How to keep innovation and morale up in a down economy

Money issues now require much more of CIO Diana Melick’s attention than they did in the past.

The faltering economy has her forecasting costs and slashing budgets just like her peers, but Melick went a step further. She had her staff scrutinize infrastructure costs, the largest area of IT spending.

“In good times, no one looks at their phone bills,” she says, but when things get tough, “it’s time to start looking at the details.

“And once you see those costs, you can ask whether there is a better way to manage them,” she adds. That includes confronting vendors and asking for their own ideas on reducing costs.

Melick did all of the above, and as a result, the vice president and CIO at Alpharetta, Ga.-based Siemens Energy and Automation, a division of Siemens AG, cut some costs by 15 to 20 per cent.

Melick identifies such fiscal finesse as one of the top skills needed to run IT today. In fact, the economy is shaking up CIOs’ skill sets and lowering the premium on some traditionally valued traits while putting others in the spotlight. Here’s a look at five skills that are vital to those leading IT right now.

1. Penny-pinching

Like Melick, Guy J. Russo, the CIO at CommunityAmerica Credit Union in Lenexa, Kan., says he’s focused on finding efficiencies anywhere he can.

“We’re trying to make it fun to save costs, and we’re trying to get people to think about it and demonstrate to the business how the IS organization gets it — that we know life is tough, and here’s the plan for how we can save,” he says.

How to shine in hard times: Skills for the up-and-coming IT pro

Senior IT people aren’t the only ones who need to tweak the skills they bring to the table in hard times. Junior staffers do, too. That’s a tall order, especially for those who haven’t gone through a recession before. If you’re a junior staffer, here’s what you should do to shine in this economy:

Show more than tech talent. “It’s not enough to be specialized; you have to be broader,” says Preeta M. Banerjee, an assistant professor of strategy at Brandeis International Business School. She suggests pairing your IT skills with expertise in, for example, green issues or a specific business area.

Understand how the economy affects your company. You should already have some business skills, but now you need to understand how economic cycles affect your business colleagues, the company as a whole and the industry in which it operates.

Understand how the economy affects your job. Big projects and challenging initiatives are going to be put on hold, and you might find yourself working on less-than-exciting tasks. “You don’t want to become a high-maintenance employee. You want to be the employee who goes in to the boss and says, ‘What can I do?’ ” suggests Diana Melick, vice president and CIO at Siemens Energy and Automation.

Make opportunities. “It’s very easy for people these days to keep their heads down and hope not to be noticed, but that’s often exactly the wrong thing to do,” says Peter Whatnell, Sunoco’s CIO. Remember, he says, more people get medals and promotions in times of war “because situations are such that you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you’re capable of.”

Keep current. “Be aware of the latest technologies and open-source packages that offer new ways to lower development/deployment costs,” says Raji Arasu, vice president of product development at eBay.

Get feedback. Companies often shed poor performers during times like these, so it’s important to stay at the top of your game. Arasu suggests soliciting feedback as part of a focus on continual self-improvement.

He motivates workers by displaying their successes. A bulletin board at the door leading to the IT department holds a thermometer-style bar chart that tracks the savings realized through tech initiatives.

Russo is also setting new financial expectations. For example, he says his staffers know that coming in on budget isn’t enough to earn kudos anymore; they have to come in under budget — but still deliver the expected high-quality services and products.

2. Inspiring Calm

Workers can’t influence the corporate decisions that could determine whether they’ll keep their current schedules, pay grades or jobs, and as a result, they can feel powerless and panicked.

But while these times are tumultuous, your leadership shouldn’t be, says Peter Whatnell, CIO at Sunoco Inc. and president of the Society for Information Management.

“Right now, your leadership counts more than it has for the past 10 years. And you have to be a leader for your staff and a leader for your company,” he explains. “You have to let them know that you’re going to keep them up to date. You have to maintain a positive but honest communication with your staff, deal with issues as they come up, and if you have to make cuts, make them humanely and decisively.”

Even those who tend to get flustered under pressure can learn to have a calm demeanor, says Susan J. Bethanis, CEO of Mariposa Leadership Inc., a San Francisco-based leadership coaching service.

“You have to be able to find what your hot buttons are and make sure that when you feel [panic] coming, you take a breath. And when you’re assessing other people’s fears and emotions, ask a lot of questions and give them opportunities to express their concerns,” she says.

The key, says Bethanis, is to turn your own or others’ concerns away from panic by developing action plans. “Go from a victim mentality to ‘What’s the goal? What should we do?’ ” she says. “It’s not denial. It’s being realistic, but it’s also being positive. It’s calming.”

3. Motivating Workers

“Even in this downturn, strong performers and good IT professionals are still very much in demand, so retention of top talent continues to be one of the main worries of an IT leader,” says Raji Arasu, vice president of product development at eBay Inc. in San Jose. That means executives need to connect with junior-level workers now more than ever.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t have the cash to put staffers into cutting-edge assignments that might motivate them, Bethanis says.

Given that, IT leaders need to create low-cost ways to keep their best employees engaged, she says. Give them new responsibilities and assign them to different types of projects. “You need to be talking to them on a regular basis, asking ‘How is it going? What help do you need? How can I blaze a trail for you?’ ” she adds.

4. Driving Innovation

Many companies are so focused on survival right now that they’re ignoring innovation, but, ironically, those that innovate will likely emerge the strongest, says Preeta M. Banerjee, an assistant professor of strategy at Brandeis University’s International Business School in Waltham, Mass.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do

Don’t freeze. “Now more than ever, IT leaders need to be proactive and take initiative. Hesitate, and you end up reacting to your environment. Flinch, and you end up being roadkill,” says Dan Roberts, president of Ouellette & Associates.

Don’t be the only hero. Rely on your team, and delegate. For example, if you can’t calmly communicate the changes taking place, give that job to your best communicator.

Don’t listen only to the top tier. Middle managers and lower-level employees often have more front-line experience than top execs do, and that can give them insight into how to improve services.

“You need to recognize innovation as a source of value, and formalize your approaches,” says Bob Zukis, a partner in the PricewaterhouseCoopers advisory practice in New York.

As an example, he points out that the companies that are better at weathering today’s economic storm are using cloud computing and social networking technologies to develop creative, cost-effective ways to deliver services.

You don’t have to budget money for innovation to get results, Bethanis says. “You need to develop an innovation team. You be the sponsor, get them together and ask how they can brainstorm, collect and vet ideas better. And make some rules — like the ideas have to be revenue-enhancing,” she says. “It doesn’t cost much in time or money to do that.”

Moreover, involving your best employees in this kind of initiative will not only enhance innovation but also motivate and engage your people.

5. Marketing IT’s Value

CIOs have to demonstrate — even trumpet — the value they add, says Dan Roberts, president of Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc. in Bedford, N.H., and a contributing author to Leading IT Transformation: The Roadmap to Success (Kendall Hunt Professional, 2008).

“Marketing is so critical today, and we need to understand that everyone from the CIO to our individual contributors is marketing the IT organization and creating perceptions of our value,” he says.

Shouvik Dutta, CIO at Hart Schaffner Marx, a Chicago-based clothing manufacturer, says he believes his staffers and their successes have to be visible in order for IT to demonstrate its value. So he has his direct reports spend a half-day every two weeks working in the business units that they serve. This gives them insight into business needs while heightening IT’s visibility, making others aware of its contributions.

For example, his workers recently recognized through this practice that the sales group needed better insight into the manufacturing side to do better forecasting. So IT delivered new applications that allowed sales to pull up the productivity data it needed.

CIOs who can refocus their skills to fit the current challenges can survive today’s difficult environment and come out stronger when it’s over.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at [email protected].


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