Unique Organizational Glue

Glue is the most important part of any organization, and the part which is always unique to every organization.  Understanding this, and knowing how to make and apply glue will make the difference between a smooth running organization and an organization that is constantly firefighting and often working against itself.

In more traditional organizations, glue was process.  When you wanted to create cohesiveness between your employees and departments, you needed to create a process, train the players in performing the process, and then have a combination of rewards and punishments for not following the processes that glue your organization together.

Human processes will never be removed, because we are humans and will always have needs too subtle and changing, and human, to be automated.

That said, many things in today’s organizations can and should be automated, and this is the glue with which I spend most of my time making and thinking about.

The thing about organization glue is that it is always unique to your organization.  You can buy off-the-shelf glue, but you still have to apply it uniquely, and take care of it uniquely, and train people how to use it uniquely, because no other business does exactly what your business does, with the exact people and structure your business has.

So whether you are a Buy-Everything-Microsoft-Makes shop or a Build-Everything-Myself-From-Open-Source shop, you are still configuring everything uniquely, to solve your unique problems.

Herein lies the reasons more expert operations people choose Linux and other *nix environments, because in these environments you are expected to make your own glue.  All the components may come readily available, and many of the glues are already pre-mixed, but you are still expected to figure out where to put it, how to configure it, and probably to write your own custom glue code to connect piece X to piece Y, because they don’t quite line up.

In a pre-packaged environment, much of this has been done for you, many processes have already been worked out, and you are expected to implement them to specification.  Certificate programs are created to align workers with the commercial packages they support to enforce these “best practices”.

The trouble comes when these pre-made glue stamps fail to meet all your organizations needs, and then you must create custom glue.  In an environment that expects or requires custom glue, this has a steep learning curve, but is expected and encouraged.  In an environment where everything is supposed to be planned for you to implement, it is very difficult to add your own processes, and agility is lost at the benefit for having the majority of your solution come out of a box.

Working around these unique elements, while still working with the system to not subvert the benefits you received from purchasing it, create an extremely difficult situation made worse by those who are not capable or do not believe in custom solutions.

The real problem is one of expectations.  As a unique service provider, your business will do some things uniquely.  If you are in an industry where your service is all taken care of by humans, then your internal operations may well be simple enough to use off-the-shelf glue, and it will work well enough.

In the complex and ever changing world of internet software companies, this is not the case, and never has been.  And yet, many people still do not understand that their organization requires custom glue, that their processes will not simply connect together, and that by leveraging the abilities of their senior staff to create custom solutions, that mix in with existing open source and purchased solutions, they can find an optimal balance between buying and building, that they never really had a choice between anyway.

You simply can’t buy it all, because no one sells “Your Business In a Box”.  It’s up to you to build your business, and if you do it well, it will seem like it fits in a box.  If you do it poorly, it will seem like a combination of post-Katrina wasteland and a forest fire.

Either way, it pays to understand that your business has unique goals, and that it will take unique glue to bind your employees and departments together to achieve those goals.

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One Response to Unique Organizational Glue

  1. Pity the company that hasn’t yet learned this lesson. It has painful lessons ahead, pain that will also be felt by its staff and customers.

    Glue is the currency of system administration and the ability to produce glue from the unassuming raw materials (essentially a programming language and a text editor) is a prerequisite for any sysadmin worth his salt. He who possesses not only these tools, but also a lucid understanding of the problem at hand, plus the skill to methodically devise a robust and scalable solution, will truly find himself in demand.

    *nix-like systems are designed on the principle of small, modular programs that process input and produce output. This stream paradigm is powerful, more than the sum of its parts, because it allows the chaining together of small building blocks to produce fiendishly ingenious data-processing pipelines. This is the machinery of glue production, the essence of *nix.

    Pre-baked, one-size-won’t-actually-fit-all solutions are more the preserve of the commercial OS producers, with Microsoft most frequently singled out for a well-deserved raking over the coals.

    It’s no coincidence that most Windows admins can’t program for toffee. The level to which the average Windows admin is prepared to invest time and energy in mastering his craft is significantly lower than that of his *nix-using colleague.

    Why is that?

    Because at the crux of the Windows ethos is the notion that the software, as supplied, is capable of doing the job for which it is sold. The notion that the system will cater to all your needs with negligible administrative effort has been very successfully marketed over the years. This has led legions of confident computer users to conclude, over-confidently, that they, too, possess the requisite skills to be IT professionals. After all, they can manage the hosts on their home network, so why not someone else’s?

    The IT world is a lot more complex than a typical home environment, and very soon the essential nature of inter-system glue reveals itself. It’s here that many, if not most Windows admins throw in the towel, because they know only how to open drop-down menus, highlight radio buttons and click the ‘Yes’ button when asked whether they really want to do what they just told the computer they want to do.

    This is why Windows admins are often treated like second class citizens in the IT world, both by their more knowledgeable *nix colleagues, and by the companies they work for. They can’t produce glue, so their creative usefulness is woefully constrained. They are at the mercy of the configurability of whatever boxed software products mamagement has purchased. What a terrible situation to be in, for both the sysadmin and his employer.

    At the same time, glue for glue’s sake is no good, either. Overly complex, underdocumented systems are a real danger in today’s fast-paced IT world. Avoidance of that is yet another quality one seeks in both sysadmins and their immediate managers.

    As long as there is a demand for glue — and it’s hard to picture a world without that need — there will be a means of differentiating sysadmins. The success of my whole career can be traced back to that fundamental discriminator.

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