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Down To Business: Does Tech Expertise Matter To Tech Organizations Anymore?

December 19, 2008

By Rob Preston
InformationWeek


When the Society for Information Management asked CIOs and other members to identify the skills they value most among both entry-level and midlevel hires, guess which technology competencies came out on top?

Hint: none. In fact, a technical skill barely cracked the top 10.

Ethics and morals topped both employer wish lists, followed by such attributes as critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and team-building, oral and written communications, and user relationship management. For entry-level employees, application development (No. 10), functional area knowledge (No. 12), database (No. 14), and system analysis (No. 15) were the technical skills most prized by tech employers. For midlevel hires, business analysis (No. 11) and project planning/budgeting (No. 13) were highest ranked among traditional business technology roles.

What gives? Doesn't technology expertise matter to business technology organizations anymore?

Of course it does. But in a global economy where technical functions are often handed off to contractors, and where companies increasingly are aligning their IT with suppliers, partners, and customers, employers are looking for people who can manage relationships and excel as part of far-flung teams, not just hammer out internal system and project requirements. As mentioned in a previous column, the skill set CIOs tend to look for breaks down roughly to one-third technology, one-third business, one-third leadership, though that mix applies more to senior business technology management than to entry-level people.

The SIM survey results, compiled in June and released this month, based on responses from 291 senior business technology execs, didn't surprise Jerry Luftman, who led the research as SIM's VP of academic affairs. For the past five years, Luftman says, tech employers have been saying they want to imbue their organizations with more business, industry, and interpersonal capabilities. "What surprises me is how little is being done to address it," he says. "We are just so slow to respond."

A bit surprising to me is the top priority tech employers place on ethics, even in a corporate environment leery of the next Enron or WorldCom debacle. But then consider the damage unethical and disgruntled tech pros can wreak on their companies through their misuse and manipulation of critical systems, and you start to understand why ethics is paramount.

CIOs are clearly saying they're looking for character, intellect, and social savvy more than tech specialization, even if their organizations' job board ads--for Java software engineers, data analysts, network architects, and the like--continue to be very specific in their technical requirements. It's not that companies want tech neophytes. But with many exceptions (try training someone as a SAS expert who doesn't have the statistical chops), they think they can bring their people up to speed on the latest languages, systems, and standards. Employers want well-rounded business pros with a deep technology grounding.

CIOs say they can't find such people, who are especially important in managing the technocrats that companies use for contract work, both domestically and offshore. (The execs surveyed by SIM say their organizations plan to allocate a higher percentage of their IT budgets to offshore outsourcing next year than they have in past years--5.6% in 2009 compared with 3.3% in 2008 and 1.7% in 2005.) Many frustrated workers say employers aren't looking hard enough for good people at home, or their expectations are unrealistic--that is, most Renaissance men and women won't work for $40K a year plus benefits.

Regardless of your take on the so-called IT talent shortage, the folks doing the hiring (and promotion) have spoken: They value people whose depth isn't just measured by a technical cert. It's incumbent on employers and employees alike to harden those "soft" skills.

Rob Preston

InformationWeek

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