What to do when your IT department has been decentralized

Each morning, after checking my urgent messages, I take a few minutes to read a daily e-mail from one of my suppliers.

Normally very entertaining, these e-mails typically discuss industry trends or pitch a new product.

Today, the authors decided to opine about IT and specifically the management of IT. They noted how hard it is to get a great CIO — someone who can speak the language of business and do IT well. Given the shortage of such CIOs, the authors recommended that more IT work be outsourced and that whatever remains be pushed out to the business units. They concluded by saying that IT could be a profit center only if it was located in the business units and that therefore the best IT is decentralized.

I wish I knew what their IT department had done to annoy them! As a CIO, what would you do if your CEO told you he has decided to increase IT outsourcing and move your IT department into the business units? For starters, you want to keep smiling, keep listening and keep an open mind. Assuming that you like your current company or have a mortgage to pay, it’s best not to do anything until you find out what your CEO is thinking. Has he really made up his mind, or is he reacting to something he just read?

If he has made up his mind, keep your equilibrium and say, “How can I help?” At worst, having a good attitude gets you a better severance package and reduces your stress.

It may be that you aren’t being fired, but that your job duties are being reduced. That probably means that management likes you but has lost confidence in your ability to deliver the value expected of your position. Generally, confidence decreases not because of anything you’ve done, but because of what you have not done.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds, since it’s easier to start doing something than it is to stop. You can show your willingness to shoulder the responsibility and move on by asking, “If you were me, what would you have done that I didn’t do?”

If you can’t get an instructive answer, then review the behavior of those managers who emerge as survivors. Sometimes you will find unethical behavior, but more commonly you will see ways that you aren’t a great fit. At one company I worked at, all the survivors played golf. I didn’t. The conversations that took place on the golf course were the primary communications at the executive level. Once I understood that, I knew that that company was not the right place for me to do my best work. From that experience, I’ve learned to ask about golf early on. What you learn now will help you choose a job that’s a better fit next time.

Much more difficult is being asked to stay on and help facilitate the decentralization of IT. I know of no one who has done well in this type of transition. One friend survived downsizing and outsourcing only to end up working 20 hours a day; another survived and ended up working four hours a day on things that had nothing to do with IT. They had retention packages that ensured that they were very well compensated, but they hated their jobs.

Decentralized IT means management through influence, not through direct power. That requires using very different skills than you’re accustomed to. Most people who have been successful in a centralized structure won’t do well in a decentralized one. It may be worth trying, provided that you negotiate an exit package before finding out you’ve failed at the different style. And failing under decentralization isn’t necessarily fatal.

Keep in mind that the arguments for and against decentralization have raged for the past 25 years or more. Going through decentralization is a chance to learn, and you will have opportunities to leverage your new experience in the future.

Virginia Robbins is a former CIO who is currently the chief administrative officer responsible for bank operations at the California Bank of Commerce. You can contact her at [email protected]

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