A question of letters

When it comes to making choices about furthering professional qualifications and training there are certainly no shortage of academic options. For the last 30 years, an MBA degree has been seen as the benchmark that the business community sets for managers to progress to senior executive level. Yet with the rise and rise of the information technology industry, most tertiary institutions offering an information sciences or computing degree are adding a Masters option — often in the form of a Masters in Business Technology or a Masters in Information Technology Management — while almost every tertiary institution in Australia offers an MBA. The question for many about to take the plunge back into academia is which one will hold more sway when times get tough, and which will bring in more bacon when the sun shines.

One keen advocate of the new breed MBT training is Thom Blischok, chairman and CEO of MindMeld, an Arizona-based “thought leadership” outfit that specialises in providing strategic advice to companies such as Qantas, Woolworths and Citibank. From where Blischok stands, he sees MBTs as a smart move to the future because businesses are realigning to take full advantage of the information they generate — so more information-specific skills will be needed.

“I’d say take the MBT, for sure. We are now getting into industry the sort of kids [first generation of managers and professionals] that grew up with computers. They are very data-centric. The informed worker is [and will become] more valuable than the experienced worker,” says Blischok, best known for the creation of the infamous ‘Beer and Nappies’ data-mining legend.

IT recruiters seem less convinced about such technology-based management degrees. Silvia Williams of Candle Recruitment says that she has so far seen little call for specific MBT-type qualifications — although she says that one project her company recruited for did ask for it as a prerequisite. When it comes to getting the keys to the executive bathroom, Williams says that MBAs still rule the roost.

“If you are talking about CIOs, it’s definitely more towards MBAs. Organisations that are looking for CIOs are not looking for people with particular technical skills: they are looking for business acumen and experience. [At project manager level] what clients want is previous experience with implementations. What organisations really want is an alignment of business and IT skills,” Williams says, adding that it is hard to predict whether MBTs will take off as a sought-after qualification

“It’s hard to say, we just don’t have enough information at the moment. It’s a little like ITIL — we would see everyone requesting it and then it went away, literally overnight,” she says.

Robert Walters’ Melbourne manager of IT recruitment, Matthew Baker, concurs that MBAs still hold sway with corporates recruiting into their senior ranks, while noting they are not all that they used to be.

“Five years ago you’d expect an MBA to double your salary, and you wouldn’t say that now. As IT has to deliver back into the business, [business management qualifications are] increasingly important. MBAs have a better understanding of what they are about,” Baker says, adding he also is yet to register any interest in MBTs from clients.

Derek Wright, a project manager with IBM GSA on site with Telstra, says that a main benefit of his MBA, taken through Deakin University and APESMA, was gaining the people skills needed to lead and execute projects.

Wright said it provided a lot of perspective and background to the direction HR trends are taking and put things like world’s best practice into context. It also covered aspects such as being current and up to date in managing an IT workforce compared to managing other workforces.

“IT can be very technology focused, but in reality we are managing a team of people as project managers. So you have to use the broader processes that are used in industry in general, not just focusing in on technology. It lets you focus in on that better than just managing IT things in general,” Wright says.

Another factor Wright says any post-graduate candidate needs to keep in mind is how they are going to structure their study around work, lifestyle and family. At the time he studied, Wright was faced with a young family making demands on his time, placing flexibility at a premium.

“Some MBA courses have a lot of project work where you work with people — and I felt that I was getting that at work anyway. I really didn’t need that out of the MBA program,” he says, noting that the course he took allowed him to work autonomously through distance learning.

“I know a lot of other people would prefer a more structured program. It does require a lot of focus to actually get through. You really are dependent on yourself... there’s a lot of hard working at the end.”

As for whether it’s his career, Wright says that although he’s opted to stay with the same employer it has certainly made a difference to the sort of projects he can take on.

“I think it helps, it certainly gives you the broader view from an organisation point of view, and that translates into managing the IT side of things as IT moves more into the business side of things. It’s no longer IT driving the business, business is driving the IT side of things. It does help you [become more marketable either within or outside an organisation]. You can move into larger focus projects. It’s been good and given me a bigger skill set to call on in the work I am doing — and more productive.”

Job potential

Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity represents the trifecta for business in the race towards profitability and are the first to be lost in IT projects that don’t deliver on their goals.

ICT recruitment firm Ambit Group’s chief executive Nicholas Barnett said there has been a massive trend over the last five years among private and government sector employers to make IT more business-relevant.

Driving this push, Barnett said, has been a wave of IT projects going wrong, running over-budget and running over time. “The business side of organisations has embraced IT, but the IT side of the business hasn’t embraced the business side, so there’s a far greater focus across employers in aligning the two and making them understand each other better.”

Companies are hiring IT professionals who are commercially savvy and have a broader range of experience in business than the market provided three to five years ago.

“The technical people did a great job but they haven’t risen to higher levels in IT management because of that lack of business [acumen],” Barnett said.

He also notes clients have a strong preference for IT executives with emotional intelligence. They stress the need for IT candidates with good people and communication skills, the ability to influence and those who are empathetic operators, particularly for high-level appointments such as CIO and technical engineering expert roles.

Barnett, whose agency recruits for the commercial and government sector (CIOs, project managers and helpdesk managers) sees companies increasingly hiring IT pros with postgraduate-level qualifications in leading-edge technologies, namely .Net, Web services, wireless, VoIP and security skills.

Across the eastern seaboard states (NSW, Victoria and Queensland), Barnett says there are a lot of requests from telecommunications, banking and insurance clients for IT professionals with degree training in data mining and computer forensics. He said they also favour candidates with statistics and mathematics-focused degrees, over and above IT because of the data-intensive nature of those businesses.

“The telcos, banking and accounting professions, above others, like IT and high-level engineering workers to hold business, commerce and economics degrees and also with an IT major, and are more likely to want those skills at a postgraduate level.”

Employer demand for postgraduate IT qualifications in Western Australia is essentially in line with the eastern seaboard, Barnett said. Also, IT professionals’ job skills and degree qualifications tend to be three to six months behind the eastern states.

Within the ACT, there is significantly more public sector and IT service provider employers of IT pros. With government agencies increasingly trialling and rolling out .Net and Web services projects (namely the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ATO and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation) there is much greater demand in the ACT for those types of skills at a degree level.

Employers also look favourably on senior IT pros not only with highly technical skills, but consider MBAs (Masters in Business Administration) with an IT architecture or project management major competitive in today’s labour market, according to Barnett. Corporate IT professionals with those qualifications have more industry experience because they are more likely to have developed a broader base of skills through professional and postgraduate training, and thus meet specific job requirements better in the marketplace, he said.

The merchant banking, insurance, accounting and legal professions favour IT professionals with degree qualifications in commerce and law. “A good grasp of commercial [issues] can enable IT people to become the middleman between IT and the business. That’s the demand by large companies now. For example, for a big CRM rollout, the real problem points will usually be on the business side so IT people need to be much more prepared to deal with business issues.”

Meanwhile, Barnett says private industry is becoming less prescriptive about tertiary qualifications in IT candidates, and more interested in their level of emotional intelligence.

“Employers know professionals usually have a pretty high IQ these days — IQ has gone up 25 points since WW1 but it doesn’t really expand and develop over our lifetime. And most professionals have one or more degrees.

“So the real capacity to differentiate is through their interpersonal communication skills and their ability to influence and take accountability, all of which are pretty hard to measure.

“In my experience hiring highly technical people, I’ve found they tend to lack those qualities.

“Emotional intelligence (EQ) has gone down significantly over the last generation. But you can ‘learn it’. The beauty of EQ is that it’s a lot more talked about and understood by companies. Most recruiters and employers do EQ profiling and measurement in some form.”

While the profile of the ideal IT executive has been morphing, the demand at the recruitment level has been dropping. According to Australian executive search firm EL Consult’s September Executive Demand Index the IT sector fell another 6 per cent in August compared with the previous month, taking it to its lowest level in 10 years.

EL Consult managing director Grant Montgomery said: “Over the last 10 years computer systems have finally become robust enough to eliminate many of their ‘minders’ and this is despite a mammoth growth in the number of corporate functions computers have taken over.

“Australia does not have a large software or hardware development industry so the roles for IT executives are increasingly those involving strategy, evaluation and implementation.”

Montgomery believes that although over the last year the tech sector has seen some “false starts”, showing recovery in IT employment, the large corporate IT department has become a thing of the past.

“The Internet opened up many new paths for IT executives, but those roles disappeared with the tech wreck. The IT sector will need to develop ‘another quantum leap in technology’ before the heady days of the late 90s will be seen again,” he said.

John Hughes, Australian Computer Society (ACS) membership board director and a professor of Computing at the University of Technology, Sydney’s (UTS) Institute for ICT, clearly sees the drop in IT executive demand in private industry, with CEOs and company directors lamenting that “headcount is everything” in the current climate.

“I meet CEOs who agonise over the [job cuts] they have to make, but they’re forced to keep a cap on the number of people they have,” Hughes said.

With redundancies abounding in the three years since the dotcom industry sank, Hughes said among the ACS’ 14,500 members there is a large number of IT pros from middle-layers of the IT profession — the 35 to 45-year-old group — with no transferable qualifications. They have been forced to rethink their competitiveness in the marketplace and are returning to university.

Most of that group is taking up further study to prepare themselves for “the next big wave”, Barnett said.

“People who have been laid off from middle-management IT roles like project managers, for example are upgrading their skills at the higher levels with postgraduate training in any discipline, or in mainstream vendor-accredited and technical certification, often with a .Net component like at [Monash Uni].”

IT pros find the portability of those qualifications attractive, he said. Also, a lot of people “still find the Internet and Web technologies a mystery”.

Meanwhile, more and more up and coming IT professionals in the 25-to-30 year old group are deciding at that stage in their lives what higher tertiary qualifications they need in order to move into management levels in the IT profession. A lot of them are looking towards postgraduate degrees like a Masters in Technology Management or a Masters in Business Administration with an IT major, according to Barnett.

Furthermore, employers are finding “generalist” graduate diplomas or degrees less relevant in a globalised market.

“The IT side of the business subsumes the business side. More IT people want to get management skills regardless of the type of position they’re in because they’re essential today. What’s in demand are skills like contract negotiation, outsourcing management, strategic IT management, information and knowledge management and enterprise architecture.”

Among IT workers, these qualifications are a differentiator in the marketplace and are the sorts of competencies aiding IT professionals to reach executive management levels within companies and even vice-chancellorships in academia, Hughes said.

Policy

The IT industry has matured to the level where someone who graduated in IT 10 years ago would benefit from some form of postgraduate education update, according to IT industry experts.

The Australian Computer Society’s director of the membership board — which handles issues of standards and accredits university degree courses — John Hughes said postgraduate study has various benefits for IT professionals including “updating technical skills and learning about new or emerging technologies in specific areas like the Internet or security”.

ACS Certification Program manager Gerald Murphy said the ACS has no specific policy about postgraduate degrees for ICT professionals, and agrees postgraduate training is worthwhile because “it improves productivity and enables organisations to better compete in the global economy”.

Programs including the ACS Certification Program “broaden the skills of ICT professionals and equip them to help in solving business problems”, Murphy said.

According to Murphy, the ACS Certification Program is an industry-based, Masters-level course of study consisting of four one-semester modules.

“It is a global education program and can be completed part-time within two years. Enrolment is open to anyone, irrespective of their membership of the ACS. It has been designed by practitioners for practitioners and consists of two core subjects and one specialist stream of two subjects,” Murphy said.

Murphy said core subjects for the program are; IT trends and business, legal and ethical issues. Specialisations are; e-business, e-learning, knowledge management, management and strategy for IS, project management and software development.

Murphy said the ACS accredits undergraduate programs, “while postgraduate courses depend on the interests of the individual institutions”.

Meanwhile, Hughes said a number of short courses — including courses that claim to incorporate the equivalent of a three-year degree in as little as one year — have not been accredited at a professional level, “since the ACS does not believe it is possible to cover the necessary subject areas in anything less than three full-time semesters of study”.

Hughes said whole new sets of IT skills will be in demand, with tertiary courses expected to change to reflect that.

“The whole purpose of a university education is to not only give skills but to give the principles underlying those skills so you can apply them in circumstances you’ve never encountered before. It also skills you in ancillary areas like management, communications and ethical behaviour, in order to prepare you for a career and not just a job,” Hughes said.

The Australian Information Industry Association’s (AIIA) general manager of policy and government relations, James McAdam, said that with the increasing IT research in Australia, demand for people with strong IT qualifications is expected to continue to grow.

McAdam said the AIIA has policies and has made submissions on commercialisation, and the national research priorities, among others. He said universities, both in Australia and overseas offer a wide range of postgraduate study — either via coursework or project work.

Interaction

The ACS works to support tertiary institutions to set up and accredit courses, but does not dictate course content, Hughes said.

The ACS encourages tertiary institutions to follow varied pathways when developing their programs and qualifications to meet the differing needs of the marketplace and their local conditions, Hughes said.

“So we see some universities specialising in areas like research or more generalist areas, while others focus on multimedia and the like. As the professional body and keeper of the Core Body of Knowledge (CBoK) for ICT, the ACS basically encourages universities to develop courses within the framework of the CBoK, resulting in a whole range of innovative programs targeted at different aspects of the profession. When looking at courses for accreditation, we seek to ensure that the educational outcomes that are stated are backed up by the curriculum and resourcing,” Hughes said.

“It is essential that tertiary programs produce graduates who are flexible and can adapt to new technologies — this is an important outcome of any university course,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the ACS sees itself as an integrated part of the industry and is represented on the Board of the IT Skills Hub, “which has a mission to ensure that ICT in Australia has a supply of people with appropriate skills at the time they are needed”.

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