Guest column: Consulting skills to help tech pros survive

Thirty years ago, when the late artist Andy Warhol said, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," we all laughed at the statement's absurdity. But then came Jerry Springer and trash TV, tabloid journalism and now the Internet, where anyone can post his life story on a personal Web page for the world to view. In this spirit, I'd like to introduce "Foote's Maxim": In the future, every IT worker will be a consultant for 15 minutes.

The information technology department as we know it is vanishing. At the current rate of change, it will probably be gone in about seven years. But not the IT worker, and certainly not the major contribution that technology makes in an economy where two-thirds of the gross domestic product is derived from technology-related products and services.

The problem of supply and demand in the IT labor force will worsen over the next several years, and nobody will be able to keep pace with the skills race for full-time workers. Retraining isn't the answer because - let's face it - maybe 5 percent of us are capable of remolding ourselves to rapidly fit into new jobs with new skills, then doing it again and again.

But what IT executives will do is reconstitute the workforce so that technical specialists are mainly contract workers, temps, part-timers, job sharers and consultants. The full-timers will be so-called business technologists (BT) with - you guessed it - strong consulting skills and abilities, plus varying degrees of functional, industry and technical know-how.

Over the past several years, companies have been steadily rebuilding their IT functions with BTs in critical project and decision-making roles. As companies draw more heavily from business units and consulting firms to fill key IT positions, manpower sourcing strategies have gravitated more aggressively to highly flexible, just-in-time models. And who better to enable this shift than small, niche-driven boutique consulting firms providing specialised top-notch services at competitive prices. These firms are helping fuel the estimated 16 percent to 20 percent annual growth in the IT services sector. Many of today's IT workers will end up as in-house BTs or as independent technical consultants at boutiques or larger firms organized for more specialised services.

You may not end up being a full-time consultant, but having consulting skills will help guarantee your survival as an IT professional in a business-driven environment over the next several years. Pull those skills out when you need them, whether it's for 15 minutes, days, weeks, months or years. Here are a few:

-- Focus on customer needs, whether the task is exciting or not.

-- Be flexible in the way you approach tasks, and be able to identify ways to improve long-standing processes.

-- Have a facility for risk-taking, especially accepting failure as a natural event.

-- Tolerate ambiguity where there is no clear answer for what's right in a given situation.

-- Be adaptable and flexible enough to make solid educated guesses, and be receptive to new ideas.

-- Have a team-wise outlook aimed at developing and nurturing people working together.

Anticipate what internal customers will want before they know, but lead them to discover the answer in a highly participative fashion.

David Foote is managing partner and research director at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Connecticut. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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