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Tue 10 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Team talk

Is the financial crisis taking its toll on the morale of your IT team? Have pay rises been scrapped? Are people feeling the strain? NME finds out how CIOs are making the most of management skills to maintain motivation in tough times.

Team talk
“I look for people who are switched on and hungry to learn and who want to move forward.” Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT manager at Leo Burnett.
Team talk
“‘Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.” Indranil Guha, manager, IT infrastructure management, IT Dept. at the RTA.
Team talk
“My best advice is to understand the company requirement very well so that you can recruit the correct staff.” Jassim Sajwani, director, IT and administration at Aswaaq.

Is the financial crisis taking its toll on the morale of your IT team? Have pay rises been scrapped? Are people feeling the strain? NME finds out how CIOs are making the most of management skills to maintain motivation in tough times.

Alarming statistics recently surfaced in the media suggesting that over 90% of the workforce in the UAE want to start a brand new career and reinvent themselves. The research, carried out by

correlates with a poll that it ran earlier this year that said more than half of employees in the UAE feel that their company has been using the financial crisis as an excuse to cut back on wages and benefits. Add this to the fact that a great deal of people were laid off in the Middle East at the start of the year, leaving a workload chasm that has had to be filled by those left, then it’s clear there are some very stressed people in the Middle East workforce. And this comes at a time when people are expected to do more with less, which translates in IT terms to upping the efficiency, both of the IT team and systems.

So how have the region’s technology leaders been getting the most out of their IT teams and ensuring that, even though it has been difficult and, in many cases, nigh-on impossible to raise pay, that the team morale has not been too dented?

Before we get into the soft skills of management and team leadership, it must be noted that a great deal of building a motivated and cohesive IT team comes in at the recruitment stage. Though many companies will have a hiring freeze in place today, it’s likely that staff they have hired prior to the financial crisis impacting this region are being tested by the situation. Therefore, ill-considered appointments might be causing issues now that the heat is on and conversely, well-targeted appointments coping well with the extra pressure. A strong IT team starts at recruitment.

“I look for people who are switched on and hungry to learn and who want to move forward,” said Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director at advertising design giant Leo Burnett.

“How well you adapt in the environment and how good you are at people skills is the important thing, because some people can be really good at the technical stuff, but if they do not know how to talk to people and communicate their ideas, basically they can be going nowhere.”

Aboukhater is clearly of the opinion that although technical qualifications and skills will be taken into account, the personality and soft skills of a potential newcomer to his outfit is just as important. And he is not alone in this point of view as most IT managers seem to value assessing this as an important part of the interview process.

Jassim Sajwani, who oversees IT at retail company Aswaaq as the director of IT and administration, has first-hand experience of putting together an IT team. The company has been on a rapid expansion path since it started operations in 2005 and he hired all of the ten members of the current Aswaaq IT team.

“My best advice is to understand the company requirement very well so that you can recruit the correct staff for exactly what the company requires and the systems you will be taking,” explained Sajwani. As part of his recruitment strategy, Sajwani says he first decided the solutions to be implemented at the company, such as an Oracle ERP Suite, and then sought people with the appropriate background and certifications to work on those systems. This means people can be confident in their work and excel.

“If you end up recruiting someone who does not know the systems they will not be able to do it and then you will start blaming them for it and nobody will be happy. Do not entirely focus on their knowledge and experience, but also their people skills and personality are very important,” he added.

Installing incentives

Whether your IT team has been established for some time now or has been assembled recently, it is clear that as far as management goes this year has been a tough one. One IT manager suggested that managers should never take loyalty for granted and must be aware of the motives of team members and that they come up with ways to meet those motives with appropriate incentives.

Interestingly, Indranil Guha, manager of the IT infrastructure department management at the IT department of the Road and Transport Authority in Dubai, suggests that a pay rise is not always the best incentive for strong performance.

“I always say that you can never satisfy a person by adding to their wallet, because they will soon get used to the fatter wallet,” said Guha.

The annual appraisals at the RTA are a clear example of the formal incentives that will help drive performance and morale. There are a few other good examples that the RTA has instigated to ensure morale of employees is maintained through the financial crisis. These include monthly awards to recognise hard work and effort. Incentives should not be forgotten during the financial crisis, they are perhaps even more important right now.

“Recently our HR has introduced a scheme called Be Distinguished,” said Guha. “They have made it a mandatory thing that every month every department has to recognise somebody within the department, somebody outside of the department and somebody outside of the sector within pan RTA. This consists of Thank You cards, weekend vouchers to hotels and even some cash incentives.”

The personal touch

Formal incentives are very effective but as Guha and others IT managers understand they also need to be backed up with the personal touch. Burnett’s Aboukhater relies more on the personal relationship that he has with staff to get the most out of the IT team.

“I always lay my cards on the table and if it is a bad situation I do not go out and tell my guys nothing is going to happen,” said Aboukhater about his approach with the team in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. “I told them don’t worry we are OK, no one is immune but at the end of the day let’s take this as an opportunity to show value.”

He backs up this openness and honesty with his IT team with a friendly and fair approach to management that he says is often repaid by commitment from his staff to go over and above the required, by working longer hours.

“We do stuff together and I do take them out every now and then — dinner and outings — and playing games in the office sometimes to relieve stress. Work is the place where you spend all of your time, more than at home, so if you are having fun you will have people coming in early and leaving very late. If you don’t love what you do then you wouldn’t want to do it.”

Whilst this may seem like common sense it is also a very valid point right now. Aboukhater tries once in a while to remind his team why they got into IT in the first place and re-ignite a love of technology by allowing them to take home older servers to tinker with or setting IT related challenges to keep people’s skills honed.

Paving careers

One important incentive to boost morale right now is that although a great deal of staff here have been let to go and in some cases people are fortunate to be employed, members of the IT team still want to be presented with a clear career path and progression that they can work towards. It can in some cases be more valued than regular increments to their pay packets.

“Incentives can be in terms of cash and cards and other recognition but it is also a flavour of career progression. When they see that there is a value-add on their resume — when they joined they may be doing X and Y, and then six months later they moved to Y and Z and X has moved onto someone else junior — and they see they have progressed and are not stuck doing the same thing,” said the RTA’s Guha.

Making sure that the team plays a strong part in the decision making process is vital to the harmony of a strong IT unit. Having a democratic style to leadership has lead to a couple of interesting developments for the IT team at Aswaaq.

“When there was the opening of the first store and we were designing the network infrastructure, the network team said we needed to connect the POS to different routers so that if this POS goes down, the others would not be affected. Others in the team said that was not required because with the application for data transfer, you do not need separate routers. Then internally, we assessed the pros and cons of each element and came to a balanced decision,” said Sajwani.

Also, at the recent GITEX Technology Week, Sajwani said his team were given freedom to head out and try and find systems to implement in the future at the Aswaaq outlets to boost efficiency. He claims that when every team can take such an active approach in the future planning of IT at Aswaaq it really makes people feel valuable.

Train to gain

As we all know there has been a serious skills shortage in the Middle East IT market over the last few years, so it is an important aspect of the IT manager’s role to apportion some of the budget and indeed IT team members’ time to training. The benefits of this are not all felt by the company and its end-users, but it is a motivating factor for many employees. It shows that the company values their contribution and that it is willing to invest in that individual for the future. And it is often the case that training your staff does not need to cost a thing as vendors regularly offer free training as part of the purchasing process.

“We budgeted, but it was cut for the first quarter of 2009, they said only for very essential training or what they need,” admitted Aswaaq’s Sajwani. “We were getting it from vendors though; from Cisco and Microsoft. The transferring of knowledge from the current vendor is very important and we will be doing this to the end of the year.”

Training should also extend to IT managers themselves and does not have to be limited to technical training as the RTA’s Guha upholds: “Whenever I get chances to go to management courses, I do. We have signed up for Harvard Management school and get management tips regularly from them, it comes weekly, one page of reading with some very useful and usable tips.”

It is clear that there are many things that can be done over and above a pay rise to boost the spirits of your IT specialists. By recruiting skilled and eager people to the team you will ensure the productivity of the team, but also considering personality and how well they interact with the team will enhance the cohesiveness of the group. Incentives don’t just have to monetary, they can be measured by career progression, they can be in terms of formal or informal recognition of efforts and can be light-hearted such as days out as a team. On top of this most people are willing to better themselves in their chosen career so a lot can be said for training as a way to strengthen the commitment of the team and make sure that they don’t jump ship. All of these aspects of management must be carefully considered, but when it comes to good leadership, perhaps some are born into the role.

“My advice would be that to be really successful; we don’t want managers to be task masters. My previous boss said something that I liked: ‘managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.’ You have to choose the right things to do rather than having been given a set of tasks and then managing the task to its completion,” concluded the RTA’s Guha.

View from the channel

Dr. Usman Zafar, managing director of systems integration company Al Taqnyah, has been managing IT teams in the industry for many years now and has experience of offering training on the subject. Here is his advice for IT managers: “I believe a good CIO must have the following skills. First of all he should be an agent of change; they should have excellent entrepreneurial skills. They have to have management knowledge. They must understand the current industry trends and technology. It would also be great if they have past experience of managing teams and or projects.

“IT is always evolving and this is a big challenge for people like us to get updated on everything. But it has to become part of everyday life and the best way is to is by being part of the society and the CIO has to be constantly listening to what is happening and reading the magazines and meet and know other CIOs and learn from their experience. At the end of the day you have to see what is the best fit for your own organisation and you really have to work hard to keep your organisation updated. If you don’t do that you are not going to lead your organisation anywhere.”