Who’s Handling Your Technology in an Increasingly Information-driven Industry?


Who’s Handling Your Technology in an Increasingly Information-driven Industry?

Getting IT staff more involved in operational goals takes engagement from both sides.

Dale Nord of Huskey Truss has been in the information technology field for more than three decades, witnessing what he describes as “continuous change.” While the BCMC audience at this year’s educational session on IT was concerned about giving users enough bandwidth and processing power to share files and do design work remotely, Nord says the problems down the road could be entirely different.

So what do you look for when you’re hiring an IT professional in the component industry, Dallas Austin of Big C Lumber wondered? “Creativity,” answered Nord. “You need [IT staff who are] creative enough to say, ‘what’s out there and how can we bring that into our environment?’”

That sentiment was echoed by Nord’s fellow panelists: “A lot of people doing IT are self-taught, but a lot of things you can’t teach,” argued Greg Dahlstrom of Villaume Industries, chair of the SBCA IT Committee. Among the things that you want to identify in a potential IT hire rather than incorporate into your training: “Creativity, communication, having a drive to learn.”

The problems faced by the component industry, and the IT community within it, will always change, the panel agreed. Jared Dix of Apex Truss noted that young employees are often the most apt “to adapt and learn – IT pushes innovation, and that’s what we all need to be doing.” When you’re ready to hire, look for learners and innovators instead of focusing on specific degrees or certifications, Dix advised.

Don’t forget, summed up Chris Cozart of Builders FirstSource, that “part of the IT function is to be engaged and leverage their IT expertise to improve the operation.” Cozart’s suggestion for building your IT team: “Find the jack-of-all-trades that’s excited to be part of the operation.”

Connecting IT and Operations

“Bridging that gap between IT and operations is very important,” said Dahlstrom. Companies function most efficiently when IT staff can get out in front of big changes, such as installing equipment or upgrading software. Regular meetings that bring together operational, IT and design perspectives can help maintain engagement from all areas of the business to ensure any kind of rollout goes as smoothly as possible.

As a bonus, making sure IT is involved in any operational goal from the very beginning could save money in the long run. Your IT staff “might have insight into applications or systems that may not have a cost,” Cozart pointed out. Even if your communications and technology needs are being met adequately right now, don’t discount IT expertise. Cozart urges operational leadership to make IT staff a part of kaizen events or other efforts to streamline processes. He adds that IT staff need to be regularly making proactive recommendations based on where operational leaders want the company to go.

Nord agreed, urging the half of the audience that identified as management to challenge their IT departments to offer solutions that are both “better and cheaper.” One example from his own career: when Huskey Truss was in need of label printers, Nord evaluated the options and saved the company money – on both up-front and maintenance costs – by picking small, workstation printers instead of big, industrial units.

Worth an Investment

“It’s fun and easy to spend money on a solution,” said Dahlstrom, but good IT staff investigate the high tech, expensive options enough to know when they’re not needed. Dahlstrom points out that in some situations, an old walkie-talkie is a much better communication option than a new device and a pricey texting service. Still, he added, there isn’t any inherent tension between putting resources into IT and putting resources into operations. “The way that I look at IT budgeting – it’s something that drives other departments,” Dahlstrom said.

Nord suggests thinking of the IT budget like the budget for human resources or maintenance. It’s a cost that supports everything else you do. Cozart added that if you really need a number to focus on, consider just how much you lose when there’s downtime due to technology issues. With that scenario in mind, IT looks like a smart investment.

The panel agreed that communication between IT departments and financial leadership has improved over the past few years as the component industry has incorporated more technology. Dix suggests change is happening particularly quickly in small companies, where limited budgets mean fewer projects but more direct input from IT staff. “The good news is, we’re leading the change,” he said.

Cozart noted that if there aren’t IT experts within your company leading operational management toward their goals, it might be time to take a more careful look at your staff. “Maybe it’s the designer who has a knack for computers; if they have an insight into IT and they want to contribute to your operations, engage that person,” Cozart urged.

Even if you can’t afford a full-time IT position, you can benefit from informal IT expertise on staff. Dix is a perfect example: someone who wears multiple hats, only one of which is IT. “We’re putting in a lot of new processes,” he said, and he’s able to take the lead on those initiatives and learn them from the ground up. For maintenance of older technology or for more complicated and involved technical projects, he turns to outside help – a common solution throughout the industry.

“Whenever I have a problem, I have someone who can back me up,” said Jason Hikel, who attended the session. His external consultant is a resource for in-house IT staff, an expert who can walk someone through the big projects that don’t come up every day, like responding to a server crash.

For more immediate help and advice, many IT staff in the industry are relying on their peers: a new Slack channel created by the SBCA IT Committee brings together a handful of IT experts in the industry who have already been reaching out to each other when questions or issues come up.

Engagement in Both Directions

Dahlstrom summed up the conversation by noting: “It’s a two-way street.” IT staff need to reach out to operational leadership – to pitch ideas, ask what the expectations are in terms of business continuity plans, and share what resources they need to keep the company going. “It’s imperative to insert yourself,” said Dix. “Make sure you’re talking to people in upper management,” and telling them that you want to be involved in making things more efficient.

At the same time, operational leaders need to be reaching out to IT staff – making sure that everyone is on the same page about the disaster recovery plan, backup strategies, and user needs. Cozart’s advice to managers: make a Christmas present to your IT staff of an orange vest and an invitation to take a walk around the plant. The more they’re familiar with the full range of your company’s operations and the more engaged they are in the day-to-day work of the plant, the better they can contribute to your company’s success.

About the Author: Before joining the SBC Magazine team in 2015, Dale Erlandson wrote for a variety of publications in several different careers, including non-profit communications, teaching and technical writing.