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IT Management: Managing IT in a Recession—Tips for Survival

Being an IT manager in this ever-changing world of technology and business is hard enough. Throw in a flaky economy and it’s downright perilous. Here’s how to survive.

Romi Mahajan

During the last 10 years, IT managers have been admonished to “cut costs” and “manage more efficiently.” They’ve been subject to myriad other ways to try and squeeze more revenue from the business. And all this comes at a time when the rigors of managing IT and the perils of introducing new technologies into the workplace have created complexity of untold proportions.

Furthermore, the “customers” of IT have asserted their rights in a resoundingly loud voice. Business users are demanding easy access 24/7 to all systems. This is considered a “right,” not simply just nice to have. Add a lengthy and fairly broad-reaching recession to the mix, and you have a strange brew.

So how can you be the best possible IT manager in these recessionary times? Let’s explore this from both a philosophical and practical viewpoint. Philosophically, there are four core issues upon which you should focus:

1. Self-perception of value

IT Managers have to inculcate a deep sense of self value into their teams. Too often, IT professionals adopt an approach that’s more, “Yeah well, I’m in IT.” This is tantamount to putting oneself in prison and throwing away the key. During tough times, IT staff members need to be clear on just how much value they provide. They should feel proud of what they can do to steer the company back toward the land of milk and honey.

2. Understanding where we fit in the value chain

Healthy companies have to be internally robust in order to satisfy customers and continue to innovate in their product and service offerings. IT is as core to a company’s basic health and culture as any other department. The success and responsiveness and accuracy of IT can make or break an entire day.

3. Skill fungibility

The CEO will always tell you that IT people are interchangeable and replaceable. She will claim that IT pros are a monolith with no internal differentiation. In reality, IT skills are NOT fungible. You must be clear on this and communicate this to your IT staff. Expertise is built up over years of learning, experimenting and recognizing patterns.

4. IT as an Art

As with all worthwhile endeavors, managing IT is partially an art form. Also be clear on this: When we “rip and replace” IT folks, we lose the tacit knowledge and replace the complex knowledge provision with rote and robotic execution. Recessions bring out the worst in management, so ensure that your corporate executives understand that your team paints Picassos every day.

So how do you respond to all these challenges? From a philosophical perspective, we’ve covered the four areas of which you need to be aware. From a practical perspective, there are four main action items to keep your IT staff in the spotlight:

1. Tell your story

The best way to ensure a proper appreciation of your team’s value and place of honor, even in a cost-cutting era, is to communicate your value in ways that the business-centered culture can understand. Make it clear how much your team helps the revenue-generating operations. Make it clear how much money and time you save the company with IT innovations like single sign-on, quick provisioning and the like. Make it clear how IT enables the business.

2. Illustrate IT-led comparative advantage

While IT costs money, it is not a “cost.” It is an investment. Communicate this thoroughly with corporate management. In fact, IT done well and coupled with business processes renders competitive advantage. That’s when you move IT from the “investment” side of the ledger to the “cost” side. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems illustrate this well. These systems provide the real time ability to understand the delicate equation between company and customer thought. This artifact of IT is increasingly seen as a differentiator between top-tier and also-ran companies.

3. Individuate the team

In order to show that your entire team has value, you have to emphasize the particular value, role and personality of each member. Too often, IT staffers are thought of as one undifferentiated mass, the monolith mentioned before. In this false scenario, the CEO or CFO can easily say “cut 20 percent.” He may not understand this means cutting particular areas of value, not just reducing expense. So as you tell the story and illustrate comparative advantage, ensure that each individual on the team is represented in all of his glory.

4. Do great work

This one seems simple, but in fact is more complex than you might think. What this means, specifically, is that you have to invest the team’s time in learning new things and finding new ways to innovate. As taxing as this might be given an already demanding schedule, it’s the best insurance you have against the scalpel of staff reductions.

Recessions create paranoia and paranoia creates myopia. It is incumbent upon you as an IT manager to not let that myopia be visited upon your team. Follow these few basic tenets, and that should help you ease your team’s way into the hearts and minds of the entire company.

Romi Mahajan
Romi Mahajan (romi.mahajan@ascentium.com) is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.

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