Under pressure

UK IT managers are under more pressure than their European counterparts. Julia Vowler reports

UK IT managers are under more pressure than their European counterparts. Julia Vowler reports

The downturn is well into its second year - how are IT managers holding up? This year's Pressure Point Index survey indicates that pressure on European IT managers has gone down. "Pressure on IT managers has dropped significantly, from a pressure rating [last year] of 226, to 179," says the report from IT services company, Synstar (see box).

Safe as houses?
There is a bullish degree of optimism among the 700 European IT managers questioned about their job security. Only 9% said they were worried, 33% had "some concern" (down from 43% last year) but 58% said they had no job security concerns .

For IT managers and directors in the UK this may sound like whistling in the dark - however difficult it may be to put hard statistics on the numbers, senior IT job losses have occurred. "There are a lot of high calibre qualified people unemployed. I see over-qualified people going for jobs they have too much experience for, but their mortgages need paying - it's disheartening," says Ian Mullet, partner at executive search agency Odgers Ray Berndtson.

"It's pretty grim out there," agrees Tim Gregory, former group IT director at Miller Fisher. "I've heard of 500 applicants for one position. A lot of IT directors are sitting tight."

David Roberts, chief executive of the The Infrastructure Forum warns, "There's a queue of people ready to occupy [your] seat,"

This gloom is corroboration by the country-by-country breakdown of the survey. The UK is singular in the degree of concern about job security among IT directors. Only 42% of British IT directors surveyed say they have "no concern" for their own position, compared with 70% in the Benelux countries and 59% in France.

If UK IT managers and directors are sitting tight this may explain why 30% of them say they have no worries about work-life balance, compared with 46% of the more job-secure Dutch.

Management guru and president of IT directors' group Certus, David Taylor, says, "IT directors have never been under more pressure, particularly in respect of whether they are at the heart of the business or not. Also, the IT directors I know are very interested in their own personal survival, which would have to be a high pressure situation."

Budgets
For IT directors in work, the priority task is clear: to save money. "Organisations have battened down the hatches about investing in new projects," says Roberts, "but there is now additional emphasis on existing costs.

"Senior IT people are closely examining their costs and trying to identify areas that can be taken out at relatively short notice - in some organisations this can be by a large percentage," he said.

The pressure to demonstrate extreme value for money from IT is great, says Gregory. "Users want the same from IT but for less money." The skill of the IT director will therefore be to "balance risk versus cost - how much can you do to spend less" and not let the IT function fall over.

IT directors, says Roberts, are looking across the board to see where savings can be made. "Are there more desktops than they need, more licences, more services, more mips [millions of instructions per second] - is everything delivering value? They are looking for applications that can be retired early and asking, 'Can we stop using this without jeopardising the business?'"

Balancing risk against cost is a fine judgement. One avenue being explored, says Gregory, is cutting back on maintenance contracts.

"This could be sensible," says Roberts. "If you've done your post-11 September contingency planning and you've seen you are paying £250,000 a year for maintenance, but if the system goes wrong the total cost of fixing it is only £200,000, why pay?"

"The pressure has not dropped," says Taylor, "though it may appear to have done because there is less to actually do. There is still plenty to think about and it gives IT directors the opportunity to be proactive about their relationship with business and releasing the potential of their workforce."

IT directors are also alleviating their own pressure by increasing pressure on their suppliers. "Renegotiating supplier deals is a big issue," says Gregory. "It's a buyer's market - take it or leave it."

"The IT consumer view is of a pricing correction," agrees Roberts.

An ill wind
Is there any up-side to this grim state of affairs? It may be an ill wind that blows no one any good, but IT directors who can demonstrate the ability to take out as much cost as possible without injuring the business will do themselves a favour in the job market. Such individuals, points out Roberts, will be in demand.

"Financial acumen has become an increasing requirement," agrees Mullet, pointing out that about 15% of IT director appointments are now at board level. "That's a testament to how much IT directors have gained [credibility]," he says.

Roberts agrees. "The IT function is now seen as an integral part of the business and valued as such," he says.
But Mullet believes that the uncertain times mean that IT directors are less likely to be lured from their jobs, no matter how tempting the offer might be. "This is not the time to take risks with their careers," he says.

For those who have sat tight there is, perhaps, cautious optimism that they can see the recession through.

Roberts believes his members feel that most of the "people costs" that can be cut, have been cut. "We had a spate of leavers in the early part of the year, but not as many in the past six months," he says. "Most organisations are now slim, with people profiles that are lean and fit."

Roberts believes that IT managers and directors do not feel as much under threat as they did a year ago. "Now they are concentrating on doing their jobs and approaching their challenges with enthusiasm," he says.

According to Taylor, "The pressure this year is for making sure organisations are agile, and can react as fast as possible, and that IT directors can take the lead in their organisations."

There are also signs of a Dunkirk spirit abroad among IT managers and directors, says Roberts. "They are sharing their views on how to do cost-cutting quickly," he says.

"Business may not be looking so healthy, but the IT part of the business is much better respected," he says.

Where are the pressure points?
"You can ask me for anything except time," Napoleon told his generals. So for IT generals, where does it all go?

  • 29% of UK IT directors say they never complete their daily "to do" lists
  • 41% say they would need two more hours to complete it; 24% want three more hours; and 18% four more
  • 53% spend up to three hours a day in meetings; 32% up to an hour; and 15% up to five hours
  • 32% discuss IT once a month with the board; 18% quarterly; 10% annually; 7% every week; and 28% never do at all
  • 51% approach the board with advice; 28% wait to be asked; and 23% don't advise the board at all
  • 90% would like the time and opportunity to gain more skills and training so they can contribute more to business strategy
  • 91% would like to spend less time trouble-shooting and more time delivering strategic value to the business
  • 59% would like to outsource infrastructure maintenance; 18% user support; but 37% don't want to outsource anything.

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