Compass exec has advice on surviving the slump

When Neil Barton sits down to talk with a CIO, he’s expecting to hear a lot about technology.

The head of IT consulting for Chicago-based Compass Management Consulting Worldwide was surprised, therefore, when during a recent visit with a major Canadian retailer the CIO seemed to ignore IT altogether.

He would avoid any talk about technology, Barton says, preferring to focus on opening up new stores, getting some market analysis going and moving product lines.

“The guy carried himself as if he were a board member,” he says. “A lot of CIOs and CTOs have spent the last 10 years or so leading with technology, but now it’s just getting harder and harder to win the day with that kind of view.”

After 16 years on the front lines with companies like Amdahl and the former SHL Systemhouse (now Nexinnovations), Barton should know what he’s talking about. As a project manager, an integrator and now a consultant, he has been on both sides of the business. But the current IT industry downturn is much different than the ones that have come before it, he says. During a visit to Compass’s Toronto offices Wednesday Barton took some time to talk with InfoSystems Executive about how IT departments can weather the storm.

ISE: When the downturn first started it was hard to predict how much companies would have to downsize. Is it better or worse than you expected?

NB: In previous downturns, there’s been a fairly measured, thought-out analysis of where we can cut people out and what we can streamline. In this case it’s been done quickly, without any particular planning or consultation and with a quite large percentage of people going, in many cases. The people who are left are kind of having to do the reasoning out of how to make this work after the event, rather than before the event.

ISE: What kind of advice can you give them?

NB: It’s very much about managing the workload that you have coming in. This, I think, is something of a new way for IT departments to think. Most IT shops are in the frame of mind that the users will ask for whatever they’ll ask for, and they’ll kind of react as best they can. What they have to do now is kind of manage them, almost a little to influence the way the workload comes towards you. For example, if you look in the area of help desks: a typical call that comes into the help desk is going to cost (a Canadian company) $25. There’s therefore a big interest in the moment for the concept of self-service. And the rationale for self-service is about managing your workload.

ISE: Aren’t there some dangers inherent in that approach? Depending on the nature of the problem, they might only exacerbate a bad situation.

NB: There’s no new danger that wasn’t there before. If you’ve got the kind of user who’s going to go making changes to their settings, they were going to do that anyway. They can all get access to information on how to do it over the Internet. What (self service) does allow is for the agents who are taking calls or the engineers who are visiting desks to focus their time on real problems, rather than the asking whether they’ve tried rebooting. That’s not a very productive way of spending $25, when you think about it.

ISE: Are we then going to see more proactive training of end-users as they are brought on board to sort of stave off some of those questions?

NB: I think the industry has really kind of moved on from the frame of mind that if we train the users sufficiently they’ll never have these kinds of problems with their PCs. What we have in the workforce now, especially in the Ontario region where you have a highly literate, very educated portion of the population, is that everyone has home PCs. Most people coming out of college have been trained, not just in Word and Excel but they’re all Excel Macro hacks and they’ve all set up their private networks at home or something like that. The culture of those groups of users now is that they’re not looking for some kind of IT systems that when it breaks they lay down their pens and call the help desk. They’re looking for something which they can manage themselves to some extent, and the IT people have to support them when needed.

ISE: Layoffs are usually pretty bad on morale. Transitioning users to self service would in theory require a set of soft skills that many IT staff reportedly lack. Doesn’t self-service put even more distance between users and IT shops?

NB: Moving to self service is not about removing the one-to-one contact. It’s about managing the workload. You go to a typical help desk, they’re taking an average of two calls per user per month. If half of those calls are things which can be dealt with by rebooting, you can manage that a great deal better through self-service. That makes your agents more available for people who do need help and need more human contact in that area.

We had five years of very fast growth, new business initiatives, new applications and servers being installed left, right and centre. You go into lots of places now where they have completely lost track of how many servers are in a given place. What smart organizations are doing is behaving as if they were an external hosting organization. Rather than reacting to the workload and saying, “I need this server,” they’re saying, “If you have a new application, I’ll host it on this standard-size box on this standard-size rack.” That way, they are influencing the users to put the applications in an environment that they can control and manage.

ISE: What impact does the current economic climate have on internal projects like ERP and how does that affect the vendors that supply the technology?

NB: ERP looks like it’s mainly a question of consolidation. Most of the big corporations have implemented most of the key modules already. The work that goes on in that area is mostly adding another module. The area they’re all very interested in is the small and medium-sized businesses, where the penetration of ERP software is much lower. But there’s also more obstacles to take up in that sector. There aren’t as many trained, literate IT people who can use this technology. All of the ERP vendors are finding it hard to make progress in that area and I think we’ll see at least two of the household names disappear this year.

ISE: Can you compare or contrast any of the behaviours you’re describing in the IT departments in North America with Asia and Europe?

NB: In the U.S. — and I distinguish that from Canada here — is founded very much on the confidence of finding a business return on investment. Business cases aren’t necessarily argued through in immense detail, but if a project team is very confident in what they can do, that confidence is rubbed off amongst the people involved. If you were to go to most of Europe, there’s more cynicism.

ISE: Why? Have they experienced greater failure in IT projects?

NB: I don’t think so, but I think they put more attention in the project design stage. The German business culture, for example, is very process-oriented. Whereas a vendor might make a business case to implement a customer relationship management product in the U.S. based on, “We’re going to make you more efficient and you’re going to learn more about your customers,” in Germany the client wants you to walk through that in specific detail: “What part of my specific processes will this help? Which of my customer touch points will it help?” That’s something you see in Germany and to some extent in Scandinavia, but it’s different from what you’d see in France, or Italy or Spain. French business culture, in particular, is much more about personal relationships and is much more about personal relationships and in fact is more like U.S. business culture. The British don’t care about anything too much so long as it saves them money. We find some similarities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which are all medium-sized economies but with great access through the common English language in technology trends. We see them very much keeping up these days with what’s going on.

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