Ready for IT-Plus?

Two days before Christmas, USA Today ran a story on the front of its Money section detailing the problems behind returning gifts bought over the Web. Pay attention, IT -- please. The e-commerce story and its prominence are noteworthy. It's yet another reminder that technology is now at the very center of business, not at its periphery. We've never seen as much coverage of IT as in the past few months -- Y2K, of course, as well as e-commerce, technology stocks and IPOs.

What's noteworthy is that the USA Today article wasn't about Web site technology but business processes. The recent Y2K discussion was increasingly not about programming but organizational processes. The technology stock and IPO fever isn't just about technology innovations but far more about business models.

Is IT ready to play a value-adding role in this new game of "technology-plus" and become "IT-plus" (IT + business, IT + process, IT + business model)? Probably not, sadly.

For the first time in my 35 years in the IT field, I'm pessimistic about the readiness of many IT professionals to recognize that e-commerce, as the mainstream way of doing business, demands that they not sit on the sidelines and assume that their current skills, interests, career paths and knowledge guarantee them the same relevance to this new IT-plus world as they had in the world of just plain-old IT.

My pessimism has increased over the past six months. When I'm with any business group, there's never a half-hour in which the Internet and e-commerce don't come up in conversation. When I'm talking with business school academics, there isn't even a two-minute gap between discussions about distance learning, their new e-commerce MBA programs or their new e-commerce research institutes.

But if I want to get away from the e-commerce hubbub, all I need to do is seek out an IT group. On the whole, IT isn't that interested in it.

This was brought home to me by a Concours Group survey of more than 100 IT professionals. The IT professionals said their top five career interests are the traditional IT career paths, none of which include e-commerce. In a self-rating of current skills from a list of 22, they said their seven weakest include e-commerce, international business, mobile communications, Internet design and Web design. These are the business growth areas for the next decade, but these IT professionals don't see them as their -- and IT's -- growth areas.

Asked to rank which skills are most important for tomorrow, e-commerce placed eighth. So, basically, these people like building systems, enjoy their jobs and aren'tinterested in all the stuff the USA Today story saw as important.

The past two years have been tough for IT, with such issues as Y2K, enterprise resource planning, legacy systems and the complexity of supporting more desktops with more middleware. IT has moved away from the business dialogue and back into its traditional and relatively isolated space of straight technology with occasional forays into the business.

I'm sure most IT professionals will agree that e-commerce is the future -- at least I hope so. But it looks to me like they're discounting what that means for themselves and IT. They're mainly going to watch from the sidelines.

The business game USA Today reports on needs the very best IT-plus professionals -- ones who know technology and process, technology and business, and technology and organization, and love dealing with the challenges that IT-plus provides.

The "IT as-is" professionals are saying that they like their own business-as-usual. But e-commerce is tomorrow's business-as-usual.

So welcome to this new world. Please be a core part of it.

(Keen (peter@peterkeen.com) is chairman of Keen Education and an author and consultant. Contact him at http://www.peterkeen.com.)

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