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Managing IT after the recession: The good, the bad and the promising

David Foote, Foote Partners LLC

This is the first in a series of monthly columns by IT work force analyst David Foote. It is devoted to post-recession IT management issues for CIOs.

David Foote

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It almost seems counterintuitive to suggest that the challenges businesses are facing right now are more difficult than those weathered in the recent economic recession. But it's true, despite record gains in productivity and strong earnings reports for many companies. CIOs will need to be at the top of their game if they expect to dodge a number of bullets heading their way, or even to sustain recent gains.

Most companies did a good job reducing costs and balancing their budgets during the downturn, but many deserve a failing grade for how they managed their people. I'm referring to how poorly work force reductions were planned and executed, and the resentment, anxiety and stress that is now palpable within the ranks of fed-up IT survivors exhausted by expanded workloads and long hours. An added problem: Many are well paid, go-to types whom employers can ill-afford to lose. In addition, these workers are looking for a change and scrutinizing their employer.

My firm is seeing this disaffection in hundreds of companies we track in our research, which monitors 42,000 workers in North America. We're also noticing performance issues and delayed projects. And these are not just internal issues; quality declines in service and support areas are becoming apparent to the average consumer.

It is surprising how few employers making layoff decisions were cognizant of protecting those IT workers who could be instrumental in helping them get back on their feet -- even thrive -- in a post-recession transitional environment. I'm talking about the types who not only deeply understand the business and their customers, but also how they work on a psychological and even emotional level.

Why is this so critical now? Transitions are psychological, internal and focused on endings. By contrast, "change" is situational, external and focused on outcomes that are usually pretty straightforward, like cost containment or risk reduction in the recession.

It's about much more than staff retention. Naturalist Charles Darwin discovered that the strongest or most intelligent species don't necessarily come out on top in the survival sweepstakes, but instead, those that are most responsive to change. CIOs need to be hyperaware of this, as they adjust to a post-recession transitional environment filled with fear, uncertainty and doubt that can easily undermine an IT department's recovery.

Some of the strategies that seem to be working in the current environment include:

  • Opening up internal communications. By being more inclusive than exclusive and encouraging workers to participate in decisions, fears are neutralized and overreaction and emotional disruptions are less common.

  • Developing core project management skills and discipline. Results include more predictable outcomes and repeatable successes, which build confidence and trust.

  • Improving stakeholder analysis, planning and management. Flattened organizations and enterprise-wide initiatives have increased the size of teams and number of people who can influence decisions. Huge landmines can be sidestepped by better understanding the relationships and interactions between people who have a stake in an outcome.

  • Rewarding workers for "soft" skills and process improvements, not just for meeting deadlines and revenue targets. Incentive plans, promotions and career tracks that recognize the value of collaboration, facilitation, negotiation, marketing, conflict resolution and team-building abilities, plus a range of interpersonal skills will improve retention rates and boost organizational performance.

  • Paying attention to character and ethics issues. Perceptions are more emotionally charged these days and can undermine leadership.

Post-recession IT management will increasingly focus on compliance with new regulations (e.g., the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) and manage escalating security threats to data and networks in an increasingly wireless, hacker-infested business world. It will require that CIOs hire full time or temporary employees and train an army of new breed IT workers with combinations of new technology expertise, political savvy and "soft" skills that make them credible to a variety of internal and external business customers. There are also offshore outsourcing complexities (more than half are failing to live up to their hype) and a new wave of mergers and acquisitions that will soon shake up many IT shops.

For more information

David Foote found that offshore outsourcing is eating away at U.S. salaries.

Read David's advice on how to hire and keep your best people.

Does IT even matter anymore?

The fact is that IT has been in the middle of a massive reconstitution of the corporate work force for several years -- from slow and plodding to flexible, adaptive and better able to cope with competitive forces and an accelerating pace of change. If there's a silver lining to all those recession-driven work force reductions, it is that CIOs are now able to rebuild their IT organizations with the right balance of full time employees, consultants, contractors, temps, job-sharers and onshore/offshore outsourced talent for maximum flexibility and responsiveness. This will be a new experience for many CIOs, made tougher by transition issues.

Stay tuned for future columns that will explore transition management, organizational restructuring and governance, regulation compliance, security, human capital management, enterprise project delivery and other challenges that lie ahead for IT leaders now that business conditions have improved.

David Foote is co-founder, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners LLC (www.footepartners.com), a management consultancy and IT work force research firm based in New Canaan, Conn. A former Gartner Inc. and Meta Group Inc. analyst who founded and directed Meta's executive service, Foote has advised leading corporations and governments on five continents in information age management strategies for more than 20 years. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.


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