Revitalizing staff skills

Forget the old IT career ladder. One way to advance is to zigzag between IT and business

As the role IT plays in producing business value changes, so too does the notion of traditional IT skills or a typical IT career ladder.

"The world is becoming a giant service system, composed of 6 billion people, millions of businesses and millions of technology products connected into service networks," says Gina Poole, vice president of innovation and university relations at IBM. As a result, traditional technical expertise is no longer enough.

"In today's world, we need our technology people to be the business -- to live and breathe it," according to Frank Laura, CIO at Quicken Loans. "Because the business and the technology change almost daily, our team members must immerse themselves in the business and the technology."

That isn't to say that strong technical skills are no longer important. But they are increasingly viewed as a commodity that can often be obtained by hiring a consultant or by outsourcing nonessential services. What really matters, then, is knowing how to apply technology to improve business performance.

"You can go on the street and find a good Java programmer or those types of skills," says William Ulrich, president of Tactical Strategy Group. "It is much more difficult to go outside the company and find someone who understands the in-depth nature of your business."

Computer contortionists

According to IT executives, the new business-focused IT structure requires skills in multiple disciplines.

"We are becoming versatilists rather than technologists," says John Stiffler, director of IT governance and strategy at accounting firm Grant Thornton in Chicago. Rather than just being skilled in a particular type of technology, he says, IT workers need to be "adept at understanding business issues and applying their technical experience and understanding to develop solutions."

This changes the traditional IT career ladder. "In IT, that ladder blew up years ago," says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, an IT career research firm.

Now, there are two ways to get to the top of an IT department. "A lot of people in IT don't want to move into management but are still very valuable to the company," says Foote. "When you have a very talented senior technical person who doesn't want to become a manager, you can move them into something like a distinguished engineer position."

The second path allows IT workers to switch between IT and business functions. "There are career tracks that zigzag back and forth between IT and business," he says. "Someone might start as a business analyst, then move into a project management job, then an IT management path, then go back to an innovation path ... then to process management, then move up a rung to process leadership or process ownership, and then go back over to management as manager of an IT line of business." Similarly, systems architects can zigzag between designing processes and designing the infrastructure that supports them.

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