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A CIO at a global manufacturing solution provider argues that your internal social networks can be as important today as your technology networks.
By Chase Christensen, VP and CIO, EMS Segment, Jabil
Like most companies, Jabil faced the task of transitioning much of its workforce to remote work as the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year. Unlike most companies, our transition took only hours. We remotely enabled 70,000 employees overnight with almost zero impact on the business.
Five years of work lay behind that overnight success. We launched our Cloud First strategy in 2015, and a few years ago started migrating our communication systems to a collaboration suite of integrated web-based tools that could manage our global distributed workforce. Making our network topology more Internet-based, as well as adding onboarding collaboration tools throughout the organization, made it possible for us to shift workers easily to a remote worksite or create a thoroughly distributed workforce.
This is not to suggest that we are done further improving our IT systems or enabling business process productivity. Integrating the cloud is an ongoing journey for us because, unlike many companies, we can’t just send everything offsite. Since we make tangible products, and we have people interacting with machines, some of our computing power and storage needs to be distributed, located close to our equipment and our manufacturing processes. The ability to manage across various compute and storage layers is something that will continue to mature for us. Capabilities that once were available at one layer within the infrastructure – either a data center or the cloud – are now being distributed through all layers of edge computing.
The other networking challenge
That said, our biggest networking challenge now may in fact be less technical than operational – that is, how do we develop the right business processes and maintain our strong culture? For one thing, as we move into an era of hybrid work, we will not only have a fully distributed team, which we have had before, but also more employees who work remotely full-time.
Last year, when many more people worked remotely, we were all in similar positions. We were all virtual tiles on the same screen. But, as we move to a hybrid work environment, we will now have a mix of employees – those who are working jointly in a conference room or cubicle space and those who are dialing in. We’ll want to ensure that those working remotely don’t feel excluded.
A hybrid environment will create other operational challenges, as well. For example, onboarding a remote worker takes a level of maturity of documentation and processes. You need to focus on engaging and networking people as they are onboarded. When people come into the office to work, relationships are built almost incidentally, as people bump into each other informally in the hall or at neighboring desks. In a virtual workplace, you must take more care to ensure that those connections happen when someone arrives, rather than let new employees’ integration drag on for months.
Supporting the human networks
Managing this hybrid kind of work requires a change in behavior.
We are encouraging managers to maintain a hyper-focus on networking through a virtual presence, making sure that they are creating connections not only at the team level, but on a peer level beyond their direct team. Being a globally distributed organization, we have IT professionals around the globe. I need to make sure that my people in Florida are connecting with my people in Asia and Malaysia and different parts of Europe.
Simple things can help. Turn on your camera to make yourself clearly present. See the other person’s face. And when you think about networking, don’t focus only on work. Take the opportunity to reach out to your peers to have a personal conversation, to understand them, to understand their hobbies. Find out what makes them tick.
Again, those are things that everyone would do naturally if they were going into an office. Now it’s just a matter of reminding people to take the time to do these things virtually.
Picking the right people
If human networking is so important, who are the humans we want in those networks?
A couple years ago, we began hiring not only for technical skills but also for business acumen and soft skills such as intellectual creativity.
The technical skills are important, of course. Recently, we have focused on getting cloud certification throughout the organization. As we move forward over the next three to five years, our focus will continue to be on cloud capabilities, with an additional emphasis on technical skills involving automation and analytics.
But business acumen is also now a requirement for us. No matter what level or role people play in IT, their charter is to enable business value through technology, via the right investments at the right time. We need each professional to understand not only how Jabil delivers value to our customers, but how the application of certain technologies can optimize or differentiate us in the industry.
I could have network administrators who don’t understand what Jabil does in the business, and they could probably function okay. But that would not be at the level we need them to function.
In the past, a network administrator might say, I’ll just wire everything. Well, yes, you can, and that may work in many companies. But once you understand our business model, you know that numerous wireless protocols are necessary. We need to make sure that we’re meshing in new technologies like WiFi-6 and 5G. A network administrator who has that knowledge can help us make better architectural decisions quicker and faster.
If my network administrators understand what Jabil EMS does as a business – how we produce materials and how those materials depend on intelligent manufacturing equipment that in some cases involves IoT to create products centered on core electronics – they will understand why we need to be able to support multiple protocols.
Hiring for creativity
As far as personal traits go, I expect that prospective team members will share certain characteristics, including passion and creativity.
And how do you identify such a person? Clearly, at the most basic level, people need to have a passion for technology. Most of our team members are technologists at heart. You could say they’re technology hobbyists, and their work aligns to that passion.
As for job candidates’ creative potential, ask about their passions beyond work. Their answers will usually give you some idea of who they are. It’s not that you’re looking for someone who is a frustrated artist. But you’re trying to tap into those things that they care about and use that as an opportunity to see their degree of creativity outside of work.
After all, just as the best IT networks are built partly on innovation, so the best human networks reflect the creativity of their members.
A hybrid work environment may be more challenging to manage than a 100% remote work environment.
Encourage team members to work extra hard to get to know – personally as well as professionally – colleagues they don’t work with in person.
In today’s environment, business acumen and soft skills such as creativity can be as important as technology expertise.