At ESAB North America, Tim Luce, director of application development, is determined to "liberate corporate data from the IT bottleneck," and turn IT workers from hard-core coders into savvy business people.
His ultimate goal: to have IT at the $1 billion supplier of welding and cutting equipment provide business users with tools and training so that users themselves can retrieve and manipulate the data they need to make better business decisions. "The genie is out of the bottle, and in some cases there are end users who are as good as any IT professional," says Luce.
Two key forces -- the slow economy and the trend of technology permeating business to the point that all jobs are IT-related -- are fueling a perceptible shift in the world of IT jobs. IT-savvy business users are picking up some of the work that was previously done strictly by IT workers. Increasingly, sales, marketing, human resources and other traditional business and administration jobs are expanding to include technology-oriented tasks, such as data mining and other forms of corporate data analysis, as businesses strive to do more with less. To get the job done, the business units are adopting sophisticated software tools that in some cases replace some of the work formerly relegated to IT departments.
On the flip side, the same forces are also stretching the boundaries of traditional IT jobs, such as database analyst and computer programmer, to include project management and business value skills.
The upshot is a fundamental change in the nature of IT work, particularly for highly technical employees, who must find ways to shift their focus to business and interpersonal skills to ensure job security.
"When I started, all employers wanted to know was how well you could code. Now what's important is how well you manage technology projects," says retired Elf Atochem North America Inc. CIO Bob Rubin. Rubin now heads Huntington Valley, Pa.-based Valley Management Consultants, which advises companies on IT strategy and operational excellence.
The growing acceptance of IT "outside the glass house" is a further step in IT's evolution "from what was once considered a sacred role as technological high priest, doling out IT resources to businesses without question from business execs,'' Rubin says.
ESAB, for example, is working to turn programmers, engineers, and even some leading salespeople into skilled project managers who understand how to manage deadlines, allocate resources and minimize time to market. Luce has even earned special certifications for project management in recent months.
At the same time, the company is providing business users with software tools, such as Cognos Inc.'s Powerplay and Impromptu, as a means of removing IT from the report-generation process.
As more companies make similar moves to bolster the IT self-sufficiency of business people, the big question becomes, "Where does that leave IT professionals?"
Analysts, recruiters and out-of-work IT executives say there are definite changes afoot in where skilled IT workers should look for jobs, and what they should do to hold on to or and advance their current technical positions. There are also some specific skills they need to help ensure job security.
IT professionals must "add business value and focus on how they can help the company operate better, faster and cheaper," says Phyllis Klees, a partner at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu's Human Capital Advisory Services in San Jose.
This is especially important because as Klees and others explain, workers in other departments are being called upon to add IT-related skills -- or at least learn to use sophisticated data analysis and customer relationship management (CRM) tools that can directly affect the bottom line.
Klees maintains that the coming economic recovery will likely be slow and gradual, so organizations that hire new IT employees will increasingly move away from heads-down programmers or "commodity coders" as she calls them, and instead hire more seasoned IT professionals who have provided business value in their prior jobs. Often the new jobs will carry management-focused titles, such as director or supervisor of special projects or manager of network services. The positions may even exist entirely outside the traditional IT department, residing instead in, say, sales or marketing and perhaps focusing on CRM-related data analysis.
An IT worker's next career move should be clear, says ESAB's Luce: "Evolve. Stop believing and behaving as though IT is the only resource that can complete IT-related tasks."
It would also help to brush up on or learn skills in key business areas, such as sales, marketing, business development and customer service.
IT executives must strive to become "collaborative associates," which means they must learn to work with increasingly tech-savvy users in all areas of the business, "providing guidance, communicating, listening and offering insights on trade-offs for each technological investment," says Rubin.
IT workers can increase their value and help insulate themselves against future layoffs by making personal connections with business department heads and by learning more about how their companies operate so they can offer practical suggestions for improving performance, speeding processes and reducing costs.
Analysts advise workers to find ways to get invited to business project meetings and to volunteer to join cross-functional teams to both learn more and to provide valuable IT insights.
"It's absolutely invaluable to the VP of sales to work with someone viewed as a data warehousing expert, with crucial experience working on the company's CRM data," Klees notes. "But if an IT person solely focuses on the data warehouse and not the company's CRM needs, he or she is little more than an expendable commodity."