Pressure Points

CIOs juggle tighter and tighter budgets, longer and longer to-do lists and rapid-fire technology updates that can shift the entire IT landscape overnight. They have to manage the expectations of tech savvy employees who want at work what they cobble together for themselves on the cheap at home; they have to find and retain IT staff and manage their Gen X/Y expectations while engaging intimately with the business; and they have to support 24x7 service demands.

Major upgrades invariably involve a weekend or public holiday being sacrificed by the IT team so as not to inconvenience the business. In order to tackle the pressures at the office, CIOs and their teams work long hours only to face more pressure on the home front because they are late or absent.

As another CIO puts it: 'CIOs have to realize they can't do it all. There will always be more demand on IT than resources to do it'

According to the recently released report It's about time: Women, men, work and family from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the average employed male with infants works 46 hours a week, and 37 percent of Australian employees work overtime regularly mdash; a third of it unpaid. CIOs meanwhile say their working week easily stretches to 55 or 60 hours. It is sobering to reflect that the working week for convicts in 1799 was set at 50 hours.

Faced with bald statistics and lists of the pressures it is easy to sink into a funk. But some CIOs are quite upbeat about the pressure mdash; yes, there's more to do, but look what new technology and increased efficiency is offering. Standard operating environments mean running the show is a lot easier and cheaper than it once was. Remote access means staff can fix IT issues from home.

Some don't see the pressure as negative at all mdash; rather it is a fantastic challenge and intellectual stimulus. Some see evidence of pressure as a trigger to roll out new management techniques and procedures in the IT department mdash; an opportunity to make a difference. Some have incredibly supportive families and partners. They thrive in the environment.

However, others refuse to discuss the impact the pressure has on their home life or health. They don't want to go there.

In 2006 a UK report was released investigating the links between working lives and managers' health and well-being. Written by Professor Les Worrall of the University of Wolverhampton and Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, the report found that 89 percent of UK managers experienced significant organizational change in the preceding year, with two-thirds of that cohort reporting that their job security and morale dipped as a result. Almost two-thirds reported an increasing incidence of sickness in the workplace.

In addition, 92 percent of managers reported they were working over contract hours leading to a series of negative effects, 64 percent felt these extra hours eroded their social life, 59 percent said it negatively impacted their relationship with their spouse or partner, 56 percent responded that it affected their health and 54 percent reported a poorer relationship with their children.

Family relationships can raise the pressure stakes. As one CIO reflected, "When the kids were very young and I was putting in the hours, I thought: 'I hope when they are teenagers and don't want to spend time with me that I won't regret that I missed out on all this time.'"

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Part of the Problem

Pressure does not get a good press, yet some CIOs interviewed for this piece (a range of interviews were held with several CIOs speaking on condition of anonymity) claim they themselves can be guilty of adding to the pressure. "I was in a round table recently and found that some CIOs generate their own work," one CIO says. "If the business is not demanding it then you don't take on extra work. Do what the business wants: work on smart things. If it's glaringly obvious that you need something mdash; like disaster recovery mdash; then do it, but otherwise just do what the business wants." To offer more pumps up the pressure, was his argument.

While most other CIOs take a slightly less reactionary stance, most of them acknowledge that there are many occasions when it pays to say no, whether it be to an unsuitable consumer class technology being demanded by a Generation X employee or to a project that simply does not stack up in the strategy and budget stakes.

For large companies, the need to say no can be even more acute. One CIO who has worked in very large organizations most of his life says that the pressure in the big companies is greater because of the sheer volume of different things that have to be done and the number of things the CIO has to keep across. And however bad it might be for Australian big business, it is worse overseas, he says. "I've had a chance to visit similar organizations in the US and the UK which are an order of magnitude larger than we are and amidst all the pressure there are always some things that you have to keep your eye on, the key projects, and keep across them.

"I've just had people in here saying that a new release is coming out and they had 74 listed priorities but they can only do 58 of them," he says. "The way to tackle that sort of pressure is to identify what can be done in the time frame, and then do it, alerting business to the fact as early as possible."

As another CIO puts it: "CIOs have to realize they can't do it all. There will always be more demand on IT than ever resources to do it . . . If people say: 'Why have you not done it?', then you say you'd be happy to do it but they have to pick which other projects to drop. You need to spend enormous amounts of time establishing your own political credentials in the organization.

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"Most decisions sent to be resolved by IT are actually business problems for management. What plagues CIOs is the notion that they can do it all. Well, you can if you have an infinite budget, but you don't."

Besides knowing what the organization cannot do, it is important to identify what the CIO cannot do, and delegate effectively in order to defuse the pressure. For example, one CIO has a dedicated architecture manager to whom he defers on all architecture decisions. "Why would I have this person and his expensive skills and then take the decision on myself," he says. "I don't want to make all the technical decisions, some people might but I certainly can't."

Effective teams to which the CIO can delegate and strong succession plans also alleviate the strain by ensuring the CIO can share the day-to-day load, and organize downtime to attend conferences, plan for the future or take holidays.

Yet for every manager that can recognize and live with their limitations, delegate effectively and build a strong team, there is another waking in a cold sweat at 3am over a decision they have taken that is going pear-shaped. Identifying and dealing with failures early is important for CIOs who want any sort of quality of life.

"Pressure exists but it's far less than the pressure when things have already gone pear-shaped," says one senior IT manager. "One of the times when I feel pressure is when things do go pear-shaped because of influence from offshore that I have no control over. That's when you need relationships with managers that are rock solid so you can have frank discussions with them and say what is achievable. Also you've got to make the business make decisions on what is a priority. That's the best way to relieve the pressure."

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Meeting the Demand

Anywhere, anytime access increases the pressure for PKF's CIO

Mark Carmichael is CIO of PKF Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers and runs a team of 11 staff meeting the IT needs of 500 employees in the NSW and Brisbane offices. "The pressure is rising as we move to more of a mobile infrastructure and anywhere anytime access," he acknowledges. "I've been in IT for 15 or 16 years and here for two-and-a-half and the pressure has risen since I've been here."

In a partnership there are even more opportunities to feel the strain. "We're a partnership with 54 partners and each owns an equal share of the business. You have to answer to them as soon as something goes wrong mdash; a partner will walk in and demand it be fixed. In professional services their computer is everything to them. If something affects them, whether it's a business application or an e-mail glitch, then their world ends and it has to be fixed.

"You're remunerated well enough but there is no acknowledgment of the pressure on IT," Carmichael says.

"How do I cope? Well, I might have a glass or two of red occasionally if I've got a lot on my mind and can't sleep. But I stay fit and keep down the pressure by going to the gym in the middle of the day. As to my staff, I sit on the end of the desk and talk to them. I take them for drinks when I can. I was a technician at one stage and know what they go through."

Carmichael has also implemented technology to support his IT team and help manage the load they face. "We've installed all remote computing technologies mdash; we have systems at home so technicians can dial in and fix generally everything remotely. The other night mdash; 10.30 on Friday mdash; I got a phone call from a partner saying he needed to contact someone in Perth and couldn't send through the e-mails. I had to call on one of the guys to fix that mdash; they work in IT and understand that's part of the job."

With plans soon to offer extranet services with gateways for clients, Carmichael knows that will place further demand on his team for 24x7 support. "But we will build it correctly to reduce any problems."

He remains adamant, though, that he knows when to say no.

"The partners said: 'We want Skype mdash; give it to us now.' I had to front the partners and say: 'No, you're not getting Skype, it's not aligned with our strategy and it's not right for a professional organization.' As long as you have got the information and can back yourself up they can accept that."

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A Changing Landscape

There's no room for complacency for Wotif's CIO

Online accommodation specialist Wotif has been on a steep growth trajectory, with CIO Paul Young charged with delivering the information infrastructure to support the business. "One of the very challenging things is the entire changing landscape mdash; combined with the need to do more with less, more accountability and more transparency," Young says.

"What CIOs find is that what works at one scale doesn't work at another, so you are constantly reinventing yourself and have to throw away everything you've done before. There's nothing wrong with it mdash; it just doesn't work at the scale you need it so you have to throw everything away and adopt a new paradigm.

"At the same time you realize you can't make this happen without people but you have to adapt to the skills shortage, keeping the older people and change the working week to keep younger people and change the way the business works to cope with that, which is a challenge because they may have opposing aims," he adds.

"Also there can't be just a token re-education of your staff mdash; you need to reinvent yourself and that is mirrored down the line."

Young believes the pressures that CIOs face actually change according to the sector in which they operate and the maturity of the business. "It depends on the stage of your company and the organizational maturity. If we were established and had a slow growth rate then there would be different challenges. In the Web 2.0 area it's a rapidly exploding business and the CIOs play a much more strategic role so we don't tend to and can't afford to go for run-of-the-mill technologies.

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"To be on the competitive edge you've got to be leveraging new technologies. That can be a very isolated place," Young says.

In spite of the rapid change of pace and demand, Young describes Wotif as a "moderate pressure" workplace. However, he acknowledges, "I've definitely noticed that as Wotif grows, from the time I walk in to the time I walk out there is no time to do anything except what needs to be done."

Young typically works 50-60 hours a week and tries to keep his team each to 40 hours a week. "Often when the IT team is working shocking hours then there are other systemic problems mdash; the project is probably not properly scoped and resourced. The high level of IT project failures must be because of not scoping the project properly. Here 98 percent of our projects come in within 3-4 percent of time and budget."

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