Focus on your IT staffing strengths

Sunday Aug 1st 1999 by Mary Brandel
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In the next couple of years, more businesses will outsource their technical positions making IT a bastion of business strategy.


I spoke with a friend recently who told me she hadn't been to a grocery store in months--thanks to the use of an Internet-based grocery-shopping service. The same friend couldn't remember the last time she'd touched a vacuum cleaner either (a housecleaner takes care of that).

Not that this is unusual. Families with two parents who work outside the home have learned that they cannot "do it all," at least not well. As men and women try--and fail--to be everything to everyone, they learn to farm out the household tasks that "anyone" could do, freeing them to focus on what is most important to the family.

That practice seems to be paralleled in the IT world. In the next three to four years, businesses will increasingly outsource the purely technical IT positions, according to Linda Pittenger, president and CEO of people3 Inc., a consulting firm in Somerset, N.J. Full-time IT staff will remain and become more strategy-, architecture-, and business process-oriented.

"We can't be all things to all people, and we need to decide which competencies are key to us."--Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s Bill Brannen
"Today, 65% of people in IT organizations are technical, and 35% are business/management folks. We see that flipping in two years," she says. In other words, 65% of the staff will understand things like strategy and supply chain management, while the remaining 35% will be mid- to high-ranking technical staff. In a nutshell, Pittenger says, "companies will keep people with contextual skills, things unique to the company, and they'll outsource generic positions, like programmers."

What's in and what's out

When you consider the fast pace of technology change, this makes a lot of sense. No one can excel in all areas of IT, so it's best to focus on a few chosen competencies and outsource the rest. Bill Brannen, director of workgroup transformation within the IT department at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Hoffman Estates, Ill., says it best: "We can't be all things to all people, and we need to decide which competencies are key to us." He adds, "I imagine there will be some skills we decide to outsource because it's not to our advantage to retain these skills in-house."

Sears is still in the midst of developing its competency model. But some of the skill areas that it has identified as being important to the company include the ability to develop and understand the overall technical and applications architecture, systems integration, strategic planning, financial management, project management, and electronic commerce.

Likewise, Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc. decided to outsource all aspects of its IT department except application development, which it views as an area that will deliver a competitive advantage.

Like many companies, Sears is choosing to focus on competencies oriented to its particular business or industry. There are a few reasons for this. One, business changes more slowly than technology. If you hire 10 Visual Basic programmers today, you might need to retrain them in a new technology tomorrow. The day after that, they could walk out the door for a higher paying job. As a result, companies are a little less eager to make training investments.

A second reason is the value companies place on IT employees who understand the way their business works. That's just not something you can go out and buy. "You want to pay for someone who's not a doer but a planner," Pittenger says. "You want to spend more time focusing on the person who's going to build the database model, not create the database."


Other in-demand skills are change advocacy, financial management, and the ability to apply emerging technologies to creating new markets and new revenue opportunities.

"Companies will keep people with contextual skills, things unique to the company, and they'll outsource generic positions, like programmers."--people3 Inc.'s Linda Pittenger
And of course there are plenty of other reasons to outsource technical staff: headcount reduction, a perceived increase in flexibility, fewer staffing headaches. "Historically, IT has been a really vexing discipline," says Michael Mah a managing partner at software developer QSM Associates Inc. in Springfield, Mass., and a senior consultant in application delivery for Cutter Consortium, a research group based in Arlington, Mass. "Projects are continually late and over budget, and they want somebody else to have those headaches," he says. With the productivity gains promised by outsourcers, companies are increasingly willing to sign on the dotted line.

A new type of IT department

Now, you might say this is a negative trend for IT professionals, some of whom may not be willing to turn in their corporate badge for the contractor's or outsourcer's way of life. "Some technical people are very excited about spending their life as a contractor," Pittenger says. "Others say that's b-s and 'my company is never going to do that.'"

Not to over-generalize, but according to Pittenger, employees in their 20s "tend to see life as multiple assignments in multiple companies. Baby boomers see it as multiple assignments in one company."

But there's a danger that companies will throw out the baby with the bathwater, says Mah. "It's dangerous if you give up people who know about the nuts and bolts of IT," he says. In order to effectively manage the outsourcer or group of contractors, "you still have to have subject matter experts." These can be people with knowledge of platforms, software development life cycles, or architecture issues.

After all, Mah says, you may not be coding anymore, but you're managing a supplier that has to meet very ambitious deadlines, delivering systems with a high degree of reliability and within budget. "To oversee that, you still need sophisticated knowledge of how application development projects behave."

With that warning in mind, this anticipated outsourcing trend may well create a new type of IT department, one that is recognized as a business driver. And that has to be good for the profession. "If IT can have greater business impact, that's good for all of us," says Vaughan Merlyn, a vice president at the Concours Group, an IT consultancy in Kingwood, Texas. //

Mary Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass., specializing in business applications of technology. She can be reached at marybrandel@ncounty.net.


 


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