A pledge for technical community empowerment

After more than 5 years the worldwide performance and availability community (and TEC DACH) are organising a conference again! Its name is PREVAIL 2019 and its topic is ‘how to achieve and maintain performance and resilience in the age of agile, devops, microservices, containers and cloud?’. This is intended as a technical conference, organized by and for technical professionals, enabled by the IBM Academy of Technology. 

In this blog I am not going to advertise the topics of the conference – that is what my other blog is meant for – here I want to share some thoughts about community empowerment…

Bringing an enthusiast group of volunteers together was the easy part! Around 35 technical professionals were quickly found willing to spend their (private) time to make this initiative a success! The call for papers has yielded over 50 interesting submissions already from all over the world. Speakers whom we contacted were unanimously enthusiast about the idea. Several technical and business line leaders from cloud, services and outsourcing have promised their support.

Securing support from financial and related stakeholders was a bigger challenge … A process to fund bottom-up, spontaneous initiatives the scope of which does not align with budget units such as Lines of Business and Regions seemed to be lacking. Besides money for non client related travel is very tight. For driven technical communities this can be quite frustrating! 

With our bottom-up initiative we ran into the intrinsic dilemma between empowered communities and corporate control. 

Most IT companies nowadays are aware of the need for innovation and of the role of a thriving, vibrant, technically eminent and self-motivated innovation eco-system. Several publications have been written about such innovation eco-systems. Type in ‘critical success factors for innovation eco-systems’ in your favourite search machine and you’ll find a variety of papers from a multitude of sources. There is even an IBM Academy of Technology study that has produced an assessment of the success rate of eco-systems based on a set of 7+1 keys. 

These messages have clearly reached the top management of IT companies! They are doing their best to be on top of the eco-system…The tricky thing however is that there is no way to force a community into technical vitality and eminence – innovation needs to come out of the community itself! 

In his article ‘Building the innovation culture’ Brian Coffman (see link at the bottom of this blog) advocates the ‘distributed network’ based on trust and self-reliance and exchanging ‘something of value in the eyes of their members’ as the most succesful format for an innovation eco-system. He subsequently describes 4 different types of distributed networks, all of which can lead to succesful communities. They are respectively

  • Hub and spoke networks (Amazon)
  • User to user networks (eBay)
  • Open source networks (Wikipedia)
  • Project management intranet (based on shared tools and implemented in most projects)

The community that I have been leading since 2012 is a distributed network in the above sense – it is a combination of a user to user network, an open source network and a project management intranet. It also implements the hub-spoke mode with the webinars that we deliver to members except there is always Q&A.

If such a distributed network exists in a command and control organisation, there is a risk that the two structures end up fighting each other.  The outcomes can be devastating for either party as well as the organisation. Command and control can destroy the network but if the network is powerful enough it is not unthinkable that it destroys command and control. 

Coffman does not provide many guidelines how to bring command and control structures in line with the needs of the distributed network. I will therefore share some of the principles that we are practising for our community initiative.

  1. Understand the company’s culture. If command and control is a given it simply makes no sense to fight it. The only way is to accept it and find a way around it or even use it. 
  2. Understand the company’s latest priorities. Although listening to mandatory messages from top management sometimes may seem a waste of time to technical professionals, it is important to do so to understand top management’s priorities and the language they use to describe these. Being able to put your initiative in that perspective helps to convince executive stakeholders of its importance.
  3. Communicate and keep the momentum. Identify your stakeholderrs, don’t be shy, reach out to them and and start communicating about the initiative to all of them. Use all available channels, whatever works best, including face2face, webex, phone, mail, slack and blogs. Show confidence and keep communicating until everybody else believes in your initiative too! Remind everyone of the progress. 
  4. Don’t rely on others to sell your stuff but make sure they are on board. For the message to come across you have to deliver it very clearly, if possible in person, and follow it up regularly. Others do not have the same agenda or drive as the team on the ground and might weaken or even distort the message. Furthermore the team on the ground deserves to be known and recognized for what they achieved.
  5. Crowdsource and Crowdfund. Just like you cannot expect one person to organize an event this size, you cannot expect one party to fund the whole event. So reach out to multiple parties to fund parts. It is useful though to inform and ensure the buy-in of one or more stakeholders who are high enough in the organisation to oversee the whole field…
Not all of this is new. I nevertheless hope that these thoughts help to inspire others not to give up on good initiatives even though the environment sometimes seems less welcoming.
I am hopeful that this approach will work, although it is too early to tell how the end result will look like. If nothing else at least we have caused a ‘wave of enthusiasm and motivation’ that is spreading like an oil-stain! We have definitely proven that our community is thriving, vibrant, technically eminent and self-motivated! And not to forget fearless!
Fingers crossed… I’ll keep you updated…
Some notes about the conference
The main conference is an IBM technical community event and therefore open to internal and invited external attendees and speakers.
The meetup on Monday October 14 is open to the public, so book that evening in your agenda expecially if you are interested in the topic and from the MUNICH area.
Note that my words in this blog reflect personal views



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