We have all been there. Three people out of an IT department of 20 have moved on and the staff that are covering for them are grumbling at the extra workload, the fact that they are not getting their jobs done properly and it is starting to look to them like you are getting brownie points for making budget savings at their expense. Morale is a problem, and before long it will be five staff you are missing not three. How do you break the cycle?
The IT skills crisis of the last couple of years has engendered, of necessity, a "make-do and mend" mentality targeted at simple survival. This has meant terms such as "flexible", "responsive" and "adaptable" are seen as words of commendation.
But they hide a danger. An overreliance on fast and furious troubleshooting can all too easily grow into perpetual firefighting.
Responding to change
"A readiness to change at the drop of a hat may turn out to be less valuable than an ability to perceive patterns over an extended period and weigh up long-term consequences. Responsiveness to rapid and frequent change may overvalue short-term skills at the expense of genuine expertise," warns the National Computing Centre in its recently published report on succession planning, Staff Development and Succession Issues. Instant skills are taking precedence over deep corporate knowledge and management continuity.
The NCC advises that every IT department should implement not just a skills profile, but a full blown, well thought out succession plan, where the emphasis is on skills replenishment. This would involve a flow of ideas and people, with a productive dynamic of staff development.
All too often, succession planning is restricted to upper management grades. But ideally it should apply to an entire department.
Using a structured hierarchy of back-ups for every job function, the departure of any individual can immediately be filled on a "hot-stand-by" basis.
"If everything works out, there will be a smooth transition for a whole line of staff, with external recruitment only necessary at the lowest level," says the report.
Succession planning aims to create a team, built as it works, to achieve contingency management. IT directors need to identify the critical skills in the department, the individuals who exercise them and those who could potentially also exercise them. These back-ups would be used as replacements, on a priority basis, at times of sickness, resignation, promotion or accident.
Although it is easy to see that the idea of being almost automatically next in line for promotion is attractive to staff, it is important not to regard it as a "Buggins' turn" or an ego trip for ambitious staff.
There is also the added problem of induced paranoia at the thought that the organisation is already grooming someone else to do your job.
However well the method works for staff, "Succession planning is about the company's future not individual advancement," says the NCC report.
Although corporate culture is an important factor when it comes to succession planning, "The constant need to hire significant numbers of new employees, typical of IT departments can put great strains on corporate culture - effective succession planning can only work if the actual corporate culture is understood."
So, if the IT department belongs to a company whose culture is typically defensive, cautious or risk-taking, this can make a significant difference. Even more critical, can be the attitude of the IT director towards succession planning.
The bigger picture
"Probably the single most important reason is the failure of the chief information officer to understand the significance of the issue," says the report. It is increasingly easy for a harassed CIO to rely on interim managers, outsourcing and readily available contractors.
"The big picture definitely includes succession planing. Without it, they risk losing control, along with their personnel."