New Work World

What's the current state of IT work? According to the numbers, it's not quite as bad as it could be—but it's still pretty grim. A report out last week from Robert Half Technology says that only 4% of CIOs plan to cut IT staff by the end of the year. Then again, only 9% plan on adding IT staff. That's not exactly a roaring IT job market.

But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that the big story isn't in the statistics. It's in what companies want from IT people going forward: real business experience to go along with technology expertise.

That's what CIOs are telling U.S. colleges and universities they need from computer science graduates, according to a recent Computerworld survey [QuickLink 40537]. Those CIOs say they don't want to hire fresh-faced geniuses who have mastered the latest tech but are clueless about real-world business needs.

And CIOs are putting in more time and effort than ever before to help shape computer science curricula, so they'll have a better chance of getting future IT employees with the business and communications skills they need.

That's the state of IT work today: Purely technical work is out, and being a pure technologist won't cut it in corporate IT shops anymore. From here on in, the relentless focus for IT work is on the business.

But that shouldn't be a surprise. We've been talking about the importance of aligning IT with business needs for a long time. We've been offloading pure technology jobs for even longer -- that's why Microsoft, SAP and Oracle build our software, just as IBM, Sun, Dell and Cisco build our hardware. And increasingly, the rest of our pure technology work will be done by outsourcers.

So what work is left for IT people to do? Plenty.

Right now, users struggle with our systems. They struggle because we can't keep up with them. Business conditions change. Business opportunities appear and vanish. Our users react in real time—changing the way they do business to meet those constantly shifting situations.

But our systems don't change to match those changes in our business processes. Forget about real time—we're lucky if we're just months behind in tracing those changes. Sometimes we're years behind.

Result: Users have to work around those gaps where systems don't match processes. And those work-arounds cost time and money—and sometimes lost business.

And often enough we don't even know there's a problem. Far too many IT people figure their job is done if a system meets the specification or the service-level agreement—never mind whether it matches the real business process. And too many IT people don't have enough contact with users to find out what the real business processes look like anyway.

How do we solve those problems and close those gaps? We need to understand our businesses better. We need to communicate with users. And ironically, we need more and better technology skills—that's the only way we can assemble systems that are flexible enough so we can continuously retool them to match constantly changing business processes.

Yes, that's right: The only way IT people can stay relentlessly focused on the business is by being even better when it comes to technology.

Making all this happen won't be simple. For lots of us, it won't be comfortable. And even if we get it right, it will never be orderly or tidy. Business doesn't work that way. We'll be carving order out of continuous change. We'll be wrestling technology into place one day to support business processes that may change the next.

But that really is what's needed. So forget the statistics, and start bearing down on that business problem. Because when it comes to the state of IT work, we've got our work cut out for us.

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