IT operations teams are like houses: They all serve the same basic purpose, but you can design and build them in many ways. The IT operations team structure that works best for one business may be a poor fit for others.
That's why it's important to consider your business's needs as you define the structure for your ITOps team. This article provides guidance on how to do that by walking through key factors that affect IT team structure.
What Is IT Team Structure, and Why Does It Matter?
IT team structure is a framework that defines how the individual members of an IT operations team work together. In other words, an IT team structure is a definition of the roles and relationships between members of the IT team.
Because the typical IT team includes multiple members who specialize in different tasks, having a well-defined IT team structure is critical for ensuring that the organization can delegate responsibilities appropriately across the team.
In addition, an effective team structure also improves the employee experience and helps reduce the risk of burnout by ensuring that each IT operations engineer has a clear mission and set of responsibilities. Without a well-structured team, there is a higher chance that individual engineers will struggle to figure out what they're supposed to do all day, or that they'll feel overstretched because they lack focus and guidance on the job.
Types of IT Team Structures
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring an IT team. On the contrary, there are many models. The most common include:
- The pyramid (or hierarchical) structure, in which a relatively small number of IT managers are responsible for overseeing a relatively large number of lower-level IT employees. This is probably the most common type of IT team structure. It's also one of the most rigid, which can be both good and bad, as we explain below.
- A grid structure, which involves dividing the IT team into a series of smaller groups that have multiple managers and multiple responsibilities. This is a more flexible type of IT team structure, although it can carry the downside of making it harder to make decisions because it creates a more complicated leadership hierarchy.
- The functional model. Under this structure, the IT team is separated into subteams, each of which handles a different type of domain. One might be responsible for end-user support, for example, while another handles server management. There's typically also one set of leadership for each subteam (although there is also usually a central group of high-level IT managers).
These are only the most common types of IT team structures. Other examples exist, and some businesses use a hybrid approach where they adopt multiple types of IT team structures at once for different parts of their IT organization.
What to Consider When Planning Your ITOps Team Structure
To decide which IT team structure is best for your business, consider the following key factors.
First and foremost, your IT team structure should reflect your broader organizational culture and priorities.
For example, a "flat" organization that prioritizes minimal bureaucracy and management hierarchies would probably benefit most from a functional IT team structure, because it reduces the number of managers that each team has to answer to.
On the other hand, a business that prioritizes moving quickly could benefit from a well-defined but lean hierarchy within its IT team, which helps to enable faster decision-making by reducing the number of people who are involved in key decisions. This is one of the benefits of having a pyramid IT team structure, which makes it more difficult for lower-level employees to operate dynamically but which also reduces the number of approvals and roadblocks that teams must clear when they want to get things done.
IT team structure will also vary based on the overall size of your business. Functional team structures tend not to work as well in small organizations because the IT team may not be large enough to include various subteams dedicated to specific domains.
Meanwhile, in very large businesses with large IT teams, breaking out the IT organization into smaller units is virtually essential for ensuring that it remains effective, because otherwise IT team members might not know which tasks to prioritize across the sprawling business.
If your business outsources at least some of its IT work, that practice will also play an important role in defining your ITOps team structure. Outsourcing reduces the overall size of the IT team that a business maintains. In particular, it usually leads to fewer lower-level employees, since their jobs are the ones that are most likely to be outsourced to a contracting firm.
Organizations that rely extensively on IT outsourcing are likely to find that a hierarchical IT team structure works best for them. If you don't have many IT employees in-house, you don't stand to gain as much from having a grid or functional team structure because you don't have as many employees to fit into the grid or functional sets of teams.
Types of technologies
Finally, the types of technologies that your IT team needs to support play a major role in shaping team structure. An IT organization that needs to manage disparate types of systems — such as desktops, on-premises servers, and multiple clouds — will benefit more from a functional team structure than an organization that has only a few key types of systems or technologies to maintain.
The way you structure your IT team plays a key role in shaping its overall effectiveness, as well as in determining how satisfying your employees find their jobs to be. Although there's no singular set of rules to follow when structuring an IT organization, you should consider factors like organizational culture, size, outsourcing strategies, and technological needs to select the type of IT team structure that best fits your needs.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.