Leadership Staffing

The Dilemma of Turning IT Generalists into Specialists

The Dilemma of Turning IT Generalists into Specialists

When it comes to making the farmer’s breakfast, the chicken is deeply involved, in that she contributes the eggs. If the breakfast is burned, it is unfortunate, but the chicken will contribute another egg tomorrow and we’ll give it another try. In contrast, it takes the pig everything it has to make the farmer’s breakfast (ham, sausage, bacon), and if the breakfast is burned, it is more than unfortunate, because the pig hasn’t got another chance to make it work. Thus, the pig is committed to the success of the breakfast, and the chicken only deeply involved.

I bring up this little fable because when we embarked on our transformation of IT services in Oklahoma, part of that was changing IT generalists to IT specialists. When an individual or small team of people provide IT services to an agency, each member may have to do networking services, security services, application server support, application development, end user support, second level support, depot and repair services, vendor management, and all the other services associated with supporting the use of IT in an agency.

In effect, the team is comprised of IT generalists having to provide all IT services for the agency they work in. We have over 130 executive branch agencies within the State of Oklahoma, and prior to 2012, each was responsible for providing their own IT services.

Centralization of IT Services

We have started to move people from generalist roles to specialists, allowing them to hone their skills in a specific IT discipline. We’ve had people move to networking specialists, end user support specialists, depot service specialists, software development and everything else.

Curiously, however, this has turned many an IT generalist who felt they owned the problem of an agency into an IT specialist who feels they do not own the problem when it falls outside of their area of responsibility. They’re now the chickens, instead of the pigs.

I first became aware of this from watching change management meetings within my own organization. I have witnessed discussions move away from problem resolutions and toward problem assignment. Problem assignment is important when performing in a team of specialists, but coming with the assignment of resolution is also the assignment of responsibility to the customer. The purpose of these meetings has changed from getting problems resolved toward getting the responsibility to a customer transferred.

To summarize the agency by agency approach, we take the entire agency’s IT staff and assets and go through an ITIL process for normalizing their systems and services. Depending on the size and complexity of the agency’s IT systems, this could take as little as a month or as long as a year.

One of the things that I have noticed is that when an agency is in transformation, my expectation would be that the agency personnel would be plugged into the change control meetings on a daily basis. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, there is the perception that both the responsibility and risks of transformation has been transferred from their agency to our central IT group, much like I would expect to see when an organization outsources IT services. The personnel providing the IT services are no longer committed to the organization’s mission, they are committed to their own. We become a guild, if you like, focusing on our craft more than on the value to the agency.

My uncle Olin Grahm worked on the Apollo, Mercury and Gemini space projects in the 1960s, building the cameras that went up into orbit. He was just a small part of NASA, but like him, everyone within the organization knew the overall goal: we are sending a man to the moon. How galvanizing that must have been to have this shared vision as individual teams worked on their discrete assignments? We seem to lose that as part of our transformation of IT from distributed to centralized services.

We have to beware we don’t act like we’re in a guild, or we’ll lose the confidence of our customers. We turn our pigs into chickens, where they no longer feel the attachment to the individual agency’s vision. In an IT outsourcing contract, this may be unavoidable. But we’re not outsourcing; we’re using what we’ve got (people, assets) to the optimum purpose for the State.

I don’t believe it is inevitable that we have to turn pigs into chickens to accomplish centralization. I’m not sure if customer centric training, incorporating metrics for customer satisfaction or having a customer-champion/advocate is the right way to approach the problem, but I do see it as a challenge, and a significant one for any IT consolidation.


Alex Pettit

Alex Pettit, Chief Information Officer and Secretary, State Information Technology and Telecommunications

Alex Z. Pettit was appointed as the first Chief Information Officer with the State of Oklahoma in April, 2010, by Governor Brad Henry, and was reappointed by Governor Mary Fallin in January, 2011. He serves as the Cabinet Secretary of Infor... More   View all posts


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Alex Pettit


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