Business Acumen: The New Must-Have Skill

Tuesday Feb 13th 2007 by Katherine Spencer Lee
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Increasingly, employers expect IT staffers to be business savvy. But how can a tech professional acquire these skills?

Imagine the stereotypical IT professional: an introvert shut off from the rest of the business and relegated to the company’s back server room. In need of a translator to communicate outside his or her immediate workgroup, let alone with management, this person is as effective at identifying business concerns as a typical CEO is at recognizing a bad line of code.

While the conventional image of technology practitioners has always been exaggerated, chances are you’ve known some people who come close to fitting this bill. They’re brilliant when it comes to the technical requirements of the job, but they’re lost when you ask them to apply their skills to an unfamiliar problem, collaborate with people who don’t “speak their language” or shift on the fly when the business demands a change in direction.

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The good news for the “pure IT” person is that there’s still a place for him or her in today’s market. The bad news is that it’s an increasingly limited one as businesses continue to outsource one-dimensional jobs. With less room for growth and ultimately less job security, IT specialists who are strangers to business integration have fewer advancement opportunities.

Now that technology permeates all aspects of business, hard skills alone aren’t enough to land the most desirable IT jobs. Technology professionals who take the initiative to gain a view of the big picture, including such areas as finance, marketing and management, set themselves up for a broader and better range of employment opportunities.

Put simply, the most sought-after IT professionals don’t just know how the technology works — they also understand what it’s for. Firms need IT professionals who can work and communicate effectively with colleagues in all departments, from engineers to executives. A solid grasp of business basics, as well as an appreciation of how they drive changes in IT initiatives, is becoming almost as important as core technology skills.

CIOs Value Business Basics

In a Robert Half Technology survey of 1,400 CIOs, 41 percent said they are putting more emphasis on business fundamentals like accounting, finance and general operations when evaluating IT candidates than they were five years ago. Only 3 percent said those fundamentals have become less important.

Why the emphasis on business savvy? Companies of all sizes are beginning to understand the importance of aligning IT with business goals and are looking to hire individuals who understand how the two are intertwined.

In general, IT staff are playing a more prominent role in decisions that affect the entire company. Frequently, technology workers are assuming “integrator” roles, handling such tasks as bringing together diverse resources within the organization and sourcing services externally. Examples include project managers, product managers and business intelligence professionals. Those who can moderate, manage and design processes from inception to completion are highly sought by employers. In addition, job candidates with business knowledge demonstrate the ability and desire to learn skills that aren’t necessarily within their comfort zone, a quality all managers appreciate.

Now that IT teams are working more closely with other departments, many of the most highly valued IT roles, such as business systems analyst and project manager, are business facing and require a big-picture view.

Make Learning a Priority

Of course, business savvy isn’t as easy to quantify or certify as technical abilities. So how do you start building this skill set? First, look inside your current company. Many firms provide employees with professional development opportunities, and yours may be one of them. A number of colleges and professional associations also offer accounting and other business classes specifically designed for IT professionals. Talk to your manager about the resources available to help you pursue these courses, such as tuition reimbursement options or flexible scheduling arrangements.

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For the most meaningful learning opportunities, taking the initiative is key. By volunteering for projects that let you work alongside staff from other departments and on projects that fall outside the traditional IT realm, you set yourself apart from IT staff who keep the blinders on. Meeting with managers, and even “shadowing” colleagues, from other departments are other ways to broaden your perspective.

Taking a business-focused approach to all your projects shows that you’re serious not just about the technology but also about its role in the business as a whole. If you’re a developer, for example, you might arrange, through a product manager, to meet with end users to help ensure that your application meets operational needs.

Keeping Your Doors Open

Business savvy makes you eligible for a wider range of opportunities, whether you plan to stay with one company for years or are looking for a new opportunity. Management roles, in particular, require knowledge of business fundamentals, but job seekers at all levels stand to benefit by developing their business proficiency, including at least a cursory knowledge of finance, marketing and management.

A business background can free you from roles that leave you at the mercy of changes in the industry, such as outsourcing. Today’s hot certification might not mean as much in a few years, but business acumen is evergreen. It’s also transferable if you ever decide to pursue a path outside of IT — in operations or sales, for example.

Despite its growing importance, business savvy doesn’t replace the specialized technical skills businesses need from IT professionals. But it does keep those skills in the proper context. Job candidates who know the industry and business, and can demonstrate their understanding of the company’s core processes, customer base and culture, are in the best position to land the best jobs — and to continue advancing throughout their careers.

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