Companies should plan a skills map

When the recession came, Ed Bell just said no. The CIO at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass., knew that competitive pressures in the investment brokerage business wouldn’t allow his IT staff to slack off during the downturn, so he took a pragmatic approach to the present that’s also preparing his staff for the future.

When 2001 closed with revenue down, Bell was forced to reduce his IT staff by 10 per cent. Early this year, he delayed some infrastructure upgrades and avoided what he calls “significant” new costs by consolidating servers rather than buying new ones for new applications. Then, he focused about a third of his projects on productivity enhancements that cut costs and put Commonwealth in a good position for an upturn.

Those tactical moves let Bell concentrate the other two-thirds of his projects on strategic initiatives. One such project provides multidimensional views of millions of aggregated data records. This enables Commonwealth and its customers to benchmark against the competition.

“Those are strategic things that you’ve got to do,” Bell said. “When things loosen up, I’ll be that step ahead of the competition.” This is because tactical projects will have strengthened his staffers’ skills in workflow management technologies, such as imaging. Strategic projects will have enhanced their next-generation online analytical processing skills.

With cutbacks and layoffs, not everyone has the resources to move ahead with strategic projects. But even if the recession has forced you to cut back on projects, you can use this time to assess your skill base, figure out what you’ll need and get organized to hit the ground running when your budget loosens.

First, get your bearings. The downturn may have shifted business strategy and resources, so you may need to regroup. “Focus on basics,” advised Lawrence Brunelle, CEO of Blue Element Consulting Inc., an IT consulting firm in Pleasanton, Calif. Understand your organization’s strategy and your capabilities, from hardware and software to infrastructure and people. Know what’s in place and what’s needed to support new goals.

“If you haven’t done an IT skills assessment, do it now,” said Betty Calhoun, director of special projects at the information management support division of DynCorp, a government contractor in Reston, Va. Find out your employees’ strengths and weaknesses, what they know and what kind of projects they have worked on in the past.

Then, see how those skills correspond to projects that will flow when the economy improves.

The Business/Technology Link

Eric Dean, CIO at United Air Lines Inc., a subsidiary of UAL Corp. in Chicago, said that after the upturn, his hard-hit company will focus on two areas: customer service and operations support. “We’ve got big programs on hold in both areas, so that’s what we’ll be doing,” he said.

With his IT staff cut by half, Dean said he’s giving his employees practice in the skill that’s hardest to find and needed most: the ability to translate between the business side and IT.

By repeatedly delivering business results on smaller projects, his staffers will develop the judgment they’ll need for bigger initiatives now on hold.

Whatever projects your company will initiate when money loosens up, look now at how you’ll prioritize and manage your project portfolio. “It’s a good time to get in place a process for when the project faucet turns on,” said Kazim Isfahani, an analyst at Robert Frances Group in Westport, Conn.

That includes people. Margaret Schweer, director of human resources for information services at Kraft Foods Inc. in Northfield, Ill., said she is using the wide array of people in the job market to “recalibrate” her IT workforce. “Look at where your talent is versus what’s available on the outside and what you need to do to sync up, and make sure your people are competitive,” she said.

But avoid taking advantage of tough times by withholding raises and laying off people, she adds. “People remember how you treat them. That’s important to retention when good times come again,” Schweer said.

Dave Ellis, a vice-president of information services at The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta, agrees. He said his company has remained robust during the downturn and has hired some of the IT talent that has become available. But now is also the time to strategize about retention for the tighter talent market to come, he said. He does that by offering challenging assignments, growth opportunities and variety.

“Top performers will be the first ones headhunters come after, so do whatever you can to keep your best people happy,” said Georgine Young, a senior consultant at The Woodlands, Tex.-based office of Hewitt Associates LLC. Young said some firms are using all their salary increases for top performers; others are granting stock options to the top 10 percent, even as layoffs continue. At the least, you can invest in your staffers by offering training opportunities, showing you value them and building loyalty. “Companies that do that are positioning themselves to retain those performers when the market turns around,” she said.

Hiring Strategy

For skills you don’t plan to grow in-house, it’s never too early to think about hiring, even though most managers say they have no plans to hire soon. Keep in mind that the upturn probably won’t be a straight diagonal line, Brunelle said.

Know your time frame to hire and the costs, Calhoun said, including lost revenue opportunities from that project that can’t begin until the new hire is ready.

Develop recruiting channels such as employee referrals, job boards and alumni networks, Isfahani said. Use those to create a pool of potential candidates. Keep them interested with informative e-mail about your organization, strategy and vision, so they’ll be primed when you’re ready to hire.

You may not be able to predict when the upturn will begin, but if you use the interim well, you’ll have the talent and organization you’ll need.

Hot Skills

The following are some of the top skills companies will be looking for as the economy improves:

– Business/technology analysis

– Web security

– Network security

– Project management

– Enterprise architecture

– Risk analysis

– Database administration

– Server administration

– Web transaction

– Application programming, especially Java

– Networking

– E-commerce

– Tech support