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Building Competitive Advantage - Tech Learning

Building Competitive Advantage

An American technology director spending a year in the United Kingdom uncovers practical lessons on how to assemble and field the best IT team.
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An American technology director spending a year in the United Kingdom uncovers practical lessons on how to assemble and field the best IT team.

In England, where soccer is king, one of the great traditions is the Football Association Cup. The nine-month competition is open to all registered soccer teams in the country, from amateurs sponsored by local pubs to the elite teams with milliondollar payrolls. In American terms, think Saturday morning YMCA basketball leagues competing with Duke University and the L.A. Lakers.

For all FA Cup teams, success requires exceptional management and tight-knit teamwork. Here’s how those same principles can be applied to building a winning IT team in your district.

RULE #1: FIND THE BEST PLAYERS

While the FA Cup begins with hundreds of teams, those that make it to the final rounds invariably are composed of outstanding players recruited from around the world. Similarly, building a quality technology team for your district starts with finding the most talented teachers, technologists, leaders, and trainers. The finest people do not always come from the obvious places. For example, I have found exceptional education technology leaders in school secretaries, teaching assistants, and summer interns.

Begin by identifying the characteristics that are most critical to success. Trainers, for example, are most successful when they connect with the audience and help it believe in the material. So when picking trainers for my team, I always look for the best teachers—the most engaging, trustworthy, and personable— rather than individuals with the most content knowledge. I can easily enhance a trainer’s technical knowledge through direct instruction, but it’s difficult to teach the intangibles possessed by great teachers. Conversely, technicians are most successful when they have deep technical knowledge, great problemsolving skills, and a desire to learn. You can usually work around gaps in a technician’s interpersonal skills by thoughtfully organizing their work and interaction with other team members and users.

RULE #2: MAINTAIN A DEEP BENCH

Managing a top team is an exercise in balancing the needs of the team with those of the team members. In the FA Cup, teams must win each match in order to advance to the next round. However, they must also try to win each week’s regular league matches.

School technology leaders face a similar challenge trying to manage major projects such as a data warehouse implementation while maintaining quality day-to-day operations. One solution: recruit more members than you need for your IT team so you can “go to your bench” when big projects intrude on normal operations. Extra team members need not be in paid positions. They may be regular staff members who receive extra training in exchange for occasionally helping when resources are stretched.

RULE #3: DEPLOY STRATEGICALLY

The hectic schedule of the FA Cup can cause players to become fatigued and unable to perform at their best in the most important games. That’s why managers of the top teams often leave their highest paid players at home in the early rounds. For CIOs, too, the key is to know when to deploy which team members for a given task. Make certain you have intimate knowledge of your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Get to know their pedagogical, technical, and interpersonal skills through observation, dialogue, and data collection. Then, for a given project, assign the team resources to meet the need but not dramatically more. Strategic deployment of resources is enhanced when you have a highly diverse team with a variety of strengths. Always look for ways to diversify your team in terms of experience, expertise, gender, age, and race. The more diverse your team, the more flexibility you have in putting precisely the right team on the field to win any type of competition.

RULE #4: NURTURE YOUR PLAYERS

The elite teams competing for the FA cup can afford to spend huge sums for star players who can win games almost by themselves. However, long-term success comes when they build talent by nurturing the skills of young and inexperienced players.

In IT, the principles are the same. Use inexperienced team members for important but non-mission-critical tasks. For example, start new technicians on inventories and routine hardware and software installations to build up their knowledge and confidence. Likewise, instructional support staff and trainers can begin with short sessions on discrete technical topics. At the same time, ensure your stars are recognized for the burden they carry. Back in the States, I would frequently send my top performers to conferences or regional meetings.

RULE #5: LEARN FROM YOUR LOSSES

Occasionally, these lessons fail—the lowly village team gets a few breaks, the professional team’s bench players are not match-ready—and there is an upset in the FA Cup. When this happens, the best managers and CIOs immediately reflect on the events, identify any strategic errors, and plan a course of action. Sometimes this means recruiting new team members, but usually turning a loss into a win involves small adjustments in team preparation, nurturing, and deployment.

As a CIO, my team has had many losses. In one memorable episode, we rolled out a new online formative assessment system and provided excellent training. We felt satisfied with ourselves until a couple of months later, when we had little usable data because few teachers were using the system. I called the team together and asked them to collect additional feedback on our work. We learned that teachers had left the training feeling satisfied, but when confronted with the realities of the classroom, they could not see the benefit of investing time in the new system. We regrouped with a quick round of staff development sessions focused on best practices with clear examples of the benefits. Soon the project was back on track, and the team was stronger. We learned for our oversights, continually improved the quality of our data collection, and put out a more focused effort in each successive task.

Todd McIntire is a vice president at Edison Schools, Inc. He is currently involved in developing Edison’s new division in the United Kingdom.

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