Monday, August 09, 2010

A New Breed of IT Skills

Society for Information Management Survey this year for the first time in 10 years has identified that CIOs now rank people issue as their #1 concern. In this global labor movement it’s interesting to note that retaining and managing talent is becoming the top priority of organizations.
The reason according to the survey is “Due to the increase in global outsourcing, baby-boomer retirements, and low enrollments in IT programs at both U.S. and European universities, the skills that providers are requiring of employees are significantly changing”. What it means that the ‘hard’ IT skills though widely available due to globalization, is not enough anymore.
IT executives are starting to see a looming shortage of people with the mix of tech and business skills they’ll need. Its loud and clear Business Organizations need talent with a mix of technology and business acumen. Retiring Baby-boomers have amassed the business knowledge over the period of their employment. Businesses are looking for the same level of Business skill when hiring entry level IT worker to fill their position.
At the same time ‘Hard’ IT skill by itself will not be a differentiator because of globalization of labor. The role of IT has also evolved from mundane automation in the 1990s to enabling the business to sustain competitive advantage. If the IT project is not critical to the company’s core competency, it will get outsourced. With maturing SaaS model, I personally believe the organizations will get very comfortable in using ‘On Demand’ delivery model for non core IT activities. With these emerging new realities, IT workers especially in the developed countries when they compete with other IT workers around the globe need to move up the value chain quickly. ‘Soft’ skills like good communication skill, collaboration skills etc. are beginning to gain importance.
The sad part is, because of cost cutting, the organizations are not willing to invest in their workers to acquire those ’soft’ skill. The IT workers need to be proactive and acquire those skills themselves.

A New Breed of IT Workers

September 4, 2007 by Raj Sheelvant
In the article IT Workers Second-Guess Career Choice, Deborah Perelman reports a disturbing trend where the IT workers in the US see a bleak future for their career and are discouraging their kids to not pursue IT career
Outsourcing, Offshoring, H1B Employees, Commoditization of IT work force are all here to stay, but they are all signs of a dynamic IT industry. Granted older software development skills become less relevant in a hurry. But, is this a new occurrence? Much sought after experts in VB and ASP in late 1990s are now a relic. The employees have always understood that they need to retrain themselves in new emerging technologies constantly.  That’s the occupational hazard in IT Industry. Now, what has changed is the nature of new skills that are relevant. ‘Soft’ skills are becoming more important.  
Businesses are no longer interested in making sure that the tactical aspect of IT is running smoothly. They don’t want to know if their IT infrastructure scales, if their data is secure. They expect it to happen anyway, just as you expect the lights to go on when you flip on the switch. That’s where the IT is getting “commoditized”. If your skill set is in those areas, you need to get out fast. But, increased globalization has made corporations more vulnerable to competition. The impetus to change and look for the new markets quickly is of highest priority now. Thus, I believe IT now is more relevant to the corporations than before. When organizations talk of ‘agility’, it’s the IT organization that can enable the corporations to be agile. How can you be agile when you do not have ways to make your business processes agile? Throwing the IT project over to the IT department and expect it to meet the business needs is no longer viable today. At the same time IT department cannot go into seclusion and work on a project for few months at a given time. The hypercompetitive environment will make your IT project irrelevant during that time. IT workers now need to collaborate with the other business organizations. This new reality calls for new generation of IT workers. The ‘soft’ skills that are more relevant now are –
  1. Comprehend Company’s Business Strategy
  2. Understand how the company differentiates its products or services vis-à-vis competition
  3. Articulate technical jargon to non IT business people
  4. Understand TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and ROI of a project
  5. Ability to negotiate and influence others
I know these new skills can be intimidating to a ‘techie’. The above mentioned skill sets do not limit itself to IT personnel but need to be expanded in other Knowledge Industries like product engineering, R/D etc. Most of us are uncomfortable to collaborate, communicate, influence and negotiate and hence we choose safer ‘engineering’ jobs. ‘We can just do our jobs and go home… Who wants to get involved in company politics…’ that’s the conventional wisdom in the ‘techie’ world. Guess what… we are now in the middle of corporate universe and we need to be like ‘them’.
I believe, now is the exciting time for knowledge workers. We can influence the Business Strategy and be relevant to the core of the organization. What other job function would be that exciting? It’s a self fulfilling prophecy when we send out wrong messages to the younger generation to stay away from these fields. America will surely loose competitive edge with this kind of attitude.

To be globally competitive, an IT Worker needs to acquire knowledge and skills to understand unique culture of diverse individuals in the context of region, religion, ethnicity and country.
As the barriers for globalization continue to go down and as firms try to diversify and expand where the labor is, the IT projects now are more complex than ever before.  IT projects no longer belong to a region or a country.  It is owned by multiple groups spanning across the globe.  An IT Worker is expected to collaborate with the other IT Workers dispersed across the globe. Under these circumstances, an IT worker needs to build new dimension of collaborating with different people of different cultural orientation and different level of comfort with English language. 
Geert Hofstede is an expert Dutch researcher who has documented on the interactions between national cultures and organization cultures has built the framework for assessing global culture.  He has divided the culture into 5 dimensions:
  • Power Distance Index
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index
  • Long-Term Orientation
Each country or a region has a culture that is different in one or more dimensions.  IT worker needs a clear understanding of Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions to implement ways to improve collaboration of the globally diverse labor.  For ex: If you compare the countries US and France, you will see that the Uncertainty Avoidance Index is high for the French culture and low for the US culture.  IT workers in these countries will react to solving a ‘complex’ programming problem in a diametrically opposite ways.  US IT Workers (with low Uncertainty Avoidance Index) would want to tackle the problem upfront and is willing to take risk of failure but a French IT Worker (with high Uncertainty Avoidance Index) would want to brainstorm and research to see if there are different and efficient ways to solve the problem.  Without the Hofstede’s framework, from a French perspective, a US IT worker appear ‘cowboy’ish in his approach and from the US IT Worker perspective, a French IT worker will appear to be ’stalling’ the work - thus reinforcing the typical cultural stereotype.  Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are a powerful framework to go beyond the stereotypes and look at ways to take advantage of their natural cultural predisposition.
Though English is the lingua franca of the global IT development, people in different regions have differing level of comfort with English language. Every region in the world has ‘localized’ English accent as well as use of words that radically alter the meaning. For example: ‘a deadly issue’ for an American is an issue resulting in the death of people involved.  It’s far less ‘severe’ to an Indian.  Hence an ability to go beyond grammer and language and dive deeper to get the right information will also become an important skill for the IT worker. 
The role of IT worker has evolved over the past decade.  Initially, the job was insular.  The IT worker could be easily stereotyped as an incompetent communicator.  Now, due to increase in complexity, ‘soft’ skills like good communication skills, collaboration skills are becoming more important.  An IT worker with higher CQ will not only be more valuable to the firm but also will have a higher chance of employability.  

Managing IT Workers

In article titled “The Unspoken Truth About Managing Geeks” Jeff Ello explains on how to manage IT workers.  Jeff Ello is a veteran of the IT and CG industries, currently managing IT for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University and he paint a different picture of ways to manage IT department.  He says that the amount of respect an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart. In other words, the best way to manage IT workers is to enable them to find creative solution with minimal supervision.
He also writes “Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost vicious attitude from otherwise excellent IT staff. ”
Jeff Ello challenges the management myth that IT professions are “smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring.”   To overcome stereotypes about IT, he says that other business organizations within a company need to be reminded that
  • IT wants to help me.
  • I should keep an open mind.
  • IT is not my personal tech adviser, nor is my work computer my personal computer.
  • IT people have lives and other interests.
Ello writes that “What IT pros want in a manager is a technical sounding board and a source of general direction. Leadership and technical competence are qualities to look for in every member of the team. If you need someone to keep track of where projects are, file paperwork, produce reports and do customer relations, hire some assistants for a lot less money.”
Jeff Ello hits the nail in the head with a detailed analysis on how to manage IT department.   But I think he misses one big point. Management is a two way process.  IT Pros need to understand how IT can enable business and its strategy.  We need to learn ‘their’ language.  We have to learn to translate technical language to business language.  At least we should try to meet the business community half way.  Saying “Twitter is cool… Lets implementing it” will not cut it.  We need to justify.  If Wally can do it, we can too ;)

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