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Nurturing IT Wed 07 Jan 09

In a recession, keeping your IT staff happy is critical.

"People, Process and Technology" is the cliché about what you have to manage to be successful in information technology. We often focus mainly on these in the reverse of the order listed because it is easier.

Technology is cleaner, it's factual, it's quantifiable and it's not personal. Dealing with people involves all the things technology isn't. It's messier and much more difficult. However, People are what will make Process and Technology work.

Unfortunately, the recession is going to highlight our People issues and make our jobs more challenging in oh so many ways. As CIOs, you have a number of specialists you heavily rely on because of their technical expertise and institutional knowledge.

It is difficult to imagine how you can cut these positions if called upon to make staff cuts. At the same time, it is difficult to keep these same people motivated and engaged if you have to cut back on new projects and need to have everyone pitch in to help with day-to-day activities.

Like all the other C-level executives, we are challenged to "do more with less." It will require us to make some hard decisions and to be creative with how we manage our most important asset--our employees. Here are some areas CIOs should focus on in 2009.

Staff Retention: First, let's put aside the knee-jerk reaction of, "In times like these they should be thankful they even have a job." It really isn't very helpful. If you've had to make staff cuts, the people you have left are the best and most valuable, and you probably have had to sacrifice bench strength. In this situation you really can't afford to have a key person leave.

Also keep in mind that the recession will impact other companies and industries differently. So although you may be operating in a tight environment, someone down the street may be hiring.

Leaving is always an option for good people. If you can't give your best people big raises or bonuses right now, there are still things you can do to keep them happy. Flexible work hours, attractive assignments or additional vacation days could entice your best employees to stay. Often, some of the simplest things can have the biggest impact.

Communication: Meet with your people individually and in groups to let them know what is going on within IT and, more importantly, within the company. What is the company doing to get through the recession, how do things look, what does the forecast look like?

Recognition: Let your people know how much their efforts are appreciated. Take time to say "Thank you." Ask other senior managers to stop by and also express their appreciation. Nothing is more frustrating than working hard in obscurity when a "thank you" costs nothing.

You can recognize people's efforts without having to spend lots of money. Buying lunch for the group and giving employees tickets to the theater or sporting events are a couple of examples. You can also recognize extra hours by letting your employees take their families out to dinner at the company's expense.

Training: Training budgets are usually the first thing to be cut when times get tough. Yet at the same time, training can be critically important during these times. People are handling multiple responsibilities, many of which they had to assume quickly due to staff cuts after receiving little or no training.

So what can you do? Focus what training budget you do have on the critical areas, especially if you have someone new filling a role and there is no backup resource available.

Look in-house. Do you have people on your staff that can train less experienced employees?

Mutual support. Connect with your colleagues at other companies. Maybe you can swap experts to teach specific subjects.

Share the burden. Training companies will typically offer to come to your location and put on classes. If you can fill a class to the maximum (usually around 15 people) your cost per person is about one-half the amount of going to the class off site. Don't need to train 15 people? Again, connect with your colleagues at other companies and, by sharing the burden, you can all save by having a common, local training course.

Staff Motivation: Recessions tend to change the nature of IT work. During good times we work on implementing new projects and systems, all the "sexy" stuff of IT (if you can legitimately use the words sexy and IT in the same sentence). During recessions, most of these projects go by the wayside to reduce spending, and IT work shifts to support, user training and smaller enhancement projects. This shift toward the mundane can be a big de-motivator for those who were previously working on big projects.

Some things you can do to get people motivated:

Make it a team effort. Stress the need for everyone to chip in and together you can get the job done.

Mix it up. As best you can, give everyone a mix of project work and support. It may seem more efficient to give some people all project work and some people all support work, but that can breed a sense of favoritism and possibly lead to frustration and apathy toward achieving the common goal.

Leading people is never easy and doing it during rough economics times is doubly hard. As we shift our tactics of managing IT along with the shift in our environment don't forget the People factor as it is your people who will ultimately be the source of your success as a leader.

What other things can we do to keep staff involved and engaged during recessionary times? Add your opinions in the Comments sections.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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