Cloud apps adoption can create IT staff unrest

IT professionals may worry about losing their jobs when on-premise systems are replaced with SaaS

CIOs and IT managers know they must address concerns like security, compliance, service levels and end-user resistance when moving to cloud-based enterprise software, but they must not overlook a critical area: the feelings of their IT staffers.

When companies decide to unplug on-premise servers, ditch the applications housed on them and adopt vendor-hosted software in the cloud, the IT staffers in charge of supporting and maintaining those discarded in-house systems are bound to get nervous.

High-level IT executives may have all the "i"s dotted and all the "t"s crossed in their research and planning process, but if the switch to the cloud causes ill will among their IT troops, the initiative could well be doomed, because buy-in from the IT rank and file is key.

It's the IT department's foot soldiers who will be in charge of training and supporting end users on the new cloud-based software, which often requires adjusting to an interface that is different. These staffers may also have to build links between the new and existing systems, develop customized applications and tools, monitor the cloud vendor's performance and keep tabs on end-user activities.

If IT staffers feel left out of the conversation and used as expendable pawns bound to go the way of the on-premise systems they used to maintain, their aversion to cloud-based software could spread to the organization at large.

"With a move to enterprise cloud applications, IT executives shouldn't assume that it will be any different than other technology adoption in terms of the human, cultural and political factors," said Rebecca Wettemann, a Nucleus Research analyst.

IT staffers raised concerns about job security quickly and directly at advertising and event marketing agency Momentum Worldwide as soon as they were informed the company planned to move its enterprise portal to a cloud, software-as-a-service model offered by enterprise collaboration vendor Socialtext.

"As we talked this through with the IT group, they were very concerned about: 'What are we going to do? If we're not managing as many servers, if we're not supporting infrastructure, where does that leave us?'" said Momentum Global IT Director Doug Pierce.

About eight of the IT department's 28 staffers saw their roles change when Momentum turned off its data center servers. "Our IT employees had a lot of questions. They flat-out asked: 'What does this mean for me and my job?'" Pierce said.

IT leaders better be ready to have an honest and informed conversation with their staffers. The path to success begins with explaining to them clearly the rationale for the move.

"Being upfront about it, not hiding it, keeping it very open and making sure IT employees understood was very helpful to our department's successful transition," Pierce said.

That's what IT leaders also did at electronic manufacturing services provider Sanmina-SCI when it decided to move 16,000 employees from an on-premise Microsoft Outlook-Exchange system to Google Apps, a communication and collaboration suite hosted by Google.

"The starting point is laying the context of what one is trying to do and where IT organizations in general are headed to over the next several years. That helps to frame the discussion," said Manesh Patel, CIO of Sanmina-SCI, which has about 700 IT staffers.

"Setting that context is the first thing that CIOs need to do," he added.

At Sanmina-SCI, IT leaders told their team that with cloud computing, IT departments can shift grunt, hands-on system maintenance to hosted vendors, freeing up the IT department to provide value with more custom work tailored to their business.

"My view is that IT is becoming more of a service-oriented organization, providing more value-added services, with less emphasis on [maintaining in-house] systems, networks and architectures," Patel said. "You still need some of that, but not as much."

When making the pitch to IT staffers, CIOs shouldn't focus exclusively on the issue of cutting costs. "If you look at it from a pure cost standpoint, you run the risk of creating a lot of negative reaction," Patel said.

As for most organizations, cost was an important element and initial driver for Sanmina-SCI, but the company was also seeking a longer-term value in making employees more productive and more effective when working with customers and suppliers.

"Make sure you communicate those things and provide the vision of what that means. Sometimes IT organizations are very cost-centric, and that's the only message," Patel added.

Momentum, which has about 2,500 employees, was using the SpikeSource and Intel-backed SuiteTwo collaboration suite, which was discontinued. Socialtext, whose software was packaged into SuiteTwo, stepped in with a technically flexible and improved cloud-based offer.

"IT leadership wanted software products that could move as fast as our business, and with this framework we can pull software in or out of our portal literally overnight," Pierce said.

In some cases, IT staffers quickly embrace the switch, like at Duralee Fabrics, which ditched an on-premise, overtaxed and creaky e-mail system that crashed frequently and replaced it with Google Apps for its 200 users. This lifted a heavy burden off of its six-person IT staff.

"They were thrilled when we got rid of it and everything moved to the cloud," said Bill Kelly, Duralee's CIO.

There is no sugar-coating the fact that some roles will need to change, especially for employees directly tasked with supporting and maintaining the on-premise software and infrastructure being decommissioned.

Those employees are often valuable and efficient, and with some re-training they can jump into new roles in the IT department that they may find more rewarding than their previous tasks. But IT leaders need to offer direction and resources to make that happen.

"IT management has to provide leadership, guidance and assistance in helping employees make that transition. At the end of the day, not everyone makes it, but it's a trend over the next several years and those who embrace it will be more successful," Patel said.

Sanmina-SCI actively worked with impacted IT staffers to help them, and overall the transition went pretty smoothly, although there isn't much a company can do about employees who resist change.

"Sometimes you have people who want to do a very specific thing and they may not be a fit going forward," Patel said. "They may decide to pursue other opportunities elsewhere, or you may have to make that decision for them. In our experience, that's an exception. For the most part, we've been able to redirect our resources to more value-added activities."

Momentum managed to get all of its impacted IT employees on board with the switch. "It was a discussion early on that your roles are going to change, your skills are going to change and we're going to work with you to get those skills up to speed in a cloud offering," Pierce said.

"We let them know that, hey, we're going into new technologies that are at the forefront of innovation and you're going to be right there with us, so they're very excited. We took the time to explain the vision and rallying the troops around it," he said.

One thing that CIOs have going for them in this transition is that seasoned IT professionals are generally no strangers to this type of situation. "There have always been changes in IT that have made skills less relevant," Wettemann said. "It's not the first time we've seen IT skills appear threatened."

The move to enterprise cloud software opens up new opportunities for IT professionals, especially in the area of doing custom application development work to complement and customize cloud offerings, she said.

"We're seeing IT look to reduce the tactical day-to-day support of applications and spend more time developing and delivering applications to the business," she said.

That will call for IT staffers to communicate more with business units to find out what they can do to help improve the productivity of their peers in departments like marketing, human resources and finance, Wettemann said. "Eat lunch with someone other than fellow IT folks," she said.

With an increase in this type of more creative, custom work often comes higher recognition for the IT department from the business units, the sort that infrastructure support work rarely prompts.

"If we did a perfect job maintaining the in-house service for e-mail, no one is going to run into the IT department to high-five us on the great job we're doing. But if it goes down for five minutes, they'll be at the door with knives and pitchforks," Kelly said.

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