to make sure these initiatives get done right and in a timely manner?

And that brings us to the lower left quadrant. initiatives which require very little domain business knowledge and bring little competitive advantage. When we have initiatives which fall into this quadrant yet we know they must be done, it only makes sense to pass them off completely to someone else to take care of. Why would we ever impact the time and efforts of our business knowledgeable people when we can just pay someone else to take care of things? This quadrant is the one which lends itself very clearly to the idea of outsourcing projects or services.

Gartner has consistently used the terms “Run”, “Grow” and “Transform” in recent years to try to help IT leaders to focus on what is important to their organization and teams. If we layer those terms over the graphic above, we get a representation of how those terms map very nicely onto our initiatives.

vancil - 2

Outsourcing? We don’t need no stinkin’ outsourcing!”

Okay… so let’s address the elephant in the room, “outsourcing.” The term outsourcing brings a bad connotation to many people. They associate it with layoffs and people losing their jobs. They associate it with loss of control and endless fighting with suppliers to get things done. It is too bad that the term carries this impression, but it does – and rather than fight that uphill battle we will instead refer to the activities we ask a partner to perform and lead as Managed Services.

Managed Services can take many forms – but in the end it all comes down to paying another organization to take care of tasks which fall into an area where we deem that we have insufficient capabilities or insufficient time to focus upon them. In other words, we are going to pay someone else to take on services which free our skilled, knowledgeable people up to focus on things which bring competitive advantage. One of the advantages of using someone else to perform the services which do not require a great deal of domain business knowledge is that the focus they are afforded to pay attention to the details often yields a capability to perform the services more efficiently and with higher quality than we can ourselves. This means that they will actually do a better job and in the long run it will cost us less to accomplish the initiatives.

There are other advantages to using Managed Services. Some are financial, having to do with certain organizations being better served to spend money on operational expenses (OPEX) rather than capital expenses (CAPEX). Some are technical, having to do with the fact that a team which manages many different clients sees many different situations and learns how to handle and prevent them more efficiently. In other words, the partner that is providing the services gets to learn on other client’s and bring the advantages to us. From a management perspective, it is fairly easy as well to set clear, documented and specific goals for a managed service provider, then let them go away and do the work and meet those goals while IT leadership focuses on the initiatives in the upper right quadrant.

Here is the call to action for today’s IT Leadership: Focus your teams of talented, business knowledgeable technologists on initiatives which bring great competitive advantage and requires their skills and capabilities. Identify those initiatives which do not require your talented and business knowledgeable technologists and give them off in whole to someone else. Your organization, your team and you will all be the better for it!

_ _ _

John Vancil

John Vancil

John Vancil is a twenty-eight year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $29 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, Data Analytics, Design, ERP and Advisory Services, Security, and Managed Services. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not serving the OST team, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family

Protected: Time to Value

23 Apr

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: