Don’t be held hostage by the IT expert

What happens 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?

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.

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...