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Technical Skills No Longer Matter

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Timothy M. Chester (timothy.chester@pepperdine.edu) is Vice Provost for Academic Administration and Chief Information Officer at Pepperdine University.

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"Those of us in information technology must begin to acknowledge that our long-term success will be based on our willingness to accept a new maxim: that technical skills no longer matter."

In the last year, the Wall Street Journal questioned the skill sets of CIOs, the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the downgrading of the CIO position at several universities, and the Harvard Business Review questioned whether IT organizations will survive in their current form.1 Far too often, the response of IT thought leaders was to rebut, belittle, or ignore these criticisms. I'm convinced that those of us in information technology must begin to take them seriously and acknowledge that our long-term success will be based on our willingness to accept a new maxim: that technical skills no longer matter.

In the current economic climate, the risks of centering organizational performance on technical skills are magnified. When IT organizations think and act in ways that communicate "IT is really about IT," this can have a profound—and negative—effect on those outside IT. A gap may be created that, if left unchecked, can grow until it eventually causes the IT organization to lose control over its own purpose and destiny. When this occurs, the role of chief information officer may regress to the role of utility service manager.

Why Technical Skills No Longer Matter

In 2003, Nicholas Carr published his article "IT Doesn't Matter."2 Although the debate that he provoked occasionally became histrionic, Carr was simply recognizing the obvious: technology alone is no longer sufficient to ensure success in a competitive marketplace. Technology may be necessary in the sense that it can provide an important foundation for enabling efficient operations, productive employees, and collaboration, but technology, on its own, no longer provides competitive advantages.

The same is true of technical skills for IT organizations. Technology is foundational, but technical skills are no longer sufficient to ensure that the delivery of technology services is consistent, effective, reliable, and responsive to end users' needs. Technical skills are quite different from competencies. Competencies—such as accountability or process orientation—are some of the traits that separate high performers from low performers. In the eyes of those outside the IT organization, competencies are inexorably linked to effectiveness.

By elevating competencies over technical skills, an IT organization becomes well positioned to increase the value of the technology that it delivers. Individuals leading the IT organization are viewed as institutional "thought leaders" and become advocates for the effective delivery and use of IT services. Their authority and credibility derive from the exceptional reputation of the IT organization in providing consistent, reliable, and responsive IT services. This reputation is best demonstrated and reinforced through regular cycles of assessment and strategic planning.

By contrast, an IT organization that centers on technical skills finds itself playing the role of utility provider. This situation is easily recognizable when the role of the IT thought leader at the executive level is played by someone other than the CIO. In this case, the IT organization may be at risk of becoming more reactive, if the basis of its credibility becomes too dependent on its ability to garner goodwill. Saying "yes" when saying "no" is more prudent leads to a repeating cycle of overcommitment and underperformance, until someone decides that it is time, once again, to make a leadership change and reorganize the IT department.

Many IT leaders argue that the latter situation is precisely why presidents and provosts must recognize the need for technology leadership at the executive table. However, authority and credibility derived solely from an organizational chart do not provide a viable foundation for effective IT leaders or IT organizations. Effectiveness rests on successfully mastering role performance up the "IT Value Curve.3

Competencies and the IT Value Curve

Although Carr was right to draw attention to the transactional role for IT organizations, with its focus on consistency, efficiency, process, responsiveness, reliability, and standardization, other IT thought leaders have articulated the aspirational, thought-leader role, with its focus on building the alliances and partnerships necessary for innovation or organizational change. Both the transactional and the thought-leader roles are well understood within the discipline, yet we often think of them as all-or-nothing propositions. This is not the case. The right questions to ask are how can IT organizations progressively mature from the transactional to the thought-leader role and how can they define the performance attributes that allow them to do so. The IT Value Curve can help IT leaders answer these questions.

Putting these two roles within context requires an understanding of the twin concepts of value and versatility. The concept of value can be best understood as the difference between things that are important and things that have transformative potential. The concept of versatility highlights the difference between those who build and deliver technology and those who engage others around the effective use of technology. If mapped to a grid, these concepts form an IT Value Curve with "versatility of performance" along the horizontal axis and "value of contribution" along the vertical axis. The transactional role occupies the lower left-hand quadrant of the IT Value Curve, with its emphasis on skills-based technology services that are important but not strategic. The thought-leader role, in contrast, occupies the upper right-hand quadrant and emphasizes the transformative power of technology through engagement and evangelism.

Competencies enable the successful role performance up the IT Value Curve. For example, for the transactional role, expectations are centered on the delivery of consistent, reliable, efficient, and responsive IT services. Yet though IT knowledge is necessary, competencies—such as accountability, initiative, problem-solving capabilities, teamwork, and thoroughness—define success in the eyes of those outside IT and form the necessary basis for successful role performance at the transactional level.

As performance matures up the IT Value Curve, other competencies provide the basis for successful role performance. When IT leaders play a consultative role with those outside the IT organization, competencies such as analytical thinking, business process knowledge, communication of results, openness to learning, and process orientation are key. When IT leaders engage and advise others, competencies such as business enterprise knowledge, relationship building, the ability to develop others, emotional intelligence, and the capacity to empower others are vital to successful performance. At the top of the IT Value Curve, thought leaders are those who have mastered the competencies of change advocacy and strategic planning.

Successful performance up the IT Value Curve—from the transactional role to the consultative role, from the consultative role to the advisory role, and from the advisory role to the thought-leader role—depends on the credibility derived from strong role performance down the IT Value Curve. For example, no individuals or organizations can sustainably perform the advisory or thought-leader roles over the long term when there are questions about their ability to provide reliable transactional or consultative IT services, regardless of their position on the executive organizational chart.

A Competency-Focused Leadership Agenda

Following are five suggestions for creating a competency-based leadership agenda that will help an IT organization perform up the IT Value Curve.

  1. Focus on completing unfinished business. Realize that there is always a choice between doing new things and doing old things better. Choose the latter. Refuse to let the lure of new projects crowd out the ability to fully exploit previous investments. The technically oriented organization is one that relentlessly chases new projects, often irritating end users, who tend to prefer the refinement and improvement of existing services.
  2. Break the cycle of overcommitment and underperformance. Building a reputation for consistent, responsive, reliable, and effective transactional services is necessary for effective and sustainable performance up the IT Value Curve. This requires the ability to focus. IT organizations must learn how to say "no" without relying exclusively on positional authority. Using evidence to set priorities can help.
  3. Adjust current human resources practices. Hire, assess, and retain staff based on competencies rather than on technical skills. Drop the phrase "Degree in computer science or equivalent required" from job-announcement notices. Hire employees at the lower levels of the organization, teach them the technical skills they need, and aggressively promote them from within, whenever possible. Doing so will ensure that the staff has the right competencies, while reducing pressure on the salary budget.
  4. Begin brokering services instead of delivering them. Transactional services are prime candidates for outsourcing because brokering reliable, consistent, and responsive services on a contractual basis is often easier than managing them in-house. However, consider outsourcing opportunities only when they offer substantially improved economies of scale, thereby reducing costs and freeing up resources that can be invested up the IT Value Curve.
  5. Take advantage of natural alliances. Building alliances is a key leadership competency. Strategic alliances for IT leaders should include the heads of library services, institutional research and planning, and research support (at research-focused institutions). Building relationships with the heads of these areas can lead to new opportunities up the IT Value Curve. In cases where economic circumstances require service consolidation, these alliances are a natural fit for IT.

By emphasizing competencies above technical skills, this leadership agenda can provide a basis for performing up the IT Value Curve in a way that increases the effective delivery and use of technology. The promise of such an agenda is the reason IT leaders became chief information officers, vice presidents, vice chancellors, and vice provosts. If technical skills are allowed to predominate, the CIO role can diminish until it once again becomes a utility provider. When that happens, tearing down and rebuilding the IT department under new leadership is often the only way forward.

Notes

1. Peter S. Delisi, Dennis Moberg, and Ronald Danielson, "Why CIOs Are Last Among Equals," Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2010; Jeffrey R. Young, "College 2.0: The Incredible Shrinking CIO," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2010; Susan Cramm, "What Does the Future Hold for IT?," Harvard Business Review Blogs, April 28, 2010.

2. Nicholas G. Carr, "IT Doesn't Matter," Harvard Business Review, May 2003.

3. The concept of the "IT Value Curve" owes its inspiration to several similar, but unique, perspectives: Carr, "IT Doesn't Matter"; Marianne Broadbent and Ellen S. Kitzis, The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005); Gregory A. Jackson, "A CIO's Question: Will You Still Need Me When I'm 64?," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2004; Colleen M. Young, Bill Rosser, and Diane Morello, "How to Climb the IS Credibility Curve," Gartner Research, October 8, 2002; and work by Pepperdine University and David Pack of Gartner Research, as discussed in Timothy M. Chester, "Competency-Based Career Ladders for IT Professionals," EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) Research Bulletin, June 30, 2009.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 1 (January/February 2011)

Timothy M. Chester

Dr. Timothy M. Chester is Chief Information Officer at the University of Georgia. In this capacity, he is responsible for the strategic direction and management of the University's information technology resources and services. Dr. Chester has published and advocates in the areas of leadership strategy and promotion of organizational change for information technology organizations in higher education. He also has extensive experience with application integration in complex enterprise environments and in the implementation of technology services for international campuses and emergency operations. His writings and commentary are numerous and have been published by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, CIO Magazine, Campus Technology, and EDUCAUSE Quarterly.

 

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5 Comments

Technical Skills No Longer Matter ... To Sime

Dr. Chester,

I find your points regarding the diminishing significance of technical skills at the IT leadership, or thought leadership, level of interest. At the same time, I think technical kills matter a great deal.

As you are aware (and you have quoted my article on this matter in several venues), I believe that the role of the thought leader is the role of the CIO.

I also believe that managing/leading IT infrastructure along with all its fiscal requirements is not the role of the CIO, but of a chief technology officer, with an equal, but independent, reporting role from the CIO.

You respectfully disagree with this dichotomy, supporting the position of the integrated CIO -- thought leader and chief technology officer. You are far from alone, as all CIO's who have commented on the article support the integrated CIO role (accepting my overall premise regarding the role of IT in the academic enterprise and rejecting my proposed organizational structure.)

For others reading these comments, here is a link to "Rethinking the IT Core," published in EDUCAUSE Quarterly:

http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/RethinkingtheITCore/174596

 

 

Posted by: bert55 on January 21, 2012

Technical skills and technical jobs

Tim,

Thank you for sharing your views. I absolutely agree that technical skills alone are not sufficient for success in IT. And the qualities listed as competencies above are valuable in any employee. 

However, I disagree with the premise that you can hire non-technical people and easily teach them to become technical people (point 3 of "A Competency-Focused Leadership Agenda"). A "Degree in computer science or equivalent" is not a guarantee that the employee will be successful. But the value of training is limited by the trainee's ability to comprehend and apply the material. Employees who lack the necessary technical background have a much longer journey to make before they can be productive members of the technical team. Some will never make it. 

Of course there are positions in an IT organization which do not require a technical background. In my department, good business analysts are as essential for success as good developers. But I would argue that positions which require little to no technical skills are not, in fact, technical positions, and that there is a fundamental difference between technical and non-technical positions.

Regards,

John
 

Posted by: John Horton on February 14, 2011

don't fall for the business analyst - engineering dichtomy

Hi John,

I think you are saying that it is very difficult to fill a senior level technical position with someone without a strong technical background and expect them to perform at a senior level. I agree with you  - you are exactly right. But, what I am articulating is a more holistic professional development approach where you avoid (again not absolute, exceptions can be made) hiring senior level technical staff based on their technical skills. What you do instead is always hire at the entry level based on competencies and then you develop those staff, teaching them the technology skills they need, and then promote them aggressively as more senior level technical positions open up. You have to be very conscious and deliberate about your hiring practices. As I mentioned to Leah, this was an approach pioneered at the University of Texas by their COO at the time Randy Ebeling. This is a pattern I learned from their example and I know they were very successful with it. As software has gotten easier to administer, more automated, more cloud-based, the need for purely technically oriented staff at institutions such as ours will continue to diminish. What we need are individuals with more hybrid abilities that can engage and convene others up the IT Value Curve; and frankly, I would point to you personally as one such example

Best,

Tim

Posted by: accidentalcio on February 16, 2011

what's easier to teach?

Excellent points Tim.  I absolutely agree that mastering competencies, not technical skills, is what propels organizations to a more effective level of maturity.  In light of this, I believe that technical skills still "matter."  However, they're more a means to an end now, not the end.  They are, as you say, foundational.  So I'm curious: would you contend that it's easier to teach a technical person "thought leadership" or to teach a though-leader technology?  Should we be focusing more on hiring people with the potential for thought leadership even if they may not have the technical skills early on?

Posted by: lericson on February 10, 2011

Hi Leah!

Hi Leah!

Very good feedback and question. Article titles are chosen to be thought provoking and as you noted, my argument is that technical skills may be necessary but they are no longer sufficient to ensure the effective delivery and use of technology at an institutional level. In regards to the question whether it is easier to teach technical staff to perform up the value curve or hire non-technical staff and teach them technology, I certainly staked out the position in the article that it is the latter that is preferable (but not absolute). BTW, this is a model that was pioneered by Randy Ebeling at the University of Texas a long time ago - their hiring philosophy (as I understood it then) was to hire for competencies and teach individuals the technical skills they needed to do their job. As technology has become more automated, more configurable, and easier to admin and use (and the cloud is accelerating these trends) this approach is becoming more prevalent.

Now, don't take this to mean that I don't believe that you can do the opposite - we have had some real success at Pepperdine in this regard. Our IT Leadership Council is a group that is largely made up of technically oriented staff who are very close to the front lines. Over the past two years, and under the leadership of our Deputy CIO, they have developed and matured as a group to the point, by responding the the challenges articulated in this piece, where they are increasingly playing the advisory and consultative role throughout the institution. They no longer just take orders from our leadership team, but are consciously and proactively reflecting on strategic opportunities and challenges facing the institution and how information technology can be utilized to best respond. Then, as advisors and thought leaders we can credibly convene discussions around these topics. But, that credibly derives from two things: a) the fact that we have a reputation for 'making the trains run on time'; and b) that when convening these conversations we do so from an  end user, competency focused point of view and not the view of a technologically centric IT organization. That I believe is the reason for their success and thus the title for the piece.

BTW - more on this approach can be found by looking at two pieces I wrote for ECAR: "Competency based Career Ladders for IT Professionals" and "Assessing What Faculty, Students, and Staff Expect from Information Technology Organizations in Higher Education".

Best,

Tim

Posted by: accidentalcio on February 10, 2011

 

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