Communication and Collaboration Drives Innovation in the IT Workplace

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to volunteer with local elementary teachers on several STEM projects involving current-day challenges in our community and around the globe. Early exposure to STEM through experimental learning promotes interest in science, technology, engineering, and math while following the basics of project management and Scrum as core tools. Much like an SDLC project, each STEM project provides project deliverables, requirements, and guidelines. Teachers act solely as facilitators, reiterating the importance of collaboration and communication for the success of the project.

Each student is encouraged to think of their strengths and interests, and what they can bring to the project. These are communicated early among the team, after which each member of the project is quickly assigned a role and responsibility. This self-organization promotes collaboration and communication, increasing the opportunity for success. Project iterations enable the students to learn, grow, and improve as a team – resulting in more consistent, higher-quality, and more accurate deliverables. Agile and SDLC projects utilize similar self-organization approaches and self-assign based on preferences, allowing teams to run autonomously. Students and developers alike benefit from self-assigning tasks based on interests or the opportunity to learn new technology, tools, and domains.

Communication and Collaboration Among IT Projects

Communication and collaboration are foundational elements in both STEM and IT projects, creating an opportunity to dive further into why these areas can make or break project success.

Oregon-based teacher and STEM instructor Terry Evers reiterated the importance of these areas, reflecting on how the focus of project skills has changed in the past 10 years: “Ten years ago the focus would have been primarily on the science component and perhaps some technology integration versus today’s STEM/STEAM lens. Along with the STEAM-focused approach today, we are placing a priority on soft skills, namely what we call the five C’s: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Citizenship.” Likewise, the leaders of today’s successful IT projects are shifting their approach to utilize these soft skills.

Self-Organization and Resource Allocation to Improve Decision-Making

Let’s start with resources. Each STEM project team receives the same objective and same number of allocated team members and is then encouraged to determine the strengths of team members and task assignments. During early communication, as each student discusses their core strengths, it becomes apparent that some members of the team are stronger communicators. Thus, the strengths of these individuals become better known than strengths of other team members.

This similarly applies in IT, as decisions are made based on what skills are needed and the quantity of resources required to meet quality deliverables in projected timelines. However, STEM and IT differ dramatically in their approach to drawing from resource pools. IT also struggles with a consistent challenge of what has been termed “STP” (same 10 people). Or, put another way, some resources are widely known for their knowledge, skill, and previous work quality. These resources are continually sought after for project work, resulting in the over-reliance of key resources.

The STP issue not only sways the chances of project success but also results in project contention, a disproportionate ratio of assignment to value-based projects, and an even bigger issue of tribal knowledge and stagnancy in resource skillsets. Promoting the opportunity to learn new technologies and domains may address the organizational need to spread the disproportional load of STP to other team members and increase the diversity of resource pools.

Project Feedback Loop and Change

Feedback loops are a critical tool to SCRUM success and must be incorporated throughout the development lifecycle. This benefits the product and development team by quickly validating work done, providing early insight to quality, and ensuring smaller adaptation. Feedback often results in change in requirements or rework of development effort.

Feedback loops typically occur within product silos, as do measurable elements of the project such as items accepted into Sprint, effort points, start/end date, resources utilized, and over/under calculations (effort/time/money). However, the inability to holistically analyze across product silos continues to impact cross-product/effort organizations such as IT. These organizations often have resources allocated across projects of varying business importance; as each project accepts changes from the business, timelines adjust and resource contention becomes inevitable.

Incorporating continuous holistic analytics across projects and development efforts would help to identify these contentions and expose common trends and outliers, giving leaders an opportunity to adjust and remove blockers as well as reduce contentions in future projects.

Managing Resource Requirements

Requirements management and requirements gathering have some of the greatest potential to impact the success or failure of a project, whether SDLC, Agile, or STEM. Thus, it is essential to prioritize early and consistent communication with feedback loops and alignment to larger goals. Late changes in requirements introduce rework and constraints on time/budget/effort, and can have a devastating impact on development if they require redesign or rework versus the simpler add-on that aligns with work already done. Effort spent in earlier phases of the SDLC such as Initiation and Requirements definition and design can drive documented details, alignment, and foundational communication in later phases. This effort can improve the chance of success in the project and quality of the deliverables.

Improving Communication and Collaboration with Analytics

Software Development and Project analytics introduce insights holistically across project, portfolios, and development efforts. Leaders become more informed decision makers and gain transparency into a variety of indicators, such as:

  • At what phase am I spending the most resource time?
  • How often are changes introduced in late phases?
  • What are the projects currently in progress with delayed start dates?
  • What is the top skill request across projects to date based on projected hours?
  • Why are my utilization rates higher among a core set of resources?
  • How are resources positively/negatively impacting my projects?
  • What are my top resource utilization trends?
  • Why are my projects delayed?

Embracing transparency in and around the SDLC is core to its success. Experiencing setbacks is inevitable in corporate projects, development efforts, and generally keeping the lights on. People have realized that controlling specific factors of any effort can minimize the disruption and impact to the individual, project, region, or larger organization.

In today’s classrooms, teachers are employing these same lessons around communication and collaboration for STEM activities. Applying these principles increases student autonomy while promoting curiosity, creativity, and alignment among the teams. As Terry Evers shares, “We spend time with each unit of learning discussing and reviewing what effective communication and collaboration look like, and how these soft skill areas apply to their learning. Recently I shared with students what Google values most in its employees and their work teams. The soft skills were the most valued, with knowledge of STEM content not being of high priority.”

Get Involved in Your STEM Community

STEM teachers often network statewide and typically plan STEM projects in advance. Factors such as availability of volunteer pool (specialized skills as well as non-specialized skills) are taken into consideration, so there is tremendous opportunity for volunteers in the school classroom as well as field classrooms. Terry Evers provided additional context for community involvement in STEAM: “We have found on many occasions that some of our greatest assets are found in our school community, ranging from parents to relatives of staff members and local community members.” Having seen the positive impact on schools and students in my local community as well as my own children, I strongly recommend involvement in school STEM and STEAM projects.

Terry Evers is a 4th-5th grade math and science teacher and STEAM Instructional Facilitator in Newberg, OR. Mr. Evers has been instrumental in transitioning Ewing Young Elementary to a STEAM-focused school and has long been credited among his students for inspiring their love of mathematics and sciences. Last year, he was recognized by the National Science Foundation for his dedication and ongoing excellence.

[Image credit: Unsplash.]

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