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Staff Alert

CIOs who think there’s no real threat of turnover in tough IT times and put off dealing with the situation may be in for a rude awakening even sooner than the highly anticipated spending turnaround

Prioritisation Is a Virtue

One thing has become clear as employees and other resources have become stretched paper thin: the importance of prioritisation and project management skills. And that has to start at the top with the CIO. Otherwise the calibre of work coming out of the IT shop is destined to decline. "IT is the most project-oriented area of the business, but corporate IT still doesn't seem to be able to get project management down to a strong discipline," says Tom Pohlman, a Forrester Research analyst. "But if you completely overburden your staff and don't have good PM skills, the quality of work is going to suffer."

Darren Bien, CIO and COO of Keller Williams Realty International, found that out in 2001 when 20 major initiatives were in the IT pipeline and not one was implemented. Even in industries that are doing well (Keller Williams' revenue grew 40 per cent to $US530 million in 2002 thanks to low-interest rates in the US), the danger is still there. "We've had to drive a much more process-oriented focus on project management," says Bien, who had 25 employees trying to complete those 20 projects. "Steering committee processes and prioritisation put in place last year allow us to focus on what's important."

Providence's Skinner says he has to ensure that the projects his 300 employees are working on aren't ones more suited for a staff of 1000. "I have to make sure that the things they're being asked to do are reasonable not only in terms of business value but also in terms of the resources we have," says Skinner, who's been dealing with declining margins in health care for nearly a decade. "I've found myself changing from a cheerleader trying to sell technology to the business to the gatekeeper tying to ensure that we make only those investments that increase business value and can actually be accomplished."

An effectual PM office helps to keep man-hours in check. "We know roughly what resources it will take to maintain our systems and also know how much is left over for project work. What we don't know is which resource will be required on what project when and whether that might conflict with some other project," Skinner says. "The project management office attempts to coordinate all the work."

But the process requires continuous tweaking. "It's impossible to forecast how many DBA hours we're going to need on a given project, much less all our projects six months from now," he says, adding that the project management office makes weekly adjustments.

In addition, Skinner gives his employees more accountability. More responsibility to relieve stress? Sounds counterintuitive, but giving workers some control can go a long way. This year, for example, four employee action groups reviewed the annual employee satisfaction survey results and determined what direction to take - a process previously handled by Skinner's management team. The groups came up with creative recommendations with real business value that will be more widely accepted than if they were handed down from the top, Skinner says. One result: after employees pointed out that a 40-hour continuing education requirement did not ensure workers got the right kind of training, Providence managers will set training priorities and find ways to gain that expertise.

"Give people clear goals, resources to achieve them and the ability to make the day-to-day decisions. Even though they'll work harder, it's more enjoyable for them. That helps alleviate some stress," Skinner says.

Even with the best processes in place, IT employees still have to work harder these days. But CIOs can help alleviate the stress by simple communication - providing a light at the end of the tunnel for their staffs even if they don't necessarily see one themselves. "Most people can tolerate a certain degree of high intensity work if they see relief in the future - six, nine, even 10 months down the road," Gartner's Morello says, and leaders need to describe this road.

Cecil Smith, senior vice president and CIO of $US59.5 billion Duke Energy, spends significant time these days reassuring his troops. "If there's ever a time to be seen and be visible, it is now," Smith says. "With all the concern about job security, the economy, a war, and what we've been through in rightsizing the company, the staff has got to be wondering: Will we be working here next week? or Will we be working on creative stuff? I say: This is one where we all have to help each other. We will be OK. We'll come out of this. You have to help carry that message yourself."

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