All Hands on Deck!

In this economy, firms are disbanding departments to embed experts in tech and other fields into P&L teams.

The software developer began his day with a monthly P&L update call, then headed to a brand-design meeting, followed by a chat with the product-launch team manager. Sound unusual? This is the new norm at some firms for tech staffers, who are finding themselves dispersed across corporate org charts.

With a brutal economy bearing down on them, some major firms are disbanding old-school departments to embed specialists, particularly tech workers, within product and business project teams. The goal: bring in more experts to find revenue opportunities. “No one gets to be a nerd anymore,” says David Vied, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics, a field where the practice is becoming common. “No one gets to sit in the back of the room behind their laptop.”

Experts say specialists are now expected to have or develop business savvy, and to fluently discuss P&L and customer experience.  The primary motivation is the ability to move swiftly and accurately on critical business priorities. “In this economy, it’s all-hands-on-deck,” says Juan Pablo González , sector leader for the Professional Services practice at Korn Ferry. But the benefits may go beyond the tactical. Women and diverse populations are typically held back from upper leadership due to lack of P&L experience. Experts say that these new team formations can offer extensive P&L experience to workers who otherwise might not see those opportunities. “Women not getting enough P&L has been a theme for a long time,” says Tanya van Biesen, managing partner for the Board and CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry in Canada. “It’s critical for anyone on their way to the top.”

The new structures are also likely to bolster diversity and retention. For example, women make up just 21% of all software engineers, and are more likely to feel comfortable on the more diverse teams typically found elsewhere in organizations.

The trend is strongest in tech departments, and driven by the ongoing convergence of software, data, and security, as well as by the rapid shift toward digital platforms, from which many products hang. This means that updates and changes often need to happen in a matter of hours or days, not the two-to-six week timelines of yore, where engineers could reasonably depend on the communications of product managers (business side) and technical project managers (tech side). Now experts say developers need to sit in on the earliest conversations. “You want engineers to be close to the project, and available to answer questions about user needs,” says Nathan Blain, global lead for optimizing people costs at Korn Ferry. A small group of tech managers is better suited to prioritize projects for the whole company, he says, as well as to protect engineers from the ongoing flow of seemingly urgent priorities.

Still, even though the need grows as the economy tumbles, the shift takes time. Craig Stephenson, managing director of the North America CIO and CTO practice at Korn Ferry, says there are often delays for attracting commercially-minded specialists, who can be in short supply. But making the shift is no longer optional for many firms, most of which need to begin operating like software companies, with strong product orientations, says Stephenson: “You’re going to see more and more organizations centered this way.”