Over the past two years, when I’ve asked business, digital and IT executives what critical skill or talent they most sorely lack, I’ve gotten an unexpected response: It’s what several called “chunkers.” Not only has the pandemic increased the need for chunkers; it also requires a different set of perspectives and skills from these individuals, according to several executives.

So, what is a chunker? Implementing successful digital business efforts in a changing commercial environment often requires many stakeholders to do things they’ve never done before, individually or organizationally. Whether it’s taking advantage of data analysis, or having processes driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), or expecting customers to self-manage their accounts – all require changes across many fronts.

Chunkers have the distinctive ability to:

  • Determine and articulate what a reasonable scope should be.
  • Lead a comprehensive risk and readiness assessment, as well as a plan for minimizing risk.
  • Identify, procure and organize the spectrum of stakeholders and resources required for the effort.
  • Ascertain the priorities, steps and sequence of the spectrum of activities required.
  • Piece together how all the players and resources needed to coalesce.
  • Monitor and adjust the activities and resources as they unfold.
  • Collegially get everyone engaged, sustain the momentum and communicate what has to happen to be successful. This can often mean cajoling multiple levels of stakeholders who have other day jobs and objectives.

In other words, given the overall aspirational or intended effort, the chunker has an innate ability to determine, facilitate and sustain an attainable scope.

Beyond the Visionary

According to the CEO of an engineered-to-order manufacturer with whom I recently spoke, the failure to meet the goals of digital initiatives can’t be pegged to a lack of competent project managers, visionaries, innovators, outside providers, marketers or operating managers – his organization is filled with them. What’s lacking, he noted, are people who can envision a practical scope, determine all the pieces needed for an effort to succeed and marshal them forward. These individuals need an exceptional sensory skill and temperament to see the big picture of a loosely described endeavor and chunk out the details needed for success.

Chunkers aren’t needed when business, technology and efforts are relatively known and stable. Chunkers also don’t replace the somewhat siloed talents of project managers, visionaries, innovators, outside providers, marketers or operating managers – those capabilities are needed more than ever. But the people in these more traditional roles do need to understand and respect the role of chunkers in their success.

The Remaking of Chunking 

Until COVID-19, the chunker role was a manifestation of six contextual drivers:

  1. Most endeavors were brought to them by the business or IT.
  2. Most endeavors were typically overly grand in scope.
  3. Commitment was overly enthusiastic.
  4. De-scoping was a big challenge.
  5. Funding was not an issue.
  6. The role pivoted around speed and agility to results.

Clearly, the pandemic has changed the business environment. None of these six contextual drivers exist anymore, at least in their traditional form. The current chunker environment typically has new drivers, as revealed through the  experience of a retail chain. The chain had experienced a dramatic and sudden change to its volume, mix and order sizes as a result of the pandemic. Its operations managers were completely consumed with trying to make the existing facilities and systems work. 

Here are the new drivers for the chunking role, as seen through the retailer’s experience:  

  • Opportunities need to be proactively sought. Rather than waiting for major endeavors to be brought to them, the chunkers needed to look into the details of the business and suggest what mini-endeavors would best address the immediate business challenges. A chunker quickly sorted out what could be done to address fulfillment.
  • The scope needs to be holistically defined. Operations executives at the chain’s distribution centers (DC) suggested very minor changes as they were under intense stress. The chunkers needed to expand the scope of change beyond the distribution centers. They revealed the need for many changes, including the fact that inventories needed to be managed nationally and not by region. Additionally, many problematic items had to be taken off the e-commerce website, and pricing changes needed to be made to reflect supply chain cost increases.
  • Commitment needs to be gained amid time and resource constraints: The chunkers had to help overcome cries of “not now; can’t you see we’re busy?”
  • The scope needs to be aligned with changing resources, uncertainties and ambiguities. One chunker limited the project’s scope to the most problematic 10% of the SKUs. He then decided that most – not all – of that 10% needed to be centralized and managed nationally. Because existing resources were not available, third parties helped centralize inventory.
  • Gaining funding is difficult. Funding was a huge issue for the retailer, as no business line with a distribution center wanted to pay for transition costs. The corporate CFO agreed to fund the overall effort and not charge line management. Businesses should look into whether the chunker role can be handled for free or nearly free by repurposing job functions or roles.
  • Action is needed to ensure fit and sustainability with the current environment. For the changes to be most effective, the chunkers insisted that a set of programs needed to be included in the chunk to provide ongoing communication, and broadcast the status of changes, adjustments to supply chains, impact on customers, as well as re-training of staff.

These are just some of the hundreds-plus factors I’ve heard about what chunkers need to identify and coordinate.

Surfacing New Opportunities

A CIO I initially spoke with last year recently told me his three best chunkers are no longer suited for what they currently face. He described the need for a major “inversion” of his star chunkers, who were accustomed to acting as order takers who chunked what the business brought to them. Now, he said, they needed to act more as miners and prospectors to uncover crucial opportunities.

Executives have identified another benefit of good chunkers: They provide an objective view of what an endeavor should be, what it will take to succeed and how the effort is progressing to the desired outcome. For example, the owner or zealot behind the effort might continuously expand the scope of the effort and only report the good news – “you won’t believe what we’ve learned from the data analysis.” It takes a  chunker to ask if the learning is scalable, actionable and able to be converted to a material contribution.

The questions for businesses that want to embark on successful initiatives, then, include:

  • Does your organization recognize the need for chunkers?
  • How are these individuals identified?
  • How are they trained and supported?
  • How are they changing?

As organizations attempt to do more things they haven’t done before, the role and number of chunkers become more important. Several executives said they started by asking managers to identify staff who had demonstrated the unique skills, talent, perspectives and temperament to chunk on successful efforts. While chunking is not something that’s easily taught, some developed forums or competency centers for the initial chunkers to share experiences. Over time, the needed competencies have grown.

Please share any chunking experiences or insights you have by commenting on this blog. If you have any questions, please send me an email at the address below.

Bruce J. Rogow

Bruce J. Rogow is a Principal at IT Odyssey and Advisory in Marblehead, Mass. Known as the counselor to CIOs and CEOs... Read more

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