Creating a line of defence against layoffs

To be sure that his IT department would be ready for an economic downturn, Richard J. Fishburn, vice-president and CIO at Corning, N.Y.-based glass products manufacturer Corning Inc., started planning back when the economy was on an upswing.

“You plan for success, but you also take into account what happens if conditions change,” he says. That’s certainly been the case at Corning, which had US$7 billion in sales in 2000, as the “telecommunications depression” cuts into the company’s fibre-optic product business, which accounts for 70 per cent of its sales.

Fishburn’s strategy to cope? Create “rings of defence” that include core IT employees on the inside ring, contract service providers at the middle ring and contract employees on the outermost ring. With 25 per cent of IT workers on contract and another 25 per cent of work performed by shared-services contractors, Fishburn estimates that he has saved as many jobs as he has had to reduce while the economy continues to falter.

“We’ve been able to take the first adjustments in the [contract] employees and then work down our agreements with people on the outside,” he says.

When it comes to defending IT initiatives, Fishburn, 56, says he plans ahead by aligning projects with business objectives from the start.

“We want IT people to be talking with the business team about what we are doing to increase the value of the business” and focus on projects that either make positive change in the business or help take costs out or improve asset performance, he explains.

And getting management buy-in is critical. “We’re not talking about an IT project,” Fishburn says. “We force the dialogue back to where you have a set of joint objectives with the business team.”

“Dick has done a phenomenal job of getting the IT management structure to look at what the business requirements are,” says Suzee Woods, IT director of application services.

This strategic thinking pays off in budget meetings, Fishburn says. “When you go through this short decision-making process during a downturn, you’re not discussing the value of the project to the organization,” he says. “They have already internalized why it’s important.”

Woods has seen that strategy bear fruit.

“We’re implementing a major project in the financial area, and that project has stayed on the radar screen and continues to have support…because we’ve been able to put it in terms of value to the corporation,” she says.

Fishburn acknowledges that getting technical people to discuss business rather than technology issues can be a challenge.

“There is an adjustment period people go through,” he says. But ultimately, when staffers see how presenting business benefits increases the probability of their programs being successful, “you build the trust,” Fishburn says.