The days when the IT department floated, satellite-like, in the orbit of a company’s core functions, are over.
A new Cisco report on the state of IT training and hiring confirms that companies now expect IT teams to be more than keepers of data, or adept troubleshooters, tucked away somewhere on the organization’s periphery. Instead, they’re as central to a company’s strategy as any other unit.
However, C-suite and other high-level executives interviewed for Cisco’s survey said IT departments are missing the skill most necessary to for them to inhabit this new role: business acumen.
Cisco interviewed both IT and non-IT decision makers at more than 600 companies, half in Europe, half in North America, to produce “Next-Generation IT Talent Strategies.” The research focused exclusively on large firms—those that generate $1 billion in revenue annually, as a minimum—across a range of industries.
It found that 93% of respondents feel that an IT talent gap was “preventing them from transforming fast enough” in our era of digital disruption. Among those surveyed, 42% said business savvy was a significant worry, making this a slightly more commonly shared concern than a gap in soft skills, which are also in high demand and scarce supply. Together, concerns about business acumen and soft skills outpaced concerns about the absence of what Cisco labelled technical skills (the ability to design and manage and deploy technical initiatives) and specific tech expertise (such as cloud, enterprise architecture or big data skills).
These findings mirror those from other formal and informal surveys, and insights from experts like Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, who recently warned that people are over-emphasizing engineering talent. The more future-proof skills are written communication, oral communication, team-building, and leadership skills, according to Weiner, who spoke at a Wired forum on the future of work last fall. “As powerful as AI will ultimately become and is becoming, we’re still a ways away from computers being able to replicate and replace human interaction and human touch,” he said, explaining, “So there’s a wonderful incentive for people to develop these skills because those jobs going to be more stable for a longer period of time.”
Likewise, the Cisco report warns that non-tech skills will grow in importance for IT professionals, as artificial intelligence takes over rote IT tasks.
Many companies are already building mixed teams to help IT employees sharpen their business savvy, the report said, and to give them more practice developing soft skills—like the ability to lead teams, collaborate, and think critically—while non-tech workers gain tech understanding. Cisco’s research pointed to one such group at Southwire, a cable manufacturer based in Georgia, whose CIO created an IT team comprised of a former plant manager and a transfer from sales, in addition to IT workers, while also sending a couple of IT employees to the business side. Both rotations resulted in “a richer dialogue, with innovation and ideas stemming from cross-functional cooperation,” according to the report. Cisco itself runs an “IT advisor” program, which links IT professionals with customer accounts, making business strategies and needs more visible to everyone.
Anyone already in IT or considering it for the future will applaud one other finding in the report: This next stage of IT development will require respecting and compensating IT professionals accordingly. To get there, respondents said, CIOs should feel called upon to rebrand the role of IT and its employees within their organizations, so that the value of information technology work is understood by everyone, including IT professionals themselves.
“The way CIOs compensate, assess, and measure the performance of IT has not involved business acumen,” Martha Heller, CEO, Heller Search Associates, an executive search firm, told Cisco’s researchers. “A compensation plan is a behavioral plan, and if you’re never compensated to get smart about the business, you won’t do it.”
Some tech watchers would argue for an even more extreme position: Ditch the IT department entirely, and weave IT into the fabric of a company. That’s the suggestion from research scientists at MIT who recently conducted their own in-depth interviews with tech leaders. “It’s no longer about aligning IT with the business,” Joe Peppard, the lead scientist on that survey, explained in a news release. “That sort of sets you up to fail, because in many ways, it suggests that technology is subservient to business,” he explained, adding that “[i]t doesn’t recognize that today, in a digital world, technology provides tremendous opportunity to actually shape not just the strategic direction of an organization but meet operational ambitions too.”