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Solving the skills conundrum – part 1

Solving the skills conundrum – part 1

What IT people need in order to get ahead, and how CIOs can reverse the skills shortage affecting Australia’s talent pool

When Bill Weeks took over as CIO of the US asset-recovery company, SquareTwo Financial, he saw 70 per cent of his development team out the door. Most left of their own accord; he fired the rest.

The reason he made such an extreme move was that his staff, he decided, weren’t business-oriented enough. Talking with CIO Australia, Weeks said he wanted to build a results-focused technology team, but many of the staff refused to engage with the business.

“The previous CIO had told IT staff, ‘Business people are busy doing business things, and if I catch you talking to them, I’ll fire you’. That’s the exact opposite of what I believe.”

Read Solving the skills conundrum – part 2.

This forced mass departure may seem a tad excessive, and many commentators CIO Australia spoke with certainly felt so. But Weeks was adamant. When he took over in 2010, the company was going through a growth spurt, he says, but IT was lagging behind.

It took time for IT employees to get comfortable with business discussions, he says. “It’s difficult for a developer to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to show you what my product does and do it in a way that a business person can understand it’. Not, ‘Hey, I wrote this code this way and here are my SQL statements’, but, ‘Here’s the business value to why I designed this the way I did’.”

Mass sackings or not, that’s an issue faced by many CIOs, their c-level peers and IT staff themselves. But do IT people have what it takes to be business as well as technology-oriented? And can we even find enough talented people to fill the gaps?

Certainly business is seen as an increasingly vital part of the makeup of IT, at least at the higher levels. Charlie Sukkar, CIO of CSR, says a big part of giving IT folks a sense of business orientation is ingrained in its culture.

“I strongly believe culture drives behaviour, which in turn drives outcomes,” he says. “We always talk about being a partner to the business.

“To have a successful and meaningful relationship, you really need to understand the priorities and needs of your partner and put that at the centre of everything you do. This is at the heart of what we do as an IT organisation.”

Business culture

A business-oriented culture is key in finding and putting the best people forward, but it is often easier said than done. The problem Weeks faced is not restricted to his specific situation. Nor does the blame lie necessarily with the people. Some managers are their own worst enemy in building the right environment.

Rob Hillard, managing partner of the technology agenda for Deloitte, cites one company where IT management literally put locks on the department door to keep users out. Internal and external customers must go through channels, was the philosophy. The company didn’t want its IT people to be exposed to business and financial issues. The opposite, in other words, of what is being required.

Teri Takai, CIO of the US Department of Defense, claims it’s hard for tech people – even middle and senior managers – to think the way the business thinks. They tend to explain things from their own perspective, which can have a major impact on their future.

Tony Rosanno, senior client partner for Pan-Asia technology with executive placement company, Korn-Ferry, says that while technical proficiency is important in areas like apps development, you do need to identify those within the organisation who have the business and leadership nous that will determine success.

“People without business skills will struggle to find employment in the future. If they’re not talking value, the customer and so on, their professional future is uncertain,” he claims.

Therefore this is, or should be, the aim of most CIOs and business management generally. But aims can also be intentions, and intentions are often influenced by circumstance. Those circumstances might not be conducive to business orientation.

“Mindset is as important as skills,” says Hillard. “Can everyone be pushed into business orientation? Yes. That is, everyone who wants to.”

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