Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

The New Competencies in IT

12/6/2004
As the mission of IT shops changes from technology mechanic to innovation leader, CIOs must hire a new kind of employee. An excerpt from the book, The New CIO Leader.

Editor's Note: According to the authors of The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results, the chief information officer is at a crossroads, buffeted by two conflicting perspectives of IT. The first views IT primarily as a "chief technology mechanic," irrelevant to competitive advantage and far from the executive suite. The second perspective views IT as the heart of every business process, crucial to innovation, and a key driver to enterprise success.

If the second perspective is your goal, then a new kind of CIO must lead. This person creates a vision of how IT builds organizational success, creates realistic expectations, goals, and governance procedures, and assembles a team that is less about allocating server space and more about working as a creative and influential team.

This excerpt discusses the new personnel competencies that must be reflected as the CIO staffs up in the twenty-first century.

Rune Rasmussen, CIO at Unitor, has been at the forefront of adapting his own and his staff's competencies for this new world. A leading supplier of systems, products, and services to the international marine, cruise, and offshore markets, Unitor is based in Oslo, Norway. It has widespread international operations centered in Houston, Rotterdam, Piraeus, and Singapore. The company is divided into four areas of business: marine chemicals, maintenance and repair, fire protection, and refrigeration services. More than half of Unitor's IT budget is outsourced, mainly for wide-area networking, data center hosting, and entreprise resource planning. And that proportion is expected to grow.

With twenty-seven staff plus CIO Rasmussen at the center, and twelve staff reporting to the business areas, information systems has become strongly centralized. The center subdivides into two distinct groups: a demand-side staff of three and a supply-side staff of twenty-four.

The demand-side staff looks after architecture, performance requirements (including service level agreements and outsource contracting), and project-portfolio management. "These demand-side roles and activities have to be proactive and kept in house, come what may," says Rasmussen. "Otherwise, how can you have influence when business goals are set?"

The supply side takes a process-oriented approach. It reports on system performance and availability and is responsible for such things as security, continuity, recovery, problem solving, support, and training.

What have been the benefits of these changes? Focus, for one, claims Rasmussen. "You're better able to help the business achieve its goals. It's easier to participate in business decision making. And it allows you to spend money where you can best add value."

Increasingly in IS, as in business, what matters is influence and impact, not how many people report to you.

This new IS Lite approach has been quite different from that of traditional IS arrangements. "The profile of IS staff changes completely. You need staff who can deal with relationships and create the right network of contacts inside an [external services] provider," says Rasmussen.

This changing profile of IS has required new skills and competencies, explains Rasmussen: "They weren't there traditionally—particularly on the demand side—so we're trying to build them. It means a personal development program for the managers to boost appropriate behavior. My role has changed, too, in the three years that I've been here. It's much more that of managing decisions, together with [the] business, and developing the skills of the IS management team."

The new IS competencies
IS Lite, particularly strategic sourcing, raises questions about the role of IS. As Rasmussen found, the work of IS changes, but it's no less vital to the enterprise. Many CIOs and their staffs resist IS Lite and strategic sourcing, because they worry that the shift will diminish their importance. These same people fear the changes required for the new IS organization. We understand this fear. But the new CIO leader has to lead his or her staff through this negative reaction, because it's based on a fundamental misconception: that the importance of the CIO and IS staff is waning with these changes (this is the perspective that ends at being a chief technology mechanic), that having more staff means you are more important. Increasingly in IS, as in business, what matters is influence and impact, not how many people report to you.

In fact, IS has a golden opportunity here—to become broker, or contract manager, between ESPs and the enterprise. In this way, IS receives more resources to work on the demand side of IT, where the potential for visibility and credibility is much higher. To seize this opportunity, however, you must lead IS to focus fully on IT-enabling the business. And that requires new competencies.

These key roles, however, don't require the same competencies within IS as do the traditional roles. Whereas before, IS needed primarily technical and application proficiency, it now needs, in equal if not greater measure, business and behavioral skills. If IS is to fulfill its most important role—envisioning and creating an IT-enabled enterprise—then IS staff at virtually all levels must build relationships and credibility. To do that, IS staff members need competencies that allow them to bridge business and technology.

All the required competencies that we've thus far described for you, the CIO, are also required now of IS staff: solid business and industry knowledge, deep knowledge of how your enterprise competes or provides services, and, far from the least, the behavioral skills needed to gain support for initiatives and maintain momentum in innovation. Technical skills certainly remain important, but they've become a base, a given—necessary but no longer sufficient for the IS work to be done.

When we say someone is competent, we mean that the person possesses three characteristics that enable him or her to do a specific task well. The individual has the necessary knowledge, skills, and attributes. Knowledge, of course, is what you know. Skill is the ability to do something, to apply knowledge, to some specific end. Attributes (some call them attitudes or aptitudes) are slightly trickier. Some are inborn, and some are developed. They might include qualities like coordination, patience, visual acuity, or judgment as applied to a given kind of work. They make knowledge useful and allow someone to acquire the skills in the first place.

Analyze the competencies needed for IS jobs
The basics of competency analysis are simple enough and should remain that way. Don't overanalyze, or you'll only overcomplicate things and slow down your progress toward developing the competencies you need in your staff. Once you identify the basic knowledge, skills, and attributes that make an expert truly good at a given job, and then group those elements into appropriate clusters, you'll have the competencies needed for that job. Increasingly, you can use external organizations to work with you on the mechanics of this analysis.6

Once you identify—and measure—the competencies required to carry out a job successfully, you have a blueprint for selecting, training, and developing people to do the work. An example of a valuable IS competency is the ability to think creatively. How to brainstorm is an associated skill. Knowing the benefit of creative thinking and how to engage others in the process is relevant, too. Be sure, for any role, to define the basic competencies needed in three areas: technical, business, and behavioral. Some jobs hinge more on one kind of competence than on other kinds. Lower-level technical jobs, obviously, focus more on the technical competencies. But, as we've said, roles crucial to the new IS focus much more on business and behavioral (e.g., relationship) skills.

Resist the temptation to make things complex.

Consider the difficulty of developing each competency category. Technical competencies are relatively easy to develop. Behavioral competencies are more intrinsic to the individual and much harder to develop. It's this insight that pinpoints the key benefit of competency analysis in IS. It's far more effective to fill roles with individuals who have the right behavioral and business competencies and to build the technology skills on top than it is to work the other way around. That's why the benefits of competency analysis can be so significant. It helps identify the people who will be the easiest to develop and the most productive.

We must reiterate: Resist the temptation to make things complex. Select just a few broad competencies to define a role, and avoid over-analysis. Don't identify large numbers of competencies; your system will soon be incomprehensible and impossible to maintain. Especially avoid complex schemes for measuring how much of a competency is needed. Use a simple point system or a simple spectrum like "basic, proficient, advanced, or coach" to describe the level of proficiency needed.

For its IS group, U.K.-based Boots plc uses a competency that is based on emotional intelligence and that sets out eight leadership characteristics. Each characteristic is divided into individual competencies, for which there are only three proficiency grades: threshold, core, and world-class.

The necessary mix of competencies and grades has been determined for every role in IS, and individuals are evaluated against them. "To be a world-class organization, we needed to make sure we had the right people in a role. Of course, some people saw this as just another way to downsize, but the majority saw it as an opportunity for increased training and development," says Boots's CIO, David Lister.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from The New CIO Leader by Marianne Broadbent and Ellen S. Kitzis. Copyright 2005 by Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Marianne Broadbent is Associate Dean at Melbourne Business School, a Gartner Fellow at Gartner, and coauthor of Leveraging the New Infrastructure (HBS Press, 1998).

Ellen S. Kitzis is Group Vice President of Gartner's Executive Programs.

Gartner's Twenty-five New IS Competencies

by Marianne Broadbent and Ellen S. Kitzis

Gartner Executive Programs (Gartner EXP) has developed a list of twenty-five basic IS competencies, including six technical, nine business-based, and ten behavioral. You can use this list to carry out the competency analysis just described for jobs in your IS organization.

Although this list is unlikely to fit every organization, it can serve as a useful starting point. Regard it as a guide from which you can develop your own tailored set of competencies.

Once you've identified a short list of the competencies that really make a difference for a given role and described each one at four levels of performance, you've created the role profile for that job. A role profile identifies the competencies and corresponding performance levels required to fulfill that role satisfactorily. Don't set unreasonable or unnecessarily high standards. You are better off selecting just the competencies that truly make a difference and set performance levels that are high, but not supremely demanding.

Gartner's Twenty-five New IS Competencies




Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from The New CIO Leader by Marianne Broadbent and Ellen S. Kitzis. Copyright 2005 by Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved.

6. Some of the ideas here are based on work done by Ron Zemke and Susan Zemke, "Putting Competencies to Work," Training, January 1999.