Pressure Points

While CIOs all have different ways of tackling pressure, they all point to its single source: everywhere

CIOs juggle tighter and tighter budgets, longer and longer to-do lists and rapid-fire technology updates that can shift the entire IT landscape overnight. They have to manage the expectations of tech savvy employees who want at work what they cobble together for themselves on the cheap at home; they have to find and retain IT staff and manage their Gen X/Y expectations while engaging intimately with the business; and they have to support 24x7 service demands.

Major upgrades invariably involve a weekend or public holiday being sacrificed by the IT team so as not to inconvenience the business. In order to tackle the pressures at the office, CIOs and their teams work long hours only to face more pressure on the home front because they are late or absent.

As another CIO puts it: 'CIOs have to realize they can't do it all. There will always be more demand on IT than resources to do it'

According to the recently released report It's about time: Women, men, work and family from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the average employed male with infants works 46 hours a week, and 37 percent of Australian employees work overtime regularly — a third of it unpaid. CIOs meanwhile say their working week easily stretches to 55 or 60 hours. It is sobering to reflect that the working week for convicts in 1799 was set at 50 hours.

Faced with bald statistics and lists of the pressures it is easy to sink into a funk. But some CIOs are quite upbeat about the pressure — yes, there's more to do, but look what new technology and increased efficiency is offering. Standard operating environments mean running the show is a lot easier and cheaper than it once was. Remote access means staff can fix IT issues from home.

Some don't see the pressure as negative at all — rather it is a fantastic challenge and intellectual stimulus. Some see evidence of pressure as a trigger to roll out new management techniques and procedures in the IT department — an opportunity to make a difference. Some have incredibly supportive families and partners. They thrive in the environment.

However, others refuse to discuss the impact the pressure has on their home life or health. They don't want to go there.

In 2006 a UK report was released investigating the links between working lives and managers' health and well-being. Written by Professor Les Worrall of the University of Wolverhampton and Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, the report found that 89 percent of UK managers experienced significant organizational change in the preceding year, with two-thirds of that cohort reporting that their job security and morale dipped as a result. Almost two-thirds reported an increasing incidence of sickness in the workplace.

In addition, 92 percent of managers reported they were working over contract hours leading to a series of negative effects, 64 percent felt these extra hours eroded their social life, 59 percent said it negatively impacted their relationship with their spouse or partner, 56 percent responded that it affected their health and 54 percent reported a poorer relationship with their children.

Family relationships can raise the pressure stakes. As one CIO reflected, "When the kids were very young and I was putting in the hours, I thought: 'I hope when they are teenagers and don't want to spend time with me that I won't regret that I missed out on all this time.'"

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Part of the Problem

Pressure does not get a good press, yet some CIOs interviewed for this piece (a range of interviews were held with several CIOs speaking on condition of anonymity) claim they themselves can be guilty of adding to the pressure. "I was in a round table recently and found that some CIOs generate their own work," one CIO says. "If the business is not demanding it then you don't take on extra work. Do what the business wants: work on smart things. If it's glaringly obvious that you need something — like disaster recovery — then do it, but otherwise just do what the business wants." To offer more pumps up the pressure, was his argument.

While most other CIOs take a slightly less reactionary stance, most of them acknowledge that there are many occasions when it pays to say no, whether it be to an unsuitable consumer class technology being demanded by a Generation X employee or to a project that simply does not stack up in the strategy and budget stakes.

For large companies, the need to say no can be even more acute. One CIO who has worked in very large organizations most of his life says that the pressure in the big companies is greater because of the sheer volume of different things that have to be done and the number of things the CIO has to keep across. And however bad it might be for Australian big business, it is worse overseas, he says. "I've had a chance to visit similar organizations in the US and the UK which are an order of magnitude larger than we are and amidst all the pressure there are always some things that you have to keep your eye on, the key projects, and keep across them.

"I've just had people in here saying that a new release is coming out and they had 74 listed priorities but they can only do 58 of them," he says. "The way to tackle that sort of pressure is to identify what can be done in the time frame, and then do it, alerting business to the fact as early as possible."

As another CIO puts it: "CIOs have to realize they can't do it all. There will always be more demand on IT than ever resources to do it . . . If people say: 'Why have you not done it?', then you say you'd be happy to do it but they have to pick which other projects to drop. You need to spend enormous amounts of time establishing your own political credentials in the organization.

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"Most decisions sent to be resolved by IT are actually business problems for management. What plagues CIOs is the notion that they can do it all. Well, you can if you have an infinite budget, but you don't."

Besides knowing what the organization cannot do, it is important to identify what the CIO cannot do, and delegate effectively in order to defuse the pressure. For example, one CIO has a dedicated architecture manager to whom he defers on all architecture decisions. "Why would I have this person and his expensive skills and then take the decision on myself," he says. "I don't want to make all the technical decisions, some people might but I certainly can't."

Effective teams to which the CIO can delegate and strong succession plans also alleviate the strain by ensuring the CIO can share the day-to-day load, and organize downtime to attend conferences, plan for the future or take holidays.

Yet for every manager that can recognize and live with their limitations, delegate effectively and build a strong team, there is another waking in a cold sweat at 3am over a decision they have taken that is going pear-shaped. Identifying and dealing with failures early is important for CIOs who want any sort of quality of life.

"Pressure exists but it's far less than the pressure when things have already gone pear-shaped," says one senior IT manager. "One of the times when I feel pressure is when things do go pear-shaped because of influence from offshore that I have no control over. That's when you need relationships with managers that are rock solid so you can have frank discussions with them and say what is achievable. Also you've got to make the business make decisions on what is a priority. That's the best way to relieve the pressure."

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Meeting the Demand

Anywhere, anytime access increases the pressure for PKF's CIO

Mark Carmichael is CIO of PKF Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers and runs a team of 11 staff meeting the IT needs of 500 employees in the NSW and Brisbane offices. "The pressure is rising as we move to more of a mobile infrastructure and anywhere anytime access," he acknowledges. "I've been in IT for 15 or 16 years and here for two-and-a-half and the pressure has risen since I've been here."

In a partnership there are even more opportunities to feel the strain. "We're a partnership with 54 partners and each owns an equal share of the business. You have to answer to them as soon as something goes wrong — a partner will walk in and demand it be fixed. In professional services their computer is everything to them. If something affects them, whether it's a business application or an e-mail glitch, then their world ends and it has to be fixed.

"You're remunerated well enough but there is no acknowledgment of the pressure on IT," Carmichael says.

"How do I cope? Well, I might have a glass or two of red occasionally if I've got a lot on my mind and can't sleep. But I stay fit and keep down the pressure by going to the gym in the middle of the day. As to my staff, I sit on the end of the desk and talk to them. I take them for drinks when I can. I was a technician at one stage and know what they go through."

Carmichael has also implemented technology to support his IT team and help manage the load they face. "We've installed all remote computing technologies — we have systems at home so technicians can dial in and fix generally everything remotely. The other night — 10.30 on Friday — I got a phone call from a partner saying he needed to contact someone in Perth and couldn't send through the e-mails. I had to call on one of the guys to fix that — they work in IT and understand that's part of the job."

With plans soon to offer extranet services with gateways for clients, Carmichael knows that will place further demand on his team for 24x7 support. "But we will build it correctly to reduce any problems."

He remains adamant, though, that he knows when to say no.

"The partners said: 'We want Skype — give it to us now.' I had to front the partners and say: 'No, you're not getting Skype, it's not aligned with our strategy and it's not right for a professional organization.' As long as you have got the information and can back yourself up they can accept that."

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A Changing Landscape

There's no room for complacency for Wotif's CIO

Online accommodation specialist Wotif has been on a steep growth trajectory, with CIO Paul Young charged with delivering the information infrastructure to support the business. "One of the very challenging things is the entire changing landscape — combined with the need to do more with less, more accountability and more transparency," Young says.

"What CIOs find is that what works at one scale doesn't work at another, so you are constantly reinventing yourself and have to throw away everything you've done before. There's nothing wrong with it — it just doesn't work at the scale you need it so you have to throw everything away and adopt a new paradigm.

"At the same time you realize you can't make this happen without people but you have to adapt to the skills shortage, keeping the older people and change the working week to keep younger people and change the way the business works to cope with that, which is a challenge because they may have opposing aims," he adds.

"Also there can't be just a token re-education of your staff — you need to reinvent yourself and that is mirrored down the line."

Young believes the pressures that CIOs face actually change according to the sector in which they operate and the maturity of the business. "It depends on the stage of your company and the organizational maturity. If we were established and had a slow growth rate then there would be different challenges. In the Web 2.0 area it's a rapidly exploding business and the CIOs play a much more strategic role so we don't tend to and can't afford to go for run-of-the-mill technologies.

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"To be on the competitive edge you've got to be leveraging new technologies. That can be a very isolated place," Young says.

In spite of the rapid change of pace and demand, Young describes Wotif as a "moderate pressure" workplace. However, he acknowledges, "I've definitely noticed that as Wotif grows, from the time I walk in to the time I walk out there is no time to do anything except what needs to be done."

Young typically works 50-60 hours a week and tries to keep his team each to 40 hours a week. "Often when the IT team is working shocking hours then there are other systemic problems — the project is probably not properly scoped and resourced. The high level of IT project failures must be because of not scoping the project properly. Here 98 percent of our projects come in within 3-4 percent of time and budget."

With a diploma in psychology, Young is well aware that to work well at the management level you need good business skills and organization skills. "The insight from the psychology diploma is one of the fundamental precepts — the reality principle — when you are totally pressured and unable to cope then it can have an enormously detrimental effect. You can become ineffectual and it will have deep effects on your social and private life."

CIOs that don't tackle the pressure problem head on risk losing their bright young staff. "Younger workers will walk away from pressure," says Young. "If you are trying to create a leading edge brand like Wotif you have to create an environment where they want to work — and an environment to support them personally and professionally."

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Supply and Demand

Long hours, but "Zero Harm" policy helps prevent burnout

Tony Welsh is the CIO of Brisbane City Council and he runs a tight ship. Keeping a tight rein on costs helps keep the pressure in check, he believes.

That said, it never entirely goes away as there is an ever increasing demand for services and growth — faster than the council's ability to supply, he says. "Our budget has been at a pretty constant level for three to four years, and in some areas we have managed to reduce it but we have had a very full portfolio of programs to deliver on and have maintained a significant range of services and reduced budgets to allow other areas spending.

"We are a local government organization and there is a huge demand for us to invest in infrastructure, in roads and tunnels and public transport," Welsh says. "All those services demand more budget and we have to find savings from optimizing and using IT to achieve efficiencies and drive down expenditure."

Welsh, who runs a team of about 470, operates a very tight budgeting process — engaging managers in the business before agreeing to any new project. At the same time the move over the past two years away from a distributed architecture to a more centralized environment has delivered $3 million in savings. "There has probably been a reduction in our total spend of around 10 percent since 2003-04. But there has been more pressure on services and we have implemented a number of projects."

What about the pressure on the team?

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"I look to use a spread of internal and external sourcing and make it very clear where our resources should be focused. The main driver for us in IT is to build capabilities that are aligned to customer intimacy. We should have the advantage over external sources in understanding the business drivers, where a lot of external providers probably have the advantage with their particular technical skills. We are going though a transition — on a bit of a journey to reposition our skills — to develop a lot more capabilities in business analysis and architecture, contract management, strategic management and less about the technical skills. The specific technical skills can come from the broader market," Welsh says.

Even so, the very full workload at the council means that Welsh and his team are challenged to provide services on a day-to-day basis and formulate strategies for the future. "The hours can be high," he says. "If the standard working week is 37-40 hours then once you are up to 55 and above you start to put pressure on them."

Welsh confirms that a typical working week for him is 50-55 hours, but adds that for some of his technical people the demand for them is "over and above that". To avoid burning out his staff, Welsh says he puts a lot of emphasis on a strategy called Zero Harm, which links occupational health and safety and wellness and insists you keep a close eye on your people and build balance.

But he acknowledges that it is difficult. "It is often always the same people who are under pressure to work long hours. You need sight of that and insist that they build in rest to their programs.

"Pressure affects everyone. You need to keep everything in balance and deal with things without taking them personally." To release the pressure he feels, he plays golf at the weekends and spends time with family and friends, plus he takes the occasional holiday. "Although that's probably not long enough as I tend to take a week here and there — [I] probably need two weeks."

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Eliminating Crisis Mode

Good management and good communication work

From defining strategy to tactical implementation there is a requirement to provide more with less as IT budgets continue to reduce over time, according to Peter Nevin, the group manager of information systems at project delivery organization Sinclair Knight Merz.

According to Nevin, through technical advances in areas such as desktop provisioning and support help, and by providing his team with a computer at home, virtual private network connection and subsidized broadband, staff can fix many IT problems from home. It is an important part of Nevin demonstrating his "sensitivity to the Generation X/Y requirements".

"If it were necessary for everybody to be in the office to provide support outside core hours, then I think we would lose some people. This way we get better performance from them coming into work later when they have provided after hours support from home. Overall they are doing long hours — spread across home and office. You need to develop a sensitivity to different generations' requirements and an amount of self-knowledge that shows that a lot of the behavioural things that we do are as a result of our generation," Nevin says.

New generation technology is another challenge, and while some can help tackle pressures, others add new stresses, he says. "For example, Instant Messenger has been implemented globally and if that's not working it requires an immediate fix — it almost requires an immediacy of support similar to telephony. If you deploy these types of systems you must plan for the increased support requirements. If you don't, then your people are working unrealistic hours or taken out of bed to support the system.

"But we planned for that from the start," Nevin says. "With Instant Messenger we put 3000 users on and they are working a 24-hour rotation around the world and need support 24 hours."

Nevin thinks the antidote to pressure is better management by CIOs. "I think the level to which the IT team suffers pressure reflects quite poorly on CIO management in general. You have to plan the workload for six months and 12 months out and make sure you are resourcing now for what you will need in the future rather than trying to obtain resources just as they are needed.

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"With SKM's continued growth, there is a continuous need to review organization structure and make both incremental and step changes. One of the big traps for some CIOs is they come in, fix up a mess and continue to operate without focusing on the need for ongoing changes. They are not reviewing operations quickly enough, and with today's rapid technology changes, IT groups need frequent reviews. Often companies get a new CIO in to fix operations and then replace them with another CIO to run the ongoing stable environment. This model does not really work any more. The complete CIO now needs to be both a hunter and a farmer," Nevin says.

"You have to keep a pulse check on the morale in the IT group." Nevin has an IT staff of about 150 people around the world. "It's the walking and talking and cups of coffee and racking up lots of frequent flyer miles. There would rarely be a two-week period when I would not be travelling," he says, adding that he makes regular trips both overseas and around Australia. Supporting him is "a management team that behaves as a management team not as a technology team. A lot of dealing with stress is good management and good communication."

That communication also extends to informing the IT team about upcoming plans and projects, says Nevin. "It's easy to sit back and say: 'Microsoft has a new operating system, and we will wait and make a decision on implementation in six months.' It's better to forward plan releases as early as possible — it makes your IT team better educated than the user base and also immediately disarms the hobbyist approach from users who often seek the newest version," he says.

The one thing that CIOs have to learn to avoid, however, is the fix-it approach to IT management. "Many CIOs come up through IT," says Nevin, "and their skill set is good at fixing crises, so CIOs often let the problem happen and then fix it. And therein lies the stress."