No IT department can shrink its way to greatness, but this is our biggest challenge. Whether global economic, political and social pressures escalate or ease, how can IT directors, managers and leaders ensure maximum return on investment, ensure they focus on value over cost, and plan for inevitable business consequences?
We hear doom and gloom scenarios on the news in the morning, and then come into work to face skills shortages, strategic projects that need to be delivered "yesterday", and growing pressure from every quarter.
In tough times the non-essential areas suffer, but who decides what is important? No-one talks of cutbacks when they are fighting to put their project at the top of the pile.
Companies that simply slash IT spending will be making a very big mistake. Access to information is critical to organisations in difficult times, as is the effective deployment of, and investment in, emerging technologies. It is up to the IT director to convince the chief executive that IT is essential.
IT directors must ensure that IT and business strategies are inseparably aligned, while also persuading business managers to take ownership of projects' priorities.
Given that cycles of boom and bust are inevitable, what lessons can be learned from the past?
The biggest lesson relates to people and how they were treated last time. Many of the crippling and expensive staff shortages faced today are a consequence of the panic and downsizing of the early 1990s.
Recessions give IT directors an opportunity to clarify IT's role:
- IT projects are business projects, and need clear business ownership
- Now is the time to set clear project priorities - if your board cannot or will not do this, prepare your own list and circulate it to stimulate the production of a business list
- Every project must be rigorously assessed to ensure that estimates are as good as they can be, covering the whole project cycle, including business-testing.
The IT director who is serious about delivering a quantifiable, and measurable return on investment must:
- Create outstanding measurement, reporting and communicating infrastructures
- Provide a clear contract that balances what a company wants with what it can afford
- Provide information systems that track the use of desktops and PCs and quantify the value they bring
- Market the IT department through powerful interpersonal relationships at all levels
- Relate everything he or she does or plans to do directly to the company's bottom line.
It is time to invest in people. A reduction in projects is an opportunity to restore the balance between full-time staff and contractors. Clarify what skills should be kept and trained in-house and which tasks should be outsourced.
IT leaders must not make drastic reductions across the board. When the recession is over we need to be in a position to pick up where we left off, so do not pawn the family silver in pursuit of short-term solvency.
When recessions hit there are no easy answers, which is why financial survival takes absolute priority but this is a chance for the IT director to play an active role in shaping the future of the company.
Chief executives will be looking for direction and answers - IT directors are in a powerful position to gather the facts, offer compelling arguments, and provide those answers.
Companies that have strong IT at their heart will see the greatest mid- to long-term benefit. Your future and that of your people will depend on many things, but perhaps the most critical will be whether you are seen as a cost or an investment.
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