Although the dust has not yet settled from the recession, companies are, at last, looking ahead. As they begin to position themselves for the recovery, the word 'growth' is reappearing in their vocabularies. Despite ongoing economic worries and lagging consumer confidence, the hardiest companies are taking steps toward mergers and acquisitions as they plan for 2010. Still others are considering divesting non-essential assets.

All are positive signs that strategic thinking and intelligent risk taking are on the rise. But mergers, acquisitions and divestitures are not to be entered into lightly. A truly successful transaction requires careful analysis and planning, particularly in the integration of IT functions.

Making your assessment

Consider the intricacies of virtually any organization's IT function. Now imagine merging it with the equally complex environment of a separate organization. Each has its own unique platforms, applications, hardware configurations and data centers. Companies that approach such an integration hastily are often unpleasantly surprised by the complexity of the acquired company's IT environment or the cost it will add to the transaction.  

That is why the first step in an effective IT integration should be due diligence -- working with the team that will be merging with you to conduct a thorough technology assessment. You'll need a complete inventory of all the technology components, including the number of data centers and where that data resides. A critical component is ensuring the compatibility of platforms and the migration of data to the surviving platforms.

Overall, your goal should be identifying cost savings and efficiencies. By conducting portfolio analysis and rationalization, you will see how the acquiring company's platforms and applications mesh with the owning company. Are there redundancies? Determine if and how they can be eliminated.

It may well be that the company you're acquiring has better technology, and you'll find yourself shutting down your own platforms or technologies instead. Your assessment must therefore be bi-directional in nature. But it must also be open-minded to determine which entity's technology is the best fit for the long term operation of the company.

Avoiding redundancies

After deciding which technology is best, it's time to dive deeper by looking at critical data from a higher level architectural perspective. A bi-directional view can help you see how data is organized. This approach ensures that you retain critical pieces without keeping things that are redundant or unnecessary. It also provides a common architecture for deploying and enhancing the existing data. You can eventually turn that data into actionable information around areas like financial reporting, customer insight and supply chain or manufacturing processes.

Addressing the human element

The last area to focus is the organization structure -- merging the acquired team into the existing IT department or function. Unless the acquired company will be a stand-alone entity, most organizations will have only one leader, so it's important to rationalize and identify synergies among staff. Estimate how many people you will need incrementally on your team by assessing both skills and workloads. Keep in mind, there will be a period of time where retaining the acquired team will be critical. Consider tools like retention bonuses, and if the time comes, severance packages, and outplacement programs.

Planning for Separation

Now let's flip the coin. Each time you enter a merger or acquisition scenarios, it is equally important to think about how you might unplug any operation from your existing technology platforms and send it out as an independent organization. While there are no set ways of doing that, every organization should consider what would be required to spin off an operation.

Remember, if you divest a company that is completely hobbled from an IT perspective, it will likely affect the company's valuation. So unless the acquiring company already knows how they would integrate that business into their existing platforms, reviewing various options is a valuable exercise. Consider what infrastructure would be required, what type and number of applications would be divested from the parent company, along with necessary people, data, hardware, technology, and data centers.

Whether you are going through a merger, acquisition or divestiture, also remember that communication is critical at every stage -- from day one up until every old system is shut down. In fact, it's best to over-communicate with the people who you will be working with -- they are likely the people you will need to retain for a period of time. From a people perspective, you want this transaction to be a positive one, avoiding confrontation or negative feelings.

In the coming months, companies will likely be wary of risk and how they use cash. That puts added pressure on those handling major transactions. But mergers and acquisitions will always be a critical step on the path toward growth. To ensure your organization's success, focus on efficiency and simplicity. Consolidate where you can. Reduce complexity as quickly as possible and keep your applications and hardware footprint as small as possible. When you do, you'll enjoy a smoother transition and a stronger position from which you can begin reaching your goals.

Mike Gorsage is a Partner and Leader of the Business Operations and Technology Practice for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the nation's largest executive services firm, providing financial and technology leadership nationwide.