Having a successful and efficient operations team means more than defining roles, responsibilities, and job functions. It must include the underlying practices that instill a sense of workplace values and establish benchmark guidelines for how the team should function and what ideas should guide decision making.

The five primary guidelines for the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) Team Model are:

  • Providing great customer service.
  • Understanding the business priorities and enabling IT to add business value.
  • Building strong, synergistic virtual teams.
  • Utilizing IT automation and knowledge management tools.
  • Attracting, developing, and retaining skilled and talented IT operations staff.

Providing Great Customer Service

All roles within all operations groups ultimately provide a service for a customer. Whether that customer is an external end user, a peer in another operations team, or a business manager, the need exists to provide thorough, quality customer service-at all levels, all the time.

Dedicated support teams such as the service desk and product support services are trained, coached, managed, measured, and rated on the quality of customer service they provide because it is a direct output of their position. In other operations management roles, such as partner management and infrastructure, customer service is less direct but no less important. To ensure great customer service, these groups must be able to quickly identify customer needs, develop a mutually acceptable plan with the customer to address these needs, and act promptly to follow through on their commitment.

Understanding Business Priorities and Enabling IT to Add Business Value

A basic premise of both the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and MOF is that business priorities should direct IT services. Accordingly, aligning the IT group with business plans must occur when planning any new project. Historically, the IT organization has been considered a cost center, adding little direct value to the bottom line of the business. However, as companies increasingly conduct a larger percentage of their business over the Web, the perception and expectation of IT has changed dramatically. IT can no longer afford to be anything less than a strong contributor to achieving the business goals of the company.

IT industry analysts have raised a number of points regarding the importance of IT value to business goals:

  • IT performance is now being measured on business results.
  • IT continues to struggle to measure its real value to the business.
  • IT needs to reorient its attention toward business issues as expressed in IT infrastructure and processes.
  • Relating the complex interaction of systems, networks, applications, services, and business processes is difficult to do with current service management tools.

Work will be of higher quality and in the right order of importance when business priorities make it clear how operations affect the business. Developing new systems and maintaining existing systems while responding to changing business priorities can be a difficult challenge, but should be a basic premise of every IT culture. Additionally, personal job satisfaction and pride come from understanding the business vision and how each individual can contribute to achieving the organization's business priorities.

Building Strong, Synergistic Virtual Teams

By design, the MOF Team Model functions as a virtual team working in interdependent, multidisciplinary roles. A MOF virtual team differs from the software-development, project-focused team in the Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF) in that IT operations roles typically are not part of a single project team working toward shipping a product, but are working simultaneously on many different projects and production systems. The process-focused MOF teams are permanent teams, whose work is ongoing, as compared with the project-focused MSF development teams of finite duration.

Virtual teams are teams of employees communicating and collaborating with each other primarily by electronic means. The communication occurs across organizational boundaries, space, and time. Collaborating in real time with colleagues over the Web is profoundly changing the way people work and share information. The Internet is becoming a new standard of communication among team members, and collaborative software is paving the way for further productivity gains.

The notion of a virtual team is key, because without the organizational boundaries that encapsulate the roles into a coordinated unit, the virtual aspect requires even stronger communication, trust agreements and relationships. An essential component of a virtual team is each role's dependency on and trust in the other roles to fulfill their responsibilities to keep the systems running. This develops through a blend of culture, good management, and time spent working together. If mistakes cause downtime or lost business, no one person or role is at fault. Rather, it will be the responsibility of the collective virtual team to correct the error and restore the system as quickly as possible.

Industry research finds that often little attention is given to communication skills or team fit when members are chosen for virtual teams. Analysts say this oversight is a key factor in the failure of many of these teams.

When setting up a virtual team, look for members who:

  • Can work independently.
  • Demonstrate leadership skills.
  • Possess specific technical skills.
  • Can share knowledge with the organization.
  • Can help develop effective methods of working.

Utilizing IT Automation and Knowledge Management Tools

The virtual team's learning helps to create organizational knowledge by capturing an individual's knowledge and embedding it into process methodologies. Knowledge management tools can be used to collect information about the most common problems, questions, and general guidelines regarding the organization's supported products, systems, services, and technologies. By collating the efforts of many support personnel into a single source, knowledge management tools greatly reduce the amount of time required to identify, troubleshoot, and resolve reported incidents and problems, enabling each support person to benefit from the knowledge of others.

Automation tools have a wide variety of operational uses-for example, changing membership for e-mail distribution lists and granting network access permissions. As a core service to other operations management groups, the Infrastructure Role Cluster frequently owns the specifications for these kinds of automation tools. The use of such tools eliminates routine manual tasks and transforms them into bulk, self-service, and automated tasks. These tools can be purchased through a number of operations management software vendors, created as customized bolt-ons through enterprise resource planning systems, or built from scratch.

Attracting, Developing, and Keeping Strong IT Operations Staff

Attracting, developing, and retaining a skilled and talented operations staff is critical to running a cost-effective and efficient IT organization and applies both to corporate enterprises and online businesses. This is compounded by the fact that competition has always been keen for the top talent in the IT industry

To truly give merit to the value of IT operations staff, companies must address a key cultural issue. Historically, many companies viewed developers as the elite of the technical staff. They were the visionaries and the doers of the "cool" technical work. When complete, code would be passed to the operations groups to "just run it." Or, in software companies, the majority of the code developed in years past was put in shrink-wrapped boxes and shipped to partners and customers to integrate and operate.

But with the proliferation of the Internet, e-business, and particularly the Microsoft vision of "software as a service" (SaaS) and the new .NET platform, operations has become a much more visible and critical aspect of software. IT has redefined the term "shipping software." Operations must be an equal partner with development and work with it in developing software that is highly scalable, reliable, and available. In many ways, the ongoing evolution at Microsoft is redefining the meaning of being a software development company to include being an IT services and operations company.

A long-standing, internal human-resource group principle at Microsoft is "ADK"- attract, develop, and keep-its greatest asset, which is people. Managing a team of operations personnel requires effective combinations of recruitment, retention, and ongoing retraining

Keeping, or retaining, IT staff is the third aspect of maintaining a strong workforce. One obvious, but often underestimated, key to retention is the importance of hiring the right people in the first place. A "bad," or inappropriate, hire in an IT group occupies a critical headcount in what may be an understaffed area to begin with; and that inappropriate hire is not only underperforming in his or her role, but is likely requiring the extra effort of peers to accomplish his or her tasks. Take the time to interview well and carefully. Use benchmark lists of interview questions, responses, and scores that enable objective comparisons of candidates in addition to the importance of the "fit and finish" criteria for the kind of person the group needs.

Retraining and continual technical education are important in keeping top IT staff. (Industry surveys show this as one of the top five factors in staff retention.) In addition to furthering the employees' product and technical skills, training also helps the business of IT function more efficiently because it exposes employees to the most recent advancements in technology, automation, and cost containment. Staying current with technology also helps in boosting customer satisfaction since customers are receiving the latest innovations in cost-effective and efficient IT services.

Microsoft has established benchmarks for technical certification. Although this is great for individual training and skills growth, it also creates a challenge for employers to retain these individuals after they obtain certification-they are in high demand and typically command higher salaries than non-certified IT professionals. Special attention must be given to valuing and keeping these individuals.

A number of retention frameworks have been published for the IT industry to help address the issue of attracting and retaining highly skilled and productive employees. Some easily reusable best practices that have been shown to assist in retaining top IT staff include:

  • Providing high levels of autonomy and control to the most valuable performers.
  • Providing an ongoing awareness of how the business is running and changing to help promote a feeling that the work of the individual and the group is valuable to the whole. Confidence in the company's direction and the vision of the leaders has a high impact on many individuals' decisions to stay.
  • Encouraging and supporting good working relationships with management in both IT and the business groups.
  • Making retention of key employees an ongoing priority of management rather than a focus only when facing the loss of an employee.
  • Providing creative rewards, monetary and nonmonetary. Time off and extended vacation time are becoming more valuable to all age groups.
  • Providing advancement opportunities, both technically and for personal growth. Have clear and well-understood growth paths for technical staff, not strictly managerial tracks.
  • Supporting new, flexible, and creative ways of working in virtual teams, including telecommuting and conferencing.
  • Providing organizational and management support of a real work-life balance in concrete and tactical ways