Every IT department has its technical experts–whether their
specialty is data base, communications, or a particular application or system
that is unique.

Over time, these individuals hone their skills to make them
“one of a kind” problem solvers and also consummate advisers on new
IT projects.

These individuals often develop their technical skills
because early in their IT careers, they recognize that they don’t have a taste
for management–so they must find some other way to advance themselves and
their earning potential.

The best of these experts is a six-figure/year employee–who
can even out-earn his manager.

What happens, though, when IT changes direction or
reorganizes and an expert suddenly feels threatened? If an organization has
relied heavily on a particular individual, can he hold it hostage? And if he
does, what do you do?

First, the best antidote to any
situation like this is to have an open, supportive and communicative culture in
your organization.
When an organization is in the
midst of layoffs and constant closed-door meetings, no one, even the most experienced
technical people, feels secure. If they are far away from management, they are
also likely to feel that their knowledge is all that they have to protect themselves
from being pushed out the door. Consequently, even if you are an IT manager who
is faced with having to reduce staff, do it as openly as you can and also provide
career placement (or even in-company transfer) support to those affected.

Second, management and staff
succession planning should be part of your disaster recovery plan’s risk management
for critical employees who become unavailable.
A system
of cross training and “understudy” education to ensure that you have backups
for all IT positions—including the CIO—facilitates this. If cross-training and
understudy activities are integrally part of your everyday practices and they
are uniformly applied to the CIO on down, there is likely to be less staff anxiety.

Third, learn how to “bite the bullet”
when a key IT contributor becomes uncooperative and protective of his knowledge
base.
This lack of cooperation can affect department work. NO
ONE, including the CIO, should obstruct getting the work out that IT is responsible
for.

Some years ago, I was managing a mission-critical project
that entailed the development of an online stock trading system. I needed the services
of a transaction processing expert for the system software we were running applications
on. The individual I wanted for the project was absolutely brilliant in her
field—but she proved to be uncooperative and unwilling to work on the project.
I didn’t wait around. Instead, I brought in a much more junior person for the
project. We got the work done that was needed, although it took longer. Nevertheless,
the project was successful, the junior person learned valuable skills that would
be used again–and we had avoided being “held hostage” by an uncooperative
employee.

When I
talk with CIOs, it always surprises me how few include contingency planning for
critical technical personnel in their DR plans. Instead, personnel contingency plans
focus on replacements for management people in the event they become
unavailable in a disaster. The reality is that key technical contributors are just
as important as managers–and sometimes more so–when it comes down to the IT
work that must be done.

“We
changed our IT culture significantly to one of service, and we realigned departments
within our organization several years ago,” said one financial services CIO.
“The process was necessary, but in reorganizing, I also knew that I was risking
losing key technical contributors who didn’t want to be part of a cross-disciplinary
service culture, but who instead preferred to operate in their traditional technical
expertise silos.”

The CIO’s
worst fears came true when several of his top six-figure experts opted to leave
for other companies that had organizations that they were more comfortable
with.

What was
the CIO’s saving grace?

“I had
anticipated and included the loss of key technical contributors in my risk
management strategy, had discussed it with my management and had obtained their
buyoff. I was ready to move in with a temporary staff of outside IT consultants
until we could rehire for the positions,” he said.

Today,
the organization is back on its feet with a strong in-house IT staff, and a new
service orientation that is taking it to new heights.