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Solving the skills conundrum -- part 2

In the second and final part of this series on skills, we look at why providing IT staff with more formal education and hiring people with non-IT degrees may help to address the skills shortage.

One way to develop a business approach to IT skills shortages within an organisation is through formal education.

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John Whiting, head of the technology group at Korn-Ferry, says you can't necessarily learn leadership skills, raising the nature versus nurture argument. But there are many courses in IT management, or even broader business issues which could offer both a breeding ground for the next IT leaders, as well as a complementary skill set.

The University of NSW has a Master of Business and Technology and a Masters of Information Systems Management. More broadly there is the ubiquitous MBA, which Whiting claims is not a prerequisite of an IT manager at any level, but does add value.

Jenny Rickard, director of Open Programs at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM), says IT managers can benefit from further business training as much as those from other functional roles.

"As they start progressing in an organisation, they need to expand into other areas, which may mean post-grad, MBAs or short courses," she says. At MGSM, IT professionals are one of the largest groups of those looking at post-grad qualifications, Rickard says. Her own group offers non-degree executive education short courses, and these too attract senior IT people. Typically, students are looking at strategic and general management topics, "preparing for a broader role or a need for broader exposure".

Related: Solving the skills conundrum -- part 1.

Short courses cover such areas as finance, which attracts a lot of people from management co-ordination levels such as Web functions and IT systems management, learning persuasive communications and negotiation skills, and business analytics.

A new program in innovation and entrepreneurship only started this year. This may give students an appreciation of bringing in actual value in addition to the traditional arsenal of qualifications and experience, and add to their position and attractiveness for their current organisation... or a future one.

Being business savvy doesn't just apply of course to IT staff. It is an intrinsic requirement these days of CIOs and IT leaders themselves. This is not always easy, and it is not always the reality.

Ian Bertram, managing vice-president and global manager of analytics and business intelligence at Gartner, says those who come up through the ranks, especially in smaller organisations, do not necessarily understand all the business issues.

According to Whiting, some things CIOs can do to convince the board and CEO they have what it takes include taking a greater role in functions like procurement, transformational change, supply chain and project management at an organisational level.

"Having runs on the board gets you in. But to get a seat at the boardroom table, you need to have the right mindset. CIOs need to take challenges in their stride. CIOs are good at looking for the new and the different, which means they need to balance risk and governance. You need to be trusted. If your CEO came to you and asked what you'd do with an extra $50 million, what would you say?"

The answer to that might be the make or break moment for any business-oriented IT leader.

The CIO's mixed background

IT qualifications may not be the only path to the top IT job. In the course of interviews for this and other articles, it became evident some CIOs do not have formal IT qualifications, at least not at first.

There are those who have marketing, accounting and other non-IT backgrounds; we've even met a former chef. CSR's Charlie Sukkar has a background in biomedical science and fell into IT via an on-campus recruitment drive.

"There were a number of banks and technology firms on the University of Sydney campus looking for people. HSBC's display booth caught my attention. The company was looking for degree qualified students to join its IBM AS/400 software engineering graduate program

"I spent the next two-and-a-half to three years at HSBC learning software development and design on IBM mid-range technologies. In a nutshell, my biomedical science degree gave me the ticket to transition into IT. That was early 1990. I haven't looked back since."

While he never actually used his science degree in the biomedical field, he says he still regards university qualifications very highly, regardless of discipline.

"That said, it does depend on the nature of the role. Attitude and previous experience play a significant part in recruiting new staff. For current staff members, there is a very high emphasis on lifelong learning and development. This is facilitated through an employee value proposition targeted at the needs of each individual."

In contrast to Sukkar's experience, Tony Rosanno at Korn-Ferry says a technology degree of some sort was essential 15 years ago, but claims that has changed. "It's now irrelevant in which discipline the degree is held. It doesn't matter anymore."

But it's more likely than not that you will need something to put after your name. And it probably should be something to do with business.


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