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Three steps to maximizing your IT staff resources

CIOs are still expected to do more with smaller staffs. In his latest column, James Champy offers three principles for successfully utilizing your IT staff to its fullest potential.

There is a shortage of IT professionals. Pundits have projected that outsourcing and offshoring would suck IT jobs out of North America, creating a surplus of IT professionals. But the opposite has happened: IT people are in short supply.

The drop-off is due in part to declining interest in science and engineering and an increased demand for technically proficient people. Not enough young people in North America are pursuing computer science degrees. Even Bill Gates has bemoaned the shortage of the people he needs to grow Microsoft.

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You might take some comfort in the fact that 2007 IT budgets are expected to increase by a mere 2%, compared with an earlier prediction of 6%: not so many people to hire. But independent of what companies will spend on IT in 2007, there is a huge amount of work to do -- especially in applications development. Legacy systems are creaking and need to be adapted for the Internet. IT managers will be told they cannot have much more money, but they will be expected to produce a lot more work. The quality of the IT staff will become even more important in 2007, as you try to do more with the same, or fewer, people.

But even sophisticated companies haven't managed the people side of IT very well. So here are three principles to apply, as skills become more important and people less plentiful.

Be honest about what you need and make hard decisions. If most companies lined up the IT people that they have -- in terms of numbers and skills -- against the work ahead, they would be frightened by their exposure. Staffs are aging, especially in some government agencies. People who built and know old, but active systems are retiring. Who knows what sits in those systems? Who's going to lead the systems transformations that many companies must go through?

IT managers must step back and honestly assess what their companies need in terms of people and skills and what jobs will get done. It's too easy to just keep saying yes to every request or to divide the IT resource pie so every division or business function gets something. That process keeps a company working on the small stuff, never getting to the big systems that must be replaced. You must be brutally honest about what you can accomplish and move resources to the important initiatives. You must then hire and staff for the future, not just replace the people you have.

Hire the best of breed. Many companies just fill job openings. A skills profile is developed -- usually reflecting past needs -- and a person is hired to fill the defined slot. When resources are tight and there is more to do than you can apparently accomplish, you must hire the best of breed in whatever field of IT you can find them. Go for the best athlete. You must bet on the universal skills of very bright people. If you look too narrowly to fill an immediate job need, you will likely get a person who has limited future value and can only be deployed on narrow assignments.

Hiring the best of breed is a difficult transition for a company that just fills job slots and accepts mediocrity. But once you have a lot of very bright people around, you will see how to take on more work.

Provide real career paths. For the 35 years I have been consulting to IT organizations, managers have been trying to establish career paths for people -- sometimes into the lines of business. The objective is both to develop and retain people. But if there is an "average" IT professional, he or she looks more like the character in a Dilbert cartoon, stuck in a cubicle, stuck on the same system for years. The only perceived way out is to leave the company.

Companies must first get clear about whether they will hire entry-level professionals and grow them, or pursue a practice of hiring developed professionals. I am a great fan of hiring entry-level people and helping them grow. But to do that you must create interesting entry-level jobs and pay real attention to how people develop. If you are a small or medium-sized company, you must find techniques for IT job rotation -- otherwise, people will get bored.

You may have begun 2007 with a lot of people feeling disaffected -- they are being asked to do more and feeling underrewarded. There may also be a shortage of money in 2007, but there doesn't have to be a shortage of talent -- at least in your company.

James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting practice and head of strategy for the company. He is also the author of the best-selling books Reengineering the Corporation, Reengineering Management, The Arc of Ambition and X-Engineering the Corporation.

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