Half-time in our toughest year

The August holiday season is upon us. But it will take more than a pitcher of sangria and a week on the beach to erase memories...

The August holiday season is upon us. But it will take more than a pitcher of sangria and a week on the beach to erase memories of what has so far been an extraordinarily difficult year for IT decision makers.

These are straitened times for the IT function, and the latest Ovum Holway Industry Trends 2002 report predicts no end in sight to the economic downturn. Though its focus falls upon the supply side of the industry, the report's findings signal doom and gloom for the user community.

Other reports - the Kew Associates/Computer Weekly Expenditure Survey included - may paint a slightly rosier picture of the economic landscape; but the fact remains that only the most foolish private sector IT director will currently be planning for increased budgets in the near future.

The IT department can rarely have found itself under greater pressure to deliver sustained levels of service at lower cost. Making your existing technology architecture work harder, rather than taking risks, is the name of the game.

While no one doubts the importance of the role IT plays in the business, the days when boardrooms were hoodwinked by the false promise of new products and technologies are long gone. Before there is investment there will be careful scrutiny; and where there is investment, a measurable return will be demanded.

Worse still, all the department does, it does with a depleted and demotivated workforce. In IT departments across the UK, headcounts are dwindling, leaving fewer employees to work harder at maintaining the quality of their systems. Meanwhile, the depressed jobs market means prospects for career progression are variable.

If only IT decision makers could batten down the hatches and sit out the storm. But the chance would be a fine thing.

Developments in major technologies such as Web services and mobile computing require evaluation and action. Fresh EU directives crowd around the department like moths around a flame. Supplier consolidation and high-profile bankruptcies make the selection of strategic partners a nerve-wracking business.

The recent changes to Microsoft's licensing regime have only worsened the IT decision maker's headache. Should other suppliers follow suit, as they surely will, a series of hard renegotiations will ensue. And, if the licensing costs demanded by the major proprietary software houses become too great to swallow, there will be the small matter of facing up to the reality of open source applications and operating systems.

At the same time, older adversaries such as information overload, security, business continuity and network management continue to advance.

Given all these difficulties, it is safe to assume that IT professionals will be looking forward to their annual leave with greater relish than ever. But what should you plan do upon your return?

Firstly, carry out a risk analysis of your mission-critical suppliers, and reassure yourself that contingency plans are in place to deal with the advent of a new KPNQwest or WorldCom-style crisis.

Secondly, look to exploit the supplier downturn to negotiate aggressively and secure more advantageous deals.

Thirdly, bring back a bottle of that sangria - chances are you might need it this autumn.

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