Seven Common Management Obstacles

It's not an easy road, even for high-powered IT leaders. Here are the top issues that vex them daily.

Staffing shortages constantly weigh on the minds of IT leaders, who walk tightropes to synchronize the precious resources and manpower available in their own shops with the priorities and problems flung across a variety of business units within the company.

For the IT executive charged with both fiscal restraint and technical innovation, the challenges are many. However, Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders homed in on seven key issues that dog the performance of many CIOs.

Skills and staffing shortages top the list. Not far behind is the nightmarish situation of executive managers withholding support for high-profile technology projects or setting unrealistic deadlines and expectations. Add to this list of common woes insufficient budgets and the problems that stem from miscommunication and threaten a possible breakdown in business-IT alignment. And if these internal struggles aren't enough, IT leaders must also hustle to keep pace with technology.

Wise is the CIO who isn't afraid to tackle these and other problems head-on and does so with an air of forthrightness, says Don Riley, CIO at Mohawk Industries Inc.

"The more transparent you are, the more people will trust your department," he says. "By transparent, I mean proving that you have nothing to hide in terms of the way your team is performing, whether you are on or off budget and what resources you have available. If you hold back, they are only going to find out anyway."

1: Skills and Staffing Shortages

CIOs must ensure that they have the right expertise in the IT trenches not an easy task, particularly for those at companies with aging infrastructures, notes Marc Cecere, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

"Large companies in particular have many old systems," he says. "The expertise for these older systems is disappearing rapidly, and vendors are dropping support. It is not simply a matter of finding Cobol programmers. More importantly, companies must keep the expertise they have for specific applications, especially those that have been customized over the last couple of decades."

Along with keeping seasoned employees happy, CIOs must keep a constant eye on the newest crop of IT professionals and groom them through mentoring and training initiatives.

"We have a scorecard, or index, that we have created around employee development that includes about five or six elements," says Daniel Hill, senior vice president and CIO at Chicago-based Exelon Corp., one of the nation's largest electric companies. "Mentoring and training programs are a big part of that. We also use targets to measure the performance of how well our IT employees are aligned with particular engagements."

Working furiously to retain staffers and promote from within still may not be enough, and IT leaders must be prepared to look elsewhere.

"Create relationships with a couple of local firms or offshore companies and negotiate rates long before you need people. This way, you will have access to temporary or long-term resources," advises Donna Slyster, senior vice president and CIO at CHEP, an Orlando-based supplier of industrial pallets and pooling services that many large food, chemical and automotive corporations use in their supply chains.

2: Insufficient Backing From Management

CIOs must also frequently fight for the extra resources and executive support that high-profile initiatives need to succeed. The first step to winning influential friends is learning to speak their language. "Be sure to communicate in business terms, not technology terms," says Slyster.

Norbert Kubilus

Norbert Kubilus

Image Credit: Jeff GreenSome CIOs take this a step further and incorporate dramatic analogies to prove the worth of IT projects on the table. "You've got to fight the glazed-over look," quips Norbert Kubilus, CIO at Sunterra Corp. in North Las Vegas. "You've got to learn to invigorate IT discussions and make them interesting, even for those executives that have been sitting on their butts for six to nine hours in a meeting." Sunterra is an operator of vacation ownership resorts, with about 100 branded or affiliated resorts and more than 318,000 owners.

In one instance, Kubilus likened a move to a Linux-based platform to building a helicopter, knowing he would captivate his company's CEO, who is an avid pilot. "I explained to him that when we were buying Sun servers, it was like going to a helicopter dealer and buying a complete helicopter, but that now we were going to Boeing and buying a helicopter with no avionics. I was thus able to explain to him how this would benefit the company in the long run," he recalls.

Using role-playing and other methods to draw executive decision-makers out of their own worlds can also prove effective. For example, IT officials at Wells Fargo Bank were poised to build a heavy-duty portal that the company's business customers would use regularly. Strong executive buy-in was a must, notes Steve Ellis, executive vice president and head of wholesale services at the San Francisco-based financial services behemoth.

"We do a lot of 'day in the life' scenarios of our customers here," says Ellis. "For instance, we asked our executives to imagine that they are a CFO of one of our customer companies. This person wakes up in the morning when the alarm goes off, does this or that, and then turns to our portal because it provides a simpler work environment for this individual. Using this exercise, we were really able to breathe life into a lot of what we were trying to do."

3: Insufficient Budgets

Brutal honesty is a must when it comes to fiscal issues, and that directness needs to start at the very beginning of the budgeting process, says Kubilus.

Avoid overcommitting, and drive home the consequences of underfunding, Kubilus says. "You may not get what you ask for," he says. "If this is the case, tell senior management what they will be giving up if you don't get X or Y. Put it in terms of customer service, IT response time or the time it will take to get a project out the door."

If decision-makers are still unwilling to add to IT coffers, stick to the limitations spelled out in the budgeting process. "In life, there are tough choices. You may not like the budget you end up with, but it is only insufficient if you overcommit," says Mohawk's Riley.

At the same time, accountability is crucial. "Spend money as though it were coming out of your own personal checkbook," says CHEP's Slyster.

She stresses the need for a reality check on costs. "All projects should be evaluated on the return the business will get. After the project is complete, confirmation is needed to ensure the benefits were achieved," she says.

4: Business-IT Alignment Issues

It's up to CIOs to be well versed in both business and technology to avoid the problem of IT shops and business units failing to understand each other.

"Often, technology leaders get their positions based on technical abilities. However, they must be able to understand business to be effective," observes Kubilus. He says he was determined not to let any walls go up between his staff and Sunterra's operational departments when the company embarked on an ambitious plan to create a new resort information management system, known as RIMS II.

"We listened to the business units during the entire software development life cycle," Kubilus says. Tight alignment yielded a system that serves several Sunterra audiences. Minus this communication, RIMS II likely would not enjoy the usage it does today. "The worst-case scenario would have been us delivering a database and front-end tools that never got used," says Kubilus.

5: Pace of Technological Change

As if orchestrating efforts between IT and various business units weren't enough, IT leaders are pressured to keep constant pace with technological change.

Often, this will take more than hefty fiscal investments in internal research-and-development efforts. "You've got to allow your staff to put some time and thought behind R&D," says Kubilus. For this reason, he rejiggered the job descriptions of his direct reports so that a percentage of their time would be dedicated to research and development.

Monitoring changes on the technology landscape is crucial, but some tech leaders complain that lately change has not come fast enough. "I agree this used to be an issue, but I feel technology has slowed down since 2001," Slyster says. "I am a bit frustrated and find myself pushing our technology partners to advance more quickly."

6: Lack of Business Understanding Inside IT

While failure to educate others on exactly what IT departments do and how technology can help is unwise, neglecting opportunities to further the IT staff's understanding of other departments borders on recklessness.

"IT folks have become the de facto 'know-alls' in most businesses, because they have the opportunity to observe and implement business processes across the company," says Ananth Krishnan, vice president and chief technology officer at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., a Mumbai, India-based IT consulting company. "Width of business understanding is key to successful IT leadership from an internal customer perspective. The rest is implementation."

Again, role-playing can be a useful educational tool. "I think it is important for people in the IT department to spend a day in the life of those people working in different parts of the organization," says Mohawk's Riley. "We actually have them sit in our centers and take customer orders."

Time spent in a call center adds perspective for an IT staffer, especially one who has prescribed an unworkable solution to a customer service agent. "It's easy to tell this user to just hit this button every time you have a problem. Once they understand that they have to hit that same button 10,000 times a day, they understand that the solution is inappropriate," Riley says.

Exelon IT officials also nudge technology workers into the trenches. Exelon's energy delivery organizations have endured major changes because of deregulation of the energy sector. "The impact of deregulation and new regulatory requirements have changed the way these business units operate, and they need IT's help to navigate those changes," says Hill.

7: Lack of Technology Understanding Outside IT

Maintaining a competent staff either by relying exclusively on internal employees or by blending in outside talent is only half the battle. Corporate IT leaders must then rally their troops in constant campaigns to educate business units on the value IT can bring to mission-critical initiatives.

Far too many technology leaders fall down in this area and have no one but themselves to blame, according to Forrester's Cecere. "Lack of technology understanding outside of IT is self-inflicted. I've seen very few IT shops educate business people in a disciplined way. Large shop managers are generally pretty sophisticated and realize the importance of educating business people, but it's often third on the list of priorities and difficult to implement, given resource demands," he says.

Effective efforts to illuminate business units on the role and benefit of IT might include formal meetings or more casual get-to-know-you sessions. "We conduct executive briefings on various technical issues," Kubilus says. "Sometimes these may be pure IT briefings on a particular technology or an update on a major project."

A true juggling act is required of today's CIOs. The most effective IT leaders will tread lightly around common land mines that are just waiting to keep them from reaching their performance goals.

Leadership Advice on the House

Spend your IT budget wisely, almost as if you had to fund projects personally.

Identify early those skills your staff is missing and quickly forge ties with local placement agencies or explore offshore options.

Try to counter risk aversion in your organization, but know when the company simply isn't ready for a major move and have the courage to back off.

See the complete 2007 Premier 100 IT Leaders special report.

McAdams is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at JMTechWriter@aol.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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