by Rod Hamilton

How to Solve the Headcount Problem

Nov 01, 20024 mins
IT Leadership

At a time when budgets are tight and technology is constantly changing, it’s a daunting challenge to keep an IT team suitably skilled to address today’s technology needs. Despite the failures of many Web-based companies, the Internet continues to be the engine that drives the most cost-effective gains in collaboration between companies and internally. But how do you maintain the systems that keep your company functioning while capitalizing on the advantages offered by new technologies? This is a difficult balancing act and requires open-mindedness within IT and the rest of the company. Traditionally, the hierarchy and job roles of the IT department have been well defined. When an employee leaves, the replacement is based on the existing job function and not on the needs of the business.

I believe flexibility should be introduced into this historic practice. At my company, Hygeia?a health-care company that facilitates transactions between the buyers and providers of health-care services?headcount is directed by business need, not history. We now hire replacement staff or fill new positions by first examining our technological needs and the skill sets already present. Then we seek candidates that will fill the gap that currently exists. The upside to this approach is that the organization is able to respond to new technologies or business objectives. The downside is the difficulty HR has in matching one position against another, which can impede the hiring process.

Recently, our company decided to deploy Web technology as a companywide user interface. Many of these Web applications have components designed for client access via the Internet. This clearly presented a host of security-related challenges that would not exist if the system was exclusively for internal use. The business plan didn’t provide for a new security position for some time to come. Coincidentally, the production database administrator decided to leave Hygeia and join another organization. This presented the opportunity to create a job description that required security and database qualifications and experience. Because of our CEO’s support, we were able to hire a security specialist who was also capable of managing our databases.

A Pat on the Back

When deploying new people to work on new technology, it is critical that existing people are managed carefully. Team members knowledgeable of current systems remain crucial to the success of the company, and managers must realize that many of them will want to participate in new projects. In fact, it is quite normal for the stability of existing systems to be taken for granted and valuable efforts expended there overlooked. It is important for the CIO to ensure that this work is suitably acknowledged.

It’s also important that existing staff receive new skills training as old technologies evolve or are superceded. After all, everyone is nervous about becoming redundant. When hiring new developers, I first met with the existing staff to understand their concerns. Predictably, none of them wanted to be left behind. They were not interested in managing the new area but were very receptive to having a separate reporting relationship. To ensure that the existing staff would grow in the new environment, we sought applicants who were open to mentoring and had previous experience in that role. To confirm compatibility, team members participated in the interview process. The applicant met the people he would supervise, and the employees were able to comment on their comfort level with their prospective mentor.

The Web development supervisor we hired, for instance, has effectively trained the staff. In fact, the primary support person for the original system, who was mentored by the new hire, is now one of the key developers deploying the new technology. His responsibilities have grown at a pace he is comfortable with.

This approach allowed us to retain key staff by offering a career development proposition they might otherwise have sought elsewhere. When all is said and done, it wouldn’t be possible to transform the technology we use unless the core systems were stable and well supported. Their involvement remains critical to the success of the company.

I believe that such a flexible staffing philosophy is a key tool in any company’s success in capitalizing on new efficiencies. It has certainly worked for us.