A Change for the Better

They say a modern optimist is someone who irons five shirts on a Sunday. It seems we work in a world where planning is impossible, the future is now and change is the only constant. There's little doubt that this flux takes its toll. In 1992 IDC's Forecast for Management survey revealed staff turnover in local IT departments averaged 9.93 per cent. In last year's survey that figure was just under 27 per cent.

How should a CIO respond to this turbulence? Most IS departments need key personnel. These are the staff whose understanding of the systems cannot be found in any manual - even if documentation exists, which it frequently doesn't. Even more important, they know the business and are attuned to the politics of the organisation. If they leave, they cannot be replaced overnight.

This challenge was the basis of a Melbourne InTEP session before Christmas. The CIO presenting was responsible for a large state government department. The then Premier had a predisposition towards engaging the private sector. Since he was responsible for one of the largest IS departments in Victoria the CIO had little option but to consider outsourcing some IS functions. This, as one would expect, had an extremely unsettling affect upon his IS staff. Some were nervous about job security. Others felt the outsourcing decision was a vote of no confidence in their capabilities and commitment. Staff turnover skyrocketed. This, in turn, influenced service delivery and the end users' perception of IS.

Ironically, the opportunity to address these problems came from the same source. Victoria had entered into a gold partnership award with the Australian Quality Council. Many CIOs have a somewhat jaded view of quality initiatives, but this CIO decided to give it a go as a last chance. If the effort failed to turn the IS department around then the likelihood was that it would be outsourced lock, stock and barrel.

The CIO stressed that the approach he took was not rocket science. In essence, it followed the Quality Council's Business Excellence Framework. This works on the principle of "physician heal thyself". The IS department set up internal teams to assess various aspects of the operations. They were then charged with coming up with a report recommending how these services could be enhanced.

It was a lot of work according to the CIO, but it had a decided influence on the department's morale. Suddenly, instead of grumbling away, staff were now empowered to do something about the situation. Moreover, it encouraged lateral solutions to long-running frustrations. But the most significant benefit was the process fostered an understanding of how to better manage customers. Since the teams were made up of a broad cross-section of the IS department, the work gave staff a wider appreciation of the activities of the department. This in turn promoted the need to work together and helped break down operational silos.

The CIO stressed there is still much to do. He said it is easy to identify problems and propose changes, but tougher to change processes and enlist user support. Nevertheless, two years on the CIO is an enthusiastic advocate of the Business Excellence Framework. Turnover in his department has declined from around 20 per cent to 3 per cent, teamwork has increased and staff morale is strong.

I left the session impressed that the solutions to many of the challenges facing CIOs today are often quite simple. In many ways it is about teamwork. If you can enlist your staff to work as a team, and if you listen and act on their advice, then they will feel wanted. This, in turn, will ensure that user needs are serviced by those who feel empowered to make a difference.

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