The Evolving Skill Set of the Information Worker

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The number-one rule for today’s information workers is this: Add value to the business –don’t limit yourself to the bits and bytes. Today’s information worker needs to be more business focused and possess a set of soft skills in addition to technical know-how.

The evolving skill set reflects the rapid-fire trends that have been impacting business for much of the last decade. We’ve been through the dot-com boom and subsequent bust, a massive infrastructure upgrade driven by Y2K concerns over outdated technology, the post 9/11 impact on travel, and the global financial crisis and credit crunch. Technology has shifted as well, with mobile applications and smartphones, SaaS and cloud computing, virtualization, storage innovations, multicore servers and myriad other technological advances.

It’s no wonder that the information worker is seeing revisions to the job role faster than he or she can keep up with the changes.

Becoming More Business Focused

The recent global financial crisis compelled CEOs and other business leaders to call upon IT to take on a wide set of responsibilities for achieving business goals. Gone are the days when the job revolved around three-year desktop refresh cycles, implementing server upgrades and expanding data centers. Today, the call is for IT leaders to collaborate with business functions and determine how to address broader business needs. More companies are outsourcing the “keep the lights on” IT functions, such as desktop support and server refreshes, and asking IT to focus on business goals.

For example, if you work for a consumer packaged goods firm, your role will likely evolve (if it hasn’t already) to the point where you’ll work with marketing to improve analytics and sell more cans of soup or bars of soap. If you work for a distributor or supply chain company, you may be called on to implement technologies that improve quality of data, optimize shipping schedules or trucking routes, or even basics like ensuring that inventory and ordering systems link to one another.

The greatest thing that IT can bring to this “work with the business” initiative is developing a strong understanding of how the technology relates to business needs. No matter what your industry, the trend is clear – you’ll be working more closely with people throughout your organization.

Wither Certifications? The Growing Importance of Soft Skills

As your job evolves from working in the data center to working with the lines of business, some of the traditional skill sets become less important, and some additional requirements are taking their place. It used to be that an IT professional with the right Cisco, Microsoft or project management professional certification could write his or her own ticket.

Now firms need their IT staff to be well versed in soft skills – communications skills (interpersonal – not data networking), presentation skills, listening and organization. Communication skills are especially important. The ability to articulate an idea to non-IT professionals is not easy. Drop the jargon and start explaining how some element of your IT organization impacts the business.

The recent U.S. financial crisis impacts the IT worker – for a not-so-obvious reason. Many tech professionals who are out of work have pursued a technology certification while unemployed. This has caused firms to become very specific about the experiences they’re looking for. While technology skill requirements are still specific, the majority of firms don’t necessarily care about the specific certification. They want to know whether the person actually has the skills and experiences to get the job done.

A good example is the market for PMPs. So many in-transition workers have focused on getting their PMP certification that the certification by itself is not as valuable as it once was. IT professionals need to couple the certification with relevant work experiences – experience is what makes the difference. Today more companies will consider a candidate without a PMP.

Don’t get a PMP just to “get ahead.” If you’re truly interested in process management, the PMP may enhance your on-the-job skills. But if you’re serious about being a transformative IT leader, an MBA or other degree may be more important to future employers. That goes for the technologies that are hot as well – collaboration tools like SharePoint and .NET are still hot, as is Windows, but combine the IT certification with solid business training or experience.

The ability to develop or leverage personal networks and become more connected across the business realm is also important. This need is driven by the changes in your company’s HR department. They’ve likely been cut as well, therefore the ability for firms to sort through an influx of hundreds of resumes and choose top candidates is weaker. Increasingly, companies rely on personal networks to help with staffing. If you’re not reaching out to the community – chapters of IT groups, networking organizations, local technology associations – you may be missing a chance to influence your company’s growth.

The key to success is continuing education – more people are engaging in some form of continuing education because they are in transition. Those who are employed need to keep up. Pursue dual professional tracks, if appropriate for your career goals – ultimately, you need to understand what you want to do. Climbing the ladder in IT is not just learning how to manage people or take on multiple projects – you need to become business savvy.

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