Whose Job Is It to Teach Business Skills?

Any CIO worthy of the title knows that it's not enough just to be technically savvy anymore.

Any CIO worthy of the title knows that it's not enough just to be technically savvy anymore. Business know-how is a must. In fact, some IT leaders say the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme: "Five or ten years ago, it was about getting top-notch technologists, even if they couldn't hold a conversation," says Larry Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association. "Now you see people getting top-level IT jobs with no experience in IT at all."

Yet CIOs are having difficulty explaining the need for business acumen to their underlings, especially those just beginning their careers. More than 61 percent of this month's survey respondents say college graduates are unprepared for the real world of business IT. Not surprisingly, respondents say the skills young hires lack include project management (74 percent), business operations (71 percent) and interpersonal relationships (71 percent). "You still don't really see a cross-pollination of business and technology skills" among IT workers, Bonfante admits.

But IT professionals and academics have differing opinions over whose job it is to teach IT workers how to think less like techies and more like salespeople.

Part of the problem, says Mitch Davis, CIO of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is that IT workers in general still haven't accepted that the distinction between IT and business is disappearing: "IT folks see themselves as IT people only. If a client calls, they think it's not their job. But it is their job. Everyone is part of sales."

Few people understand this more clearly than Jim Cunningham, CIO of the Pennsylvania College of Technology. "As a college we work closely with advisory councils to help us perform curriculum analysis, and they always want three things in the ideal graduate: strong technical skills, really strong interpersonal communications skills, and someone who has a good understanding of the business world."

But delivering all that within a four-year program is unrealistic, he says. "When you look at what you have to cover, trying to come out with a student who has excellence in all those areas, there's no way to do that. There always has to be some compromise."

Donagh Herlihy, CIO of Chicago-based Wrigley Corp., says CIOs shouldn't expect graduates to come armed with business skills, since they lack real-world experience. "I am mystified at the 39 percent who think recent graduates are prepared," he says, adding that businesses should play a more active role in IT education by offering meaningful internships that complement the classroom.

But internships are often difficult to pull off, say both academics and professionals, because students usually devote only one semester to a company—not enough time to learn real business skills. Instead, they say, IT students may need to acquire graduate-level degrees—including MBAs. Judy Stahl, a graduate of Harvard Business School who now serves as its CIO, says an MBA was "hugely helpful" to her in gaining a solid understanding of how IT relates to business.

As an employer, however, Stahl says it's not her responsibility to teach interpersonal skills. "We would hesitate to hire someone who didn't already have them," she says. Indeed, with high turnover in IT—not to mention the number of jobs now being outsourced—some corporations hesitate to invest in employees who may be here today but gone tomorrow. "It's a Catch-22," says W. Ken Woo, director of IT and CIO at Northwestern University's School of Law. "You train them and then they leave."

But ongoing training is key to retaining talent, Wrigley's Herlihy says, and that's especially important as the economy picks up. "IT staff are typically the least loyal because they have less affinity with the product and the company and more affinity with the technology," says Herlihy. "Investing in their skills—that will always keep IT people."

While 77 percent of respondents report that their firms have no recruiting program in place for young professionals, those who do recruit say building relationships with employees early in their careers allows the company to continually rejuvenate itself. "Recent graduates are probably better prepared technically than the person who has been in the profession for a long time," says Bob Rapp, vice president and CIO of Frontier Airlines Inc., whose company actively recruits recent graduates.

But employees also must take the initiative, says Victor Perez, vice president of IT at cable network Starz Encore Group LLC, based in Englewood, Colo. While he agrees that on-the-job training is a must, Perez is willing to go only so far for the employee who doesn't actively pursue growth. "I help those who help themselves," he says. "I am not going to force someone to go to school if they don't want to do it. At the end of the day, I need all kinds of people—I need people who are happy to program all their lives and the ones who aspire to lead."

This article was originally published on 11-01-2004
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