The IT pro as consultant

Shifting client requirements could mean that today's IT workers must act like consultants

Jeff Ansell is trying to think less like an IT guy and more like a business person. "There are times when I'm in a conversation with a client and I have to step back and think, 'If I were that person, would I know what I'm talking about?' Because they don't care about servers; they want to know they can click a button and pull up what they need," he says.

It's a small change, but this junior database administrator says receiving training in consulting skills has helped him empathize with the co-workers he's meant to serve. And it's paying off.

"The conversations are shorter, and things seem to get done quicker," says Ansell, who works at CommunityAmerica Credit Union in the U.S. state of Kansas.

IT workers today are required to have more than technical know-how; they also need strong interpersonal skills. They must know how to build bridges, collaborate with business colleagues, influence outcomes -- in a word, they must act like consultants.

Understanding clients

"We need to be more consultative so we can understand our clients' reality," says Laura Gorman, who teaches Consulting Skills for IT Workers, a workshop run by U.S.-based Ouellette & Associates Consulting. "But in general, people have not developed these skills, so they have to be much more conscious about how they're communicating, how they're listening and how they're building trust."

Gorman defines "consulting skills" as the ability to influence where you don't have direct power. "Whenever you're trying to influence someone, you're trying to give them insight and perspective that they would not be able to understand or see on their own," she explains.

Think of it in everyday terms, Gorman says. You probably know a well-intentioned friend who gives you good advice, but you just won't listen to it. Then there's a second friend who gives the same advice, and you eagerly accept it.

"Why the difference? It's how they're communicating, it's timing, it's that we trust them," she says. In short, that second friend has those key consulting skills.

"Just knowing the technology isn't going to get the job done," explains Michael Lawson, senior associate dean at the Boston University School of Management. BU offers a combined MBA and MS degree in information systems; it also offers a training program called the CIO Pocket MBA. Both programs require participants to develop consulting skills as part of their focus on the need to be business savvy. "They already have the technical skills, but what they've got to do is understand their clients. And consultants, in general, have the ability to understand their clients and help people reach their goals," Lawson says.

The organizers of the IT Leadership Program at Santa Clara University in California consider consulting skills to be so important that they devote nearly one-third of the three-day seminar to the issue, says Pete DeLisi, the program's academic dean and president of Organizational Synergies, a consulting firm in California, U.S.

"The new work of IT has to do with successfully engaging the business community and delivering value to them," he says. "That's where the consulting skills come in. It's a proc­ess of delivering value to the client and community."

The program teaches students how to communicate effectively -- that is, to ask the right business questions, probe for the business needs and really listen to clients' answers.

"We're trying to teach what a good consultant is good at: They're good at listening and getting at the underlying business need; they're digging deeper," DeLisi says, noting that IT managers usually don't learn these techniques in college, technical training programs or even as they come up through the IT ranks.

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