IS's technical prowess is no longer sufficient to contribute to the business. IS must also have business smarts.
There is a clear trend away from the view of in-house IT departments as populated by white-coated techies. There is nothing new in this trend; it's been going on since System 360 meant a mainframe computer not a new brand of videogame. What is new, however, is the importance of having a much wider range of skills as the role of IT itself continues to expand.
It's not unusual these days for the IT team to be called on to assist with business process design. IT people are ending up responsible for all manner of projects - many of them increasingly unrelated to IT. They are frequently asked to play an active role in post-merger integration. IT skills are also being used "pre-sales" to help integrate potential customers into supply chain management systems.
All of these additional skills require a lot more than just deep technical understanding. They require an appreciation of how business works and how to make things happen. In short, they need business smarts.
Business smarts comprise two components: skills and competencies. Both are necessary, but both require a different route for their development. But what is a skill, and what is a competency?
There have been many learned treaties written on what exactly a skill is, and how competences manifest themselves, and what the difference is between the two. One practical definition is to say a skill is know how. A competency is know what.
Any plan to build business smarts has to find a way of building both business skills and business competencies. The good news is that rarely will you be starting from scratch. Almost always, some of the skills and competencies that you need are waiting to be discovered within your own department.
The other piece of good news is that some roles in IS need a much higher level of business smarts than others. For example, technical support roles need only the basics in terms of business smarts, like how to communicate changes, apologize for outages and send out technical notices in ways that do not antagonize, confuse or frighten business users. On the other hand, business process groups need a much greater sense of business smarts, with a deep understanding of how the enterprise's business processes work and how to influence people.
Turning back to technical support people, however, it's important to remember that just because they are in a job that doesn't fully exploit their business smarts, doesn't mean that they don't have them. This is the first key to upping the business smarts of the entire IT organization: make better use of the business smarts you already have.
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