Depressing jobs advice

If you assume the worst part of the recession is yet to come and you're an IT manager what should you do? Go into survival mode with project freezes, lay-offs, and promotions for the technically brilliant but politically incorrect on your staff.

In the past my advice to people looking at the effect world economic events have on their responsibilities as IT or other managers in businesses and agencies has been more optimistic than otherwise. Thus during the eight years of the Bush administration I told people to ignore media attempts to talk down the economy because jobs were being created and world trade markets were growing - and therefore that managers should invest in R&D, while treating savings oportunities created by technology as re-investment and retraining opportunities for growing the business.

Since the democrats took over the American Congress in 2006 and Executive constraint disappeared in 2008, I've been saying something different in detail but similar in perception: that people should ignore media attempts to talk up a failing economy as unemployment rose and world markets weakened, while cutting checks written to third parties and making every possible effort to save employee jobs.

Two weeks ago I started saying something else entirely: that it's time for employment triage in hopes that the accumulating misery will push political change forward while the expense reductions enable your business or agency to survive long enough to rehire people when the next growth phase arrives.

In particular we have to recognize that world trade depends mostly on markets in the United States and Western Europe with the latter having intractable demographic and political problems and only the Americans having the near term opportunity, in November, of affecting sufficient political change to start the world economy on the path to recovery.

So how do you triage jobs and who's most affected? In an American context the who is easy: nearly everyone's affected, but it's county, municipal, school board, and state employees who are most affected right now because those levels of government are hitting their debt ceilings and can neither print money nor extract it from unemployed taxpayers - while in western Europe the loss of high value jobs to regulators, green policies, and government funded competitors in Asia continues to drive rapid erosion in the continent's manufacturing, distribution, and energy infrastructure.

The how part is simple but terrible: in rough terms triage means laying off the one third of your staff you're most likely to lose anyway as the depression deepens, re-assigning some survivors to force positive change, and relying on the remainder to keep things going in the short term.

Thus in the IT context you freeze evolutionary change, drop unproductive but politically correct projects, lay-off everyone working in change support (i.e. many of your help desk people) including planning and acquisition, take yet another look at what you can do without in third party support, and look carefully at what's left to see who you can usefully assign to tiger teams empowered to find and implement better ways to serve users while cutting total organizational costs.

The hardest thing here isn't the layoffs or the workload survivors will face: it's putting people you don't like or approve of in control, and then giving them a mandate to force disruptive change.

In thinking about this, remember that your surviving crew can do the job with the tools they have for a little while, but that if you can't learn how do more with a lot less, external change will eventually overwhelm them. The model for this is Winston Churchill and a host of lesser wartime leaders nearly all of whom were widely reviled for views nobody wanted to hear -until the horrendous losses incurred by the politically correct forced their promotion.

We're not there yet and the sky's not quite falling, but the odds don't look good - and while nobody wants to slaughter a bunch of sacred cows, you're probably going to need to do it, and because that's what war time promotees do best you're usually much better off reaching for them early rather than late.

Look for three things in choosing these people:

  1. they're usually not liked within their own management heirarchies;

  2. user management sees them as people they can trust to get results but has learnt not to mention them in meetings with you or your middle management team; and,

  3. in their own work they consistently produce good results, but are often attacked for it by those who couldn't get the job done on process or personal grounds.

Understand, particularly if you work in education or local government, that these people will want to consider things like replacing the entire Wintel infrastructure with some mix of more modern devices like Sun Rays, iPads, and large SMP servers. Thus their ideas, like this one, are usually things you and your line managers wouldn't be caught dead considering - but, like this one which could dramatically reduce IT costs while enhancing both security and user productivity, are among the choices you have to consider if your employer is to meet payroll next year.

The bottom line on this is simple: if survival means cutting off two arms and leg, you cut them off - and if it means laying off a third of your staff while promoting and empowering people advocating disruptive change, than that's what you do.

Besides, there is a hidden silver lining: because your user side colleagues are facing similar pressures and similar decisions, it's a gimme that they're listening to anyone promising to cut their IT overheads - and will listen to you if you first take action in your own sphere and then come back to them on those good ideas of yours they wouldn't listen to last year.