Monday, October 26, 2009

People are NOT fungible

One of the things that happened during the transformation from being "employees" to being "human resources" is that large corporations apparently decided that employees are fungible. That is, if you have two employees, employee A and employee B, and employee A is making a lot more money than employee B, it's fine to just drive off employee A and replace his position with employee B then hire a contractor for even less to fill employee B's position. Hey, an employee is an employee, right? Interchangeable, just like cogs, eh?

Much has been said about Microsoft's T-Mobile Sidekick disaster and what that says about the notion of "cloud computing" (hint: As I said earlier, cloud computing does not eliminate normal IT tasks other than actual hardware maintenance). But it says even more about the whole concept of "human resources". The infrastructure that Microsoft purchased with Danger included Oracle databases, Sun servers, and a set of non-Microsft NAS or SAN systems. None of these are things that Microsoft has experience with. The current hypothesis is that Microsoft contracted a contractor to do an Oracle database upgrade, and the contractor did exactly that, and Oracle -- as it often does -- ate its database during the upgrade. This was compounded by, apparently, the database backups being unreadable by the new version of the database. All of this is remediable if you have sufficient Oracle expertise on staff, but apparently neither Microsoft nor their contractor had such expertise -- they'd all left Danger after the acquisition after being shifted to positions dealing with other technologies that they didn't like or did not have the skills to do successfully.

Lesson for managers: Identify the critical skills that you need in order to continue to have a viable business, and retain those people. It's a lot easier to retain the people you need, than to find new people with those same skills to replace them once they do leave and you discover that suddenly you no longer have a viable enterprise because critical tasks are no longer being done for lack of expertise to do them. Employees are not fungible. You simply cannot replace an Oracle database expert with a contractor hired off the streets or with an expert in Microsoft databases, Oracle databases are black magic and the people who can successfully maintain them are worth every penny you pay them.

Of course, it's easy to throw stones at Microsoft here, but it's not a Microsoft problem. It's an industry-wide problem. Managers industry-wide are failing at the task of properly identifying the skills they need in order to perform the tasks needed to have a viable business, and when the people with critical skills leave are blind-sided. Thus you get disasters like Sprint's Nextel disaster, or this Sidekick disaster, where critical infrastructure people left and the infrastructure fell apart and rendered the enterprise non-viable. Employees are not fungible, and if you fail in your job of identifying the skills needed to keep your business operating and retaining the people with those skills, you may not get the press of the Sidekick disaster, but your business will operate slower, less efficiently, and have difficulty getting product out the door. And especially look at IT and operations people. That's not sexy stuff, but both Sprint/Nextel and Microsoft/Danger show that you simply cannot fire all the operations people you just acquired and replace them with your experienced employees who are experienced with a totally incompatible technology. It doesn't work. It just doesn't. And remedying the disaster that arises after you do this will be far, far more expensive than just retaining those critical infrastructure people in the first place.


No comments:

Post a Comment