Communication Is Key

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 10-07-2010

Boosting IT Worker Productivity

As the Great Recession continues to affect companies around the globe, increased productivity is becoming more coveted than ever. CEOs are trying desperately to get employees to do more with less while increasing revenue in the process. This desire for productivity plus profit is also a strong motivator for the CIO. As a top-level executive, the CIO is expected to use appropriate leadership skills and the right technology solutions to make IT workers perform most efficiently.

"There is a steady drumbeat for lower prices and stable operating margins that [exerts] enormous pressure," Xerox CIO John McDermott tells CIO Insight. "Our expectations will, at best, stay steady, but they will probably go up, so we need lots of ideas to drive productivity."

These same difficult economic conditions and increased demands on the workforce are taking their toll on employee morale. A Deloitte "Ethics & Workplace Study" published in summer 2010 finds that 34 percent of the 750 employed Americans surveyed plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better. Among these prospective job-seekers, 46 percent say they are motivated primarily by a lack of transparent communication from their senior management.

As managers, CIOs need to strike a delicate balance: driving workers to reach new heights of productivity, while simultaneously nurturing morale, being clear about goals and rewarding top performers. It all starts with understanding which areas of your organization represent the greatest productivity pitfalls for your IT workers.  Among the top drains on their time are:

  • resolving help desk and service calls
  • deploying new projects, software and architecture
  • maintaining and updating servers, infrastructure and software
  • time binds created by the eight-hour workday.

Communication Is Key

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is focusing heavily on improving communication through the use of video, according to the company's CIO, Filippo Passerini. His staff is spread out around the world, which has made video the best way for IT employees to collaborate on projects.

"We are aggressive at deploying video collaboration, so [employees] can cooperate from any point," Passerini says. "Humans in person operate better than on e-mail or the phone." Passerini says using video has helped P&G do a better job of managing staff "on a per-unit cost basis."

Brand Velocity, a company that specializes in helping companies implement IT initiatives, urges its top-level employees to learn how to communicate in ways that facilitate effective collaboration among team members. One such example, says Brand Velocity CEO Jack Bergstrand, "is to [articulate] a clear enterprise model to make sure people are seeing a project in the same way." He adds that it's important to inform all IT team members of the key factors involved in projects--the "who, what, when, where and why"--to ensure that they understand the goals of any collaborative effort. "It sounds painfully simple, but it almost never happens in practice," Bergstrand says.

Out With the Old, In With the New

New ideas and tools to make teams productive abound, but leadership skills ultimately play the major role in determining whether IT productivity efforts succeed or fail. An organization's vice presidents, project managers and team leaders are all looking to the CIO for direction. Factors have emerged in the past five years that make the CIO's job more challenging--and require more insight to keep IT workers productive.

One of the most important new factors facing CIOs is the rapid pace of communication. Miami-Dade College's CIO Karl Herleman manages more than 180,000 students and 6,000 employees with only 300 IT workers on staff. The pressures of serving this über-connected communication environment are greater than ever. "Everything has gotten much more rapid with mobile technology, social media and everything in real time," Herleman says. "There used to be more time to react and plan."

P&G CIO Passerini agrees. He says that the speed with which business moves today has made his own leadership style become "much more decisive" over the past five years. "We have less time to debate," he says.

Young generations entering the workforce are challenging CIOs. A recent study from IT staffing firm TEKsystems found that 73 percent of all IT workers are under age 45; 21 percent of these employees were born between 1980 and 2000. While earlier generations learned how to use new technology in the midst of their careers, young workers grew up with computers and gadgetry, and feel right at home in IT. For CIOs, this means changing the way they lead to accommodate the generational shifts occurring in the workforce.

"We have every end of the [age] spectrum," says Miami-Dade College's Herleman. "The employees who have been here a long time are definitely not comfortable with new technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft SharePoint. But that's how the younger employees communicate. They want to be text-messaged and talked to in their own ways."

Xerox CIO McDermott says that young workers are "all about speed." He believes that capitalizing on that need for speed helps increase productivity. "[Younger generations] have seen that speed is an opportunity in business," he says. "They're impatient, and they want to get things done. As a CIO, you want to harness that."

Unlike some of their seniors, younger workers perceive a "fluid boundary" between business and IT, and this is a positive trend for IT departments, notes McDermott. "They expect their careers to bounce between IT and business roles," he says.

P&G's Passerini agrees, saying that for IT workers to be productive, they need a strong desire to be profitable contributors to the bottom line. "There is a unique opportunity for people with an expertise in technology to employ a leadership role," he says. "We need to ask if what we're doing is relevant for the business. If it isn't, then we become a commodity in the work we do."

The Role of Technology

Various technology solutions can help CIOs reshape their IT departments from commodities to drivers of corporate strategy. Among the tools found to be most effective are:

  • mobile and wireless solutions
  • self-service portals for employees that reduce help desk burdens for IT
  • collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Microsoft SharePoint.

Mobile solutions are one of the most obvious ways in which companies are increasing IT productivity. IT has always been a 24/7 proposition. Mobile products, including laptops and smartphones, facilitate an unprecedented level of remote access. This means IT workers who once had to travel to the office in the middle of the night to fix problems can now handle many issues remotely.

"Being productive on the IT side means providing laptops, smartphones and even iPads," says Peter Graves, senior vice president and CIO of Ionia, Mich.-based Independent Bank, which currently operates more than 100 locations in the state. Giving end-user employees more options to fix their own problems is another way in which some CIOs have increased IT worker productivity. Herleman of Miami-Dade College obviously needs to worry about employees, but he also needs to address the issues students might be having while using the institution's network. The university deployed a help desk tool called Parature. In addition to handling help desk calls, it gives his IT staff the ability to engage in live online chats to quickly answer queries.

This fall, Miami-Dade College will roll out a Facebook integration. When that is complete, students and employees who use the social network will be able to get IT support on the institution's Facebook pages. Each page will offer a knowledge base where students can troubleshoot problems before they call the help desk. "Our students are much more tech-savvy than they've ever been, and thanks to self-help ... they'll find their own answers," says Herleman.

When it comes to collaborative tools, some CIOs we spoke with are comfortable with free services, such as Google Docs, which allows users to collaborate on a document in real time over the Web. However, others say they favor Microsoft SharePoint.

"SharePoint is a big productivity booster," says Herleman. He says the software helps all his employees determine where they and their colleagues "are headed and what they should be working on." Independent Bank is also looking into SharePoint.

Keeping IT Working

CIOs in companies of all sizes face the same problems: They want to cut down on help desk inquiries, reduce the time it takes to implement new projects, and limit the amount of time IT staff is forced to spend maintaining current infrastructure. And, they need to give their IT employees tools to achieve a work-life balance.

Services such as Facebook can be optimized to cut down on help desk inquiries; collaboration tools can help IT teams quickly implement new technologies; and wireless solutions, such as laptops and smartphones, can empower employees when they're away from the office.