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IT job rotation rare, but critical for business alignment

Giving up good employees to other business units within an organization has likely soured more than a few managers, but experts say CIOs concerned about staffing should seriously consider formal IT job rotation programs.

Ten percent of the employees in CIO Joe Lacik's IT organization were originally recruited from the business side of his company.

Lacik says rotating workers into IT from business operations is part of the reason why IT is so strongly aligned with the business at Aviall Inc., a Dallas-based distributor of aerospace parts and services with $1.3 billion in sales. Aviall was recently purchased by The Boeing Co.

 Thinking through talent management issues isn't always top of mind until it begins to influence performance.
Samuel Bright
analystForrester Research Inc.

Despite the success that CIOs like Lacik have had with them, IT job rotation programs like Aviall's remain extremely rare.

In a recent survey of 281 IT leaders, Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., found that only 22% of organizations rotated staff within their IT organizations.

"When I've interviewed people before about rotation in general, I get a lot of responses along the lines of, 'Well we should be doing that,' or 'We're not doing it yet,'" said Forrester analyst Samuel Bright, author of a report based on the survey.

Bright said rotating IT employees into different roles in the organization helps broaden their skill sets, especially for entry-level employees. It also gives the organization more flexibility with well-rounded employees who can fill different roles as demand arises.

"Where I really see this happening is when someone is coming in at entry level within IT," Bright said. "So they sort of rotate into infrastructure, and then into development and then into another IT function for short periods of time to get the lay of the land before moving into previously scheduled programming, so to speak. This allows their supervisor to understand what sparks their interest and it allows [entry-level workers] to understand how IT operates."

With competition for IT talent heating up in 2007, job rotation programs will also become an important tool for talent recruitment and retention.

"Also there is value in doing rotation later on, when workers move into senior roles in IT. It helps with breaking out of the silos of IT operations," he said.

Bright said job rotation programs are rare because CIOs and other senior IT leaders just don't have the time to think about people. Hardware, software and demands from the business are top of mind so often.

It has to be part of a larger talent management strategy. A lot of times IT leaders communicate, perhaps not intentionally, that they're too busy to think about people. They have new projects they want to pursue. "Thinking through talent management issues isn't always top of mind until it begins to influence performance," Bright said.

Other forms of job rotation programs aimed at improving IT-business alignment are even rarer, Bright's survey found. Only 12% of CIOs rotated their IT staff to the business side of a company. And only 7% rotated staff from the business side of the company into the IT organization.

Bright said rotating IT employees temporarily into business operations is valuable because it refreshes their knowledge of how the business operates. Those employees then bring that perspective back into IT, encouraging better relationships between the IT organization and the business.

The rarest form of rotation is also perhaps the most valuable.

Aviall's job rotation policy is company-wide. IT professionals are encouraged to rotate from job to job within IT. They are also encouraged to move into roles in the business. And business employees are welcomed into IT, where they even serve in director-level positions. Lacik's director of business system services is a former sales professional.

"He had been in the business for 20 years," Lacik said. "He ran sales for the western half of North America. We needed to get some things done within IS to get more value. The more we could get people from the business into IS, the better we could be aligned. We would all have common goals."

Now that former sales manager, as an IT director, has complete veto power over any IT projects that he feels are not aligned with business needs, Lacik said.

"He can absolutely say no," Lacik said. "He's got customer service and supplier skills. He's spent a lot of time inside Aviall making sure we're serving customers, but he's also spent a lot of time going out [and interacting with customers]. We have a lot of business people who know more about the function of technology than the IS people. And we have some IS people who know more about the business than nontechnology people."

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SMBs: Better to be a big fish in a small pond

Lacik said he was approached by a worker in his company's warehouse operation who wanted to try a new career in IT.

"He had used the Catalyst [Warehouse Management] application and he felt like he wanted to switch careers. He came to us and said, 'I know the application very well but not the technology. Could I join the IS group?'"

Bright said these rotation programs become a win-win for IT, which becomes both a supplier and a consumer of high-quality talent.

"We saw one hospital where nurses were moving into IT serving in roles as analysts helping design better systems," Bright said.

Lacik said he has been CIO at other companies where job rotation wasn't a priority. Support for moving employees into IT from the business was minimal. He said job rotation at his company really succeeded because of strong support and leadership from his company's CEO and president. "They are just staunch supporters of technology," he said.

Lacik said job rotation requires that commitment because it can demand resources, even shifting IT employees from job to job within an organization.

"There's a cost involved with doing that," he said. "What shies some CIOs from taking a developer and making him a database administrator is the cost involved. They have to go to training courses. They need a minimum of a year to get off the ground."

Bright said job rotation is a difficult logistical proposition. Not only does the rotated employee need to be brought up to speed in the new position, but that employee's old position needs to be backfilled as well.

"The key takeaway is that IT must be intentional about how it is rotating people," Bright said. "There are organizations that have more ad hoc rotation in place, but it doesn't build up the IT organization or create knowledgeable advocates for IT in other business areas."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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