Speed of Business

IT leaders are pressed to keep balance during rapid expansion. By Jennifer McAdams

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Change is now the only constant in most corporate IT shops. Not only do today's technology leaders make systems-related decisions that affect thousands of users, but they also must react quickly to market shifts and hustle to appease zealous CEOs bent on getting ahead in fast-paced industries.

High on the stress list are mergers and acquisitions. When organizations blend, some IT staffers work overtime to absorb and accommodate entire organizations, while other technology workers strive to adjust quickly to the foreign ways of new parent companies.

Growth without acquisition is painful as well. Many business development departments now regularly demand new technologies to help move companies forward.

Regardless of the triggering events, there are some basic strategies for successfully enacting and managing changes, according to industry experts. The roster of Premier 100 IT Leaders who are guiding organizations through extraordinary changes includes technology executives at FedEx Kinko's, 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., Rent-A-Center Inc. and the University of Phoenix Online.

Decisiveness -- sometimes in the extreme -- is crucial, most agree. "There is a lot to be said for the Draconian method," says Ian Campbell, president of Nucleus Research Inc. in Wellesley, Mass. "It's quick, efficient and painful -- but only for a short amount of time."

At the same time, IT leaders should remain compassionate in the face of inevitable resistance, especially if they are to make the most of existing talent. To reduce stress, some enterprises turn to outside vendors during times of change. Others assure staffers of payback once things settle down. But particularly shrewd is the leader who realizes when painful changes are taking a toll and stops to let employees catch their breath. "Humans can only take on so much change," says Campbell.

Growing Pains

Enzo Micali

"We don't tend to waffle back and forth," says Enzo Micali of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Photo courtesy Giorgio Palmisano

While most people can tolerate only limited amounts of change, many organizations now seem to have insatiable appetites for transformation. Staffs are just expected to adapt instantaneously.

Most common is the top-down approach. Consider 1-800-Flowers.com, which has snapped up several large brands -- including home and garden retailer Plow & Hearth Inc. and The Popcorn Factory Inc. -- all of which now share core administrative units.

"We didn't overengineer the effort. We don't tend to waffle back and forth," says Enzo Micali, senior vice president and CIO at 1-800-Flowers.com in Westbury, N.Y.

"In past jobs, I've been involved in best-of-breed selections. And frankly, those are very complicated," he adds.

Expectations are especially high in the wake of acquisitions. "Senior executives will come to the IT group and say, 'We want it yesterday,'" says David Oles, IT director of research and development at Rent-A-Center (RAC) in Plano, Texas.

Growth by acquisition is a way of life for RAC, which sells home furnishings and consumer goods via rent-to-own agreements. Hence, Oles and his staff have learned to change direction on a dime. "In one case, we converted [systems for] 27 stores over a two-to-three-day period," recalls Oles.

To move this fast, RAC has learned to lean heavily on its business partners. For instance, when the corporation plunged recently into the personal financial services industry by acquiring several check-cashing and payday loan centers, RAC moved in lockstep with two point-of-sale software vendors. "Our partners have the checklists ready, and they go in to configure hardware and install the software quickly," notes Oles.

Hold Hands

QUICK-HIT TIPS

1) Pace yourself: Decide which changes must take place immediately; efforts such as software upgrades might not be prudent during times of turmoil.

2) Be decisive: Especially during acquisitions, think hard before taking a best-of-breed approach.

3) Expect pushback: Change is difficult for employees, so be ready with the justification for changes.

4) Know staff limits: Recognize when to stop pushing changes and be able to spot staffers who are unable or unwilling to change.

5) Slow down: Give personnel a chance to absorb one round of changes beofre imposing another.

Imposing core systems and operations across an organization may prove less complicated, but it can also be downright painful for employees.

"Forget the technology piece of it. You first have to deal with the fact that you now have this group of five to 10 people who once had the ability to act fairly autonomously and now have a new corporate entity and new processes to follow. There can be a lot of separation anxiety," Micali says.

Anxiety of a different sort plagues those staffs in enterprises undergoing explosive internal growth, says Kathy Claypatch, director of online IT operations at University of Phoenix Online. Claypatch spearheaded the creation and delivery of an online education infrastructure in just 30 days.

"We've recognized that our business is growing so fast that we have to be flexible in areas such as scheduling. We have to be empathetic to the fact that we are often disrupting the family lives of our employees, so we need to be ready to do something for those employees in return," she says. That could mean, for example, offering additional days off for staff members with sick children, says Claypatch.

To soften the blow, IT leaders should explain upfront exactly what major corporate changes will mean on an individual level. "It is so much easier if you have senior executives telling the stakeholders exactly what is going to happen," says Oles.

Along with frankness, organization is critical. When FedEx executed its $2.4 billion acquisition of Kinko's Inc., m anagers held weekly "dashboard" meetings on major IT projects, says Laurie Zeitlin, senior vice president and CIO at FedEx Kinko's in Dallas. "We stayed focused and incorporated project management," she says. "You don't want to assign a PMO to everything, but you have to have a balance."

When all is said and done, balance, timing and acceptance tend to define the resilient corporation. "The bar gets raised every year," says Zeitlin. "If you just develop that as your mind-set, you simply move forward."

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

Special Report

2006 Premier 100 IT Leaders

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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