IT Relief Will Lag Economic Recovery

Whether or not an economic recovery has begun, I suspect that this will be another tough year for those of us in IT. Take a deep breath and get ready for it. I'm not trying to quash the small signs of budding optimism, but I can't help feeling that excessive confidence may threaten us personally and collectively. I think a bit of cautious realism is called for.

In my experience, IT budgets don't begin to rise until at least a year after an economic recovery begins in earnest. This seems to be due to both emotional and logistical issues. Logistically, budgeting changes take time. Typically, the larger the organization, the slower the budgeting wheels grind. Nimble is not a word that comes to mind when thinking about financial controls. But this is more than just a mechanical problem. Emotionally, business leaders tend to have mood swings like everyone else. They become excessively optimistic and pessimistic, swinging wildly from one to the other. During the optimistic periods, they overspend on (excuse me, invest in) IT. During the pessimistic ones, they starve every operational area until it barely functions. It's easy to remind executives that one can't scrimp a business into profitability, but no one seems to pay much attention. When bonuses are based on quarterly numbers, the urge to cut expenses is tough to resist.

So, despite the fact that many companies are now reporting profits, it seems to me that we're in for at least another year of tough times.

For those who lost their jobs, it could be another slow year for trying to find work. For those just entering the workforce from school, it could be especially difficult, as risk-averse managers bring in only people with specific experience and expertise. Trying to figure out what training to get or skills to acquire will be hard. It's going to be difficult to stand out. Also, despite the fact that a lot of talented people have been unemployed for long periods of time, I expect that hiring will be biased toward those who are currently working. The unspoken, and often faulty, assumption is that people with jobs must be more talented than those without.

On the positive side for those without jobs, opportunities for contracting may become more plentiful. As employers start to work on more things, they will hit the limits of what their remaining staffers can do. Instead of hiring new employees, they are likely to look for contractors. Once an employer likes you as a contractor, it is more likely to hire you as an employee.

And even if you have a job, it could still be a tough year. As activity picks up, employers are likely to press for more work from existing staff. And they're likely to get it. No one wants to lose a job now. So expect some long hours and little reward besides keeping your job -- and maybe a little appreciation. As you're suffering under the burden, just remember that one of the major things worse than having a job this year is not having one.

So, what can we, as individuals, do when we're in the grip of forces larger than ourselves? Surrender to them and focus on the things we can control. Look carefully at the systemic forces, understand them, and accept that you are largely powerless against them. Surf the waves. If you try to stand fast and resist or absorb the energy, you will only exhaust yourself. This is not the same as denial. Hiding from reality robs you of the opportunity to take advantage of what's happening around you.

I realize that all this advice is easy to give but hard to follow. Good luck, and happy new year.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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