Building Up Your Business Knowledge

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Anyone who has read an IT trade journal in the last several years can tell you that employers’ most sought-after IT skills are not technical at all — they are business skills. This message has been publicized loud and clear to all tech workers, whether they want to hear it or not.

Every IT skills study released in 2007 has reported chief information officers’ (CIOs) desire — actually, more like a plea — for IT workers who not only possess technical prowess but also have in-depth knowledge of how business works and how they can contribute to the bottom line (profitability).

A survey of more than 1,400 CIOs conducted by Robert Half Technology reports that the need for IT workers with fundamental business skills has increased 41 percent over the last five years.

The most recent report published by Gartner Inc. in February reveals that while the majority of CIOs feel they have enough funding to meet their 2007 project commitments and their IT staff has the technical skills necessary to get the job done, what is truly lacking in today’s IT professional is a strong sense of business acumen.

Why the sudden need for business-savvy techies? What are “business skills” anyway? Are they the same as “soft skills?” Most important, if business skills are indeed necessary, how does one go about obtaining them?

Business Skills versus Soft Skills
Industry experts and academics often have used these terms interchangeably. While the line sometimes can be blurred between the two, there is a difference between business skills and soft skills. The former are “hard” skills, acquired through on-the-job training, college or some other type of formalized training program.

Examples of business skills are business process improvement, business relationship management, business intelligence, business analysis, enterprise architecture, finance, project management, negotiation, contract management and risk assessment.

Soft skills, while important, are much less definable. They are traits considered valuable in all careers, including IT: communication, leadership, attitude, initiative, etc. Soft skills are difficult to assess because they are subjective — who is to say whether someone is an effective communicator or leader?

Why Business Skills are Now Necessary
The world’s CIOs say there has been a dramatic shift in the roles and responsibilities of today’s IT professional. Companies whose structure was once decentralized, consisting of many departments acting independently of one another, now are beginning to realize the benefits of alignment.

The Gartner study predicts businesses that are successful in aligning IT with business processes will exceed average sector performance by at least 15 percent until 2011.

In other words, companies that successfully build a labor force that possesses both technical skills and business skills will be more competitive and profitable than those that do not.

Gone are the days where just having a specialization in development, databases or networking is enough — today’s IT worker is expected to know not only how to repair the system that has gone down but to understand why it is a priority to get the system up and running, as well as have the necessary organizational and business skills to create a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Developers, who were once judged by how quickly and accurately they could write and decipher code, will now be rated in terms of how well they can work with other programmers and manage projects, as well as how quickly they can learn. While technical skills are still critical, in today’s business model, they quickly are becoming secondary to business skills.

The future does not look promising for the pure technologist who is either unable or unwilling to adopt business skills. According to the Gartner study, by 2011, the average IT organization will have 40 percent fewer workers in pure technology-specific roles. The future looks brighter, however, for IT professionals who are able to adapt and learn the new skills — over the same time frame, the number of employees with the combined technical and business skills will have doubled.

As the roles and responsibilities between IT and business become more blurred, there will be great employment opportunities to cross between the lines.

Business Skills Most in Demand
The two most sought-after business skill sets by today’s technology executives are project management and business analysis.

  • Project management requires the ability to organize multiple resources, which results in work being completed within a defined scope, quality and budget within a specified time period. Some projects are temporary, one-time assignments. These are common in IT and are often outsourced to external consultants. Other projects are permanent and require ongoing management to create the same product or service over and over again.
  • Business analysis (also referred to as systems analysis, business systems analysis and functional analysis) is much more difficult to define. Organizations define this skill set differently, but the common ground found among all definitions is that business analysis is the ability to analyze the needs of a business and to act as a liaison for the primary company stakeholders toward achievement of business objectives that are beneficial to the company.

A business analyst (BA) serves the mission-critical function of understanding the business need, determining and documenting accurate requirements from a business unit and presenting these requirements in a manner that is agreeable, measurable and flexible enough to meet project and stakeholder needs. BAs actively contribute to the development of methods, procedures, processes or systems, and they understand the impact of change.

How Best to Obtain Business Skills

As with most topics in IT, the jury is still out on this one — there seems to be a great debate in the IT community over how best to acquire the business skills for which CIOs yearn.

  • Master’s of Business Administration (MBA)

To some, it is almost a no-brainer that the best way to acquire these skills would be simply to earn an MBA. If you have the time and financial means to pursue this education, it could pay great dividends. An MBA provides a very well-rounded education in the theory and practice of business, and it provides a general understanding of how management functions.

Many MBA programs provide areas of specialization in finance, accounting or marketing.

In response to employers’ growing interest in soft skills, many MBA programs have revamped their curriculum to include training in areas such as teamwork, leadership and communication. The Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, will require all first-year students this fall to take personality tests, as well as participate in teamwork and management simulations. Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business requires new students to take a crash course in people skills.

On the flip side of the coin, some technology executives advise against formal classroom education, such as that an MBA provides.

Andrew Field, CEO of Livingston, Mont.-based told Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld magazine, “If I were to make a recommendation to an IT person trying to sharpen skills, it would not be to run out and get an MBA. It would be to lead a project team and get something like that on your resume. Even if it is a small team, just prove not only that you can do things yourself but also that you can get others to do things for you.”

  • Business Analyst Preparation

Unlike the MBA, there is no standard or generally accepted path if your goal is to become a BA. Sometimes, they have an IT background, perhaps as a developer or engineer, and they sometimes have computer science degrees. Others have no technical background and are hired as BAs because of their expertise in fields such as finance, sales or marketing.

Organizations such as the International Institute of Business Analysts offer a few certification programs, and some colleges, including Villanova University, have online BA certification programs. Additionally, a few consulting companies have sprung up over the last couple of years to help train new BAs.

  • Project Management Certification

While there is no substitute for real-world project management experience, most employers are leery to set BAs loose on a project without some sort of project management experience or training. The problem is, most recognized project management certifications (such as those offered by the Project Management Institute) require you have thousands of project management hours logged on the job before they will allow you to pursue the training and certification.

CompTIA’s Project+ certification is a good one for those wishing to break into the field. Unlike other project management certifications, Project+ is IT-specific — it is designed for those who wish to learn the necessary skills necessary for managing technical projects. Only basic PC skills are required to attend the course that will show you how to:

  • Initiate a project.
  • Develop a project charter.
  • Create a scope statement.
  • Create management plans.
  • Develop a work statement.
  • Create a project schedule.
  • Manage project relationships.
  • Implement the project.
  • Close the project.
  • Shadowing.

If formalized training does not fit into your busy schedule or is not in your budget, ask the higher-ups within your company if you can shadow BAs at your company.

Tell them you want to learn how different departments interact with one another in accomplishing business goals and, specifically, how it affects the IT department. Odds are, your manager will appreciate your interest.

Many progressive U.S. corporations are instituting job-shadowing programs. Principal Financial Group, one of America’s top 100 companies to work for, launched just such a program in 2005, helping IT workers understand how each of the company’s financial services businesses operates and how customers view this.

At East Hanover, N.J.-based Novartis Pharmaceuticals, all IT workers are given the opportunity to be mentored by a business manager. Even company CEO Alex Gorsky took a techie under his wing and participated in the mentoring program.

Get Out Into the Field
If you really want to quickly develop some real-world business skills, get out of your cube and get out into the field. If your organization services external branches, visit them. To get a feel for the “big picture,” witness firsthand the operational difficulties they encounter.

United Health Services regularly sends IT analysts to its numerous medical and behavioral health centers to help them understand hospital operations. The company takes it a step further by hiring IT workers who also happen to be nurses.

There is no denying today’s IT professionals need more than technical expertise if they wish to continue climb the corporate ladder.

Whether it be through formalized business education, company-sponsored training or innovative learning experiences such as shadowing, those who can cross the line between IT and business will flourish throughout the next decade and beyond.

Matt McGrath is senior education consultant for Centriq Foss Training. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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