IT, workers can't cling to the past

I recently attended a meeting that stayed on my mind for quite a while. It's clear that as my company changes to meet the future, it creates uncertainty about IT jobs. This uncertainty makes career planning difficult for our technology professionals, and some frontline IT people had asked for help sorting it all out.

The meeting was still rattling around in my head when I received three magazines in the mail. One targeted CEOs, another CFOs, and the last one board members. This coincidence led to a quick look, which yielded some surprises. The IT-related content was remarkable. One-third of the CEO publication focused on outsourcing, networks, on-demand IT, storage, business intelligence technologies and, strangely, XML. The board magazine discussed recruiting CIOs for board membership and the merits of board-level IT committees. The CFO publication even discussed innovation through IT, instead of the usual cost-cutting.

I believe these publications are on target. IT is clearly on the minds of those who run our companies -- in spite of the buzz a few months back that IT is no longer an important arrow in a company's quiver -- for three primary reasons:

1. Running a significant business without solid IT solutions is virtually inconceivable.
2. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other regulations increase the focus on corporate controls and financial operations and have significant IT implications.
3. Businesses are shifting from a cost focus towards value-building investments. Emphasis on innovation, growth and revenue generation is increasing, which will lead to important IT projects.

IT's importance is clear, but that doesn't make the technology alone strategic. Business personnel no longer use technology as a silver bullet, as some did during the Internet boom. They now see that IT tools are only as good as those wielding them, which puts the strategic premium on traditional elements such as corporate strategy, customer service, unique product offerings and execution.

What does this mean for IT shops?

Renewed focus on traditional business disciplines creates tremendous opportunities for IT shops. The key is establishing a collegial alignment with business personnel as strategies and objectives are developed. This insight can be used to develop a two-to-three-year technology implementation plan to support business activities and create value.

Those shops that play offence by aligning correctly, executing flawlessly, establishing the right mix of internal and third-party solutions, and investing wisely will thrive while accommodating the dynamic business environment we'll face for the foreseeable future. They will be seen as integral parts of their companies and valuable contributors to their success.

Those shops that play defence by clinging too tightly to historical approaches or that are too slow and inflexible to accommodate a fast-paced business environment will face an uncertain future.

What does it mean for IT people? Solid opportunity for those who are ready, and obsolescence for those who are not. Traditional jobs, like application development and systems support, will remain important to IT organizations, but there won't be as many of them because the use of third parties for traditional skills will continue. Leadership, financial and business disciplines, vendor governance, project management, systems integration, architecture and relationship management are among the skills that IT professionals will need in the future.

Those individuals who actively manage their careers to keep their skills sharp and relevant will experience tremendous opportunity for growth. Those who cling to past skills and job descriptions or who look to someone else to manage their careers will unfortunately struggle.

John Parker is CIO at AG Edwards & Sons

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