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Thursday, January 21, 2010

More work, fewer people -- IT staffing in a jobless recovery


By Tom Burzinski
A December 2009 report from the research firm Gartner, Inc., suggests that the budgets of Information Technology (IT) departments will "sustain a worldwide average growth rate of 0% into 2012." Despite optimism that the world economy is recovering from the worst recession in 80 years, CIOs report a bleak outlook for IT employment growth, compelling many to consider a "jobless recovery" as the new normal.

Unfortunately, for most IT leaders, a flat budget and staff will likely not translate into a willingness on the part of the business to slow its ever-increasing demand for IT services. As companies struggle to recover from the Great Recession, Gartner predicts that "IT leaders will be expected to meet significantly expanded business goals without meaningful increases in IT staff." This new reality is causing IT leaders to look for ways to maximize the productivity of their staffs without burning them out. In its report, Gartner suggests, "Make smarter decisions about what people will work on, not just how they will work, and then design workgroups and teams for versatility and agility."

Doing more with the same, or fewer, people means that IT leaders must build teams that are self-directed, composed of people willing to play many roles, and function in a manner capable of smoothly adjusting to changing business needs in support of an uncertain business environment. These agile IT teams must also have a proactive sense as to the value IT can provide as a key component of improved business performance. One way of building such teams is to adopt an agile project management methodology such as Scrum.

Scrum offers an alternative to traditional project management methodologies. It stresses an empirical vs. a rigidly defined method of running a project. Scrum is also a flexible framework adaptable to any industry, company size, or project need. By using Scrum, teams learn as they proceed, plan for and embrace change, and deliver working solutions frequently and iteratively within a framework that fosters close collaboration between IT and the business. Scrum has been shown to enhance project innovation and ingenuity while providing an opportunity for improved job satisfaction for those people engaged on a Scrum project. With proper prioritization by the business, Scrum teams deliver only those projects possessing the highest business value, while avoiding wasted time building features of limited business value, thus allowing an IT staff to maximize its value to the business.

A key tenet of Scrum is transparency. Scrum allows IT leadership to open the door to IT so the business can clearly see the value it is getting from its IT staff. At any moment, the business can easily determine which business features have been completed and which features will be worked on next by IT. Moreover, Scrum's requirement that any feature denoted as finished be business deployable, means that IT teams can no longer provide inflated progress reports or take credit for intermediate deliverables (e.g. design documents) that really have no direct business value.

How quickly an IT staff can identify project issues and take corrective action is critical given today's constantly changing business landscape. By employing Scrum, IT organizations view change as a normal part of any IT project and are able to quickly react to change, thus increasing their value to the business while giving the business the IT solutions it truly needs.

Scrum also supports effective business and IT communication throughout the company. Effective communication between IT and the business is critical to driving maximum business performance from an IT staff. With traditional project methodologies, walls are often artificially introduced between IT and the business preventing the free flow of information critical to successful project outcomes. Scrum breaks down these barriers because it requires the business and IT to participate regularly in every aspect of a project's execution. The Scrum framework provides daily opportunities (Scrum calls these "inspect and adapt" points) for the business and IT to jointly review and adjust: project deliverables, how the team is functioning, project impediments, and lessons learned.

Introducing Scrum into any organization can be challenging for both IT and the business. While implementing the Scrum framework is fairly straightforward, not making related organizational and behavioral changes at the same time will prevent a company from reaping the ultimate benefits offered by Scrum. Instilling the "agile heart" across a company fosters a new paradigm of continuous improvement that helps establish IT as a key business partner while helping a limited IT staff to deliver greater business value per available IT headcount.

Dealing with a jobless recovery requires that IT leadership think and behave differently from the past where economic expansion always triggered recruitment and talent competition. Assuming Garter is correct, IT leaders must not "assume that demand can be met by turning the people pipeline on and off, [IT leaders] must assume that the pipeline is indefinitely constrained, and investigate or invent new ways to satisfy demand." By using Scrum, IT leadership can build teams that are versatile, can swarm rapidly and effectively to address dynamic market opportunities, raise productivity, and improve job satisfaction while reducing disruptions caused by the loss of key IT staff due to increased business demands.

-- Burzinski is a Certified ScrumMaster and the Director of the IT Business Consulting practice at Skyline Technologies. If you are looking for more information on Scrum and agile methodologies, Tom can be reached at 920-593-3651 or tburzinski@skylinetechnologies.com.

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