dolphin Like most of us, I’ve been thinking about the current economic climate and its implications for IT leaders.  I posted back in early September in The Economy, Information Technology and Opportunity Creation that it is now more important than ever to find creative and constructive ways to drive growth and innovation by whatever means.  I’ve also bemoaned the fact that many CIO’s have taken an alternate approach – that now is the time to hunker down and lay low.  In my post A Tale of 2 CIO’s: Proactive Innovator vs. Reactive Operator I drew the distinction between two types of IT leader – “Cecil the Controller” and “Ivan the Innovator.”  The former essentially is inclined to hunker down and “do no harm” when the financial conditions get tough, while the latter sees the financial conditions as a challenge that is best addressed head-on – proactively looking for ways to stimulate growth and innovation.  For them it’s a time for IT to shine, not to retreat deeper into the shadows!

We’ve been in recessions before, and the innovator versus controller behaviors – ever present – do tend to stand out during such times.  I guess the appropriate variation on the old cliche is “When the going gets tough, tough CIO’s innovate!”  Anyway, the question I’ve been pondering lately is, “Is there anything different with this recession that should influence IT leadership behaviors?”  The familiar knee jerk reaction of “take out costs” – stop discretionary spending and be the responsible corporate citizen by cutting IT costs might deserve a second look.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.  What’s different this time?

  • If you have been a responsible IT leader, you’ve already done the reasonable cost cutting and cost take-out measures, and run an efficient IT operation.  Cutting any further is likely to cut into bone and muscle rather than fat.  Is the best thing we can say about IT that when money is tight, we should do less of it?  My problem with the knee jerk reaction is it reinforces the perennial perspective that IT is only a cost to be contained, rather than an investment to be leveraged.  This time, and under current global economic climate, it seems to me that finding growth and business innovation (be it process, product or service innovation) is a better strategy – a more constructive IT response.
  • But, you’d better be able to prove the investments are going to pay back in a time frame that is consistent with business needs.  Therefore, robust business cases, a clear business-driven IT portfolio strategy and ongoing portfolio management are essential.  Similarly, superb program management and a real focus on value realization become key.  As is rapid business experimentation and analytics.
  • This time you might be able to get into or accelerate the use of SaaS and Cloud Computing – these approaches are inherently less capital-intensive, and, arguably, lead to lower operating costs.
  • For those that have not already done so, you might need to get more serious about global sourcing – not just as in outsourcing, but as in leveraging temporary and contract workers, retirees, and the growing body of unemployed who will be happy to work for lower rates than might have been the case 6 months ago.  Unlike in other recessions where the IT ranks felt almost immune, this time around there are many well qualified people out there in the unemployment lines – and with life saving perhaps seriously depleted, they are hungry for work.
  • This is a great time to take advantage of the “air cover” that the economic climate provides and get really aggressive and focused on ‘weeding and pruning’ – rationalizing and consolidating the legacy environment.
  • This time most companies have the basic infrastructure (broad band web access, desktop videoconferencing, services such as WebEx and LiveMeeting to support virtual work arrangements.  Given that much of the IT operating cost base is people, it might be worth getting creative about not only facilitating, but proactively encouraging alternate work arrangements (e.g., work from home, work part time).  People may be willing to give up some base pay to take advantage (including cost savings plus green benefits) of work-at-home arrangements.
  • Some IT expense is depreciation – with many companies coming off several years of capital investments, you might need to get creative about moving assets off the books. This was one of the forces driving outsourcing 15 years (or so) ago, and it may be worth exploring some creative (though legitimate) financial schemes.
  • Some organizations have been improving IT service levels year over year, and are now in a situation where service levels are higher than is truly needed.  You may therefore need to reassess and re-balance service levels/demand constraints. (e.g., take help desk response times from 15 min guarantee to 1 hour.
  • Lastly, Web 2.0 and all that it means (cloud computing, SaaS, etc.) promise a relatively quick and easy way to find and conduct experiments in business innovation and collaboration, without the investment and effort of building all the infrastructure and developing a whole bunch of code.  For many companies there is a potential gold mine in the application of social networking to business growth and innovation.  Now is a great time to look hard and identify opportunities to connect with employees, customers and the company ecosystem in new and productive ways.