All business. That’s what network professionals need to be in 2008 if they want to have the most profound impact at their companies.

The hottest skills for IT professionals to develop center on business acumen rather than deeper technical expertise. Project management, financial analysis and communications skills are in big demand, according to CIOs, recruiters and IT staffing specialists.

Network professionals still need a solid technical foundation, of course. But with limited time for professional development, they should hone their business skills rather than pursue additional technical certifications, experts recommend.

“Companies love finding employees who can make sure that technology is being used to deliver business value,” says Matt Colarusso, branch manager with Sapphire National Recruiting in Woburn, Mass. “They are always looking for people who can communicate, who can bring together the technical side with the business side and the customer side.” “Technical skills are important, but companies need people who know how to apply them,” says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, which conducts IT salary surveys nationwide. “Companies need people who understand how to move the business forward, who have good instincts and a lot of business knowledge…It’s all about execution.”

A recent survey of 130 CIOs and IT executives conducted by the Society for Information Management (SIM) found that the top five skills for mid-level IT hires are all business related. These include: ethics/tolerance, problem solving, written/oral communication, collaboration and project leadership.

The SIM survey shows that business skills are needed further down the IT organizational chart, says Steve Pickett, immediate past president of SIM and chairman of the SIM Foundation. “More and more IT people are dealing directly with their counterparts in the business. It’s no longer just the top IT executives,” says Pickett, who also is CIO of Penske, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

One of the top CIO priorities was building business skills in the IT department, the SIM survey found. In 17 years, this priority had never before been listed among CIOs’ top 10 concerns.

IT professionals “need to be able to dissect a business process and understand what components of a business process will be impacted by technology,” Pickett says. “Then they need to be able to sell the technology. They need pretty good communications skills, pretty good organizational skills and pretty good translation skills to do that.”

What business skills to develop

Increasingly, CIOs say they need equally strong technical and business skills on their IT staffs.

Jeff Ton, vice president of enterprise processes, information and technology at Lauth Property Group in Indianapolis, says he’s emphasizing communication and teaching skills in his hiring for 2008.

“We’re finding good technicians, but the typical technician likes to sit with their face to the computer and just code all day,” Ton says. “We really need folks who are willing and able to get out and interact with the business leaders. We’re trying to continue to break down the walls between the business line folks and the technology employees.”

Another key business skill that IT professionals should develop in 2008 is project management, experts agree. Some CIOs recommend getting certified by an organization such as the Project Management Institute.

“Project management skills are very, very helpful,” says Henry Eckstein, CIO of York Insurance Services Group, in Parsippany, N.J.. “You’re more likely to be able to trust somebody to handle complex projects if they have project management skills, not just if they know how to use Microsoft Project.”

Within the last two years, Sapphire’s biggest clients have started requesting IT professionals be trained in Six Sigma, a statistical technique developed in the manufacturing industry that is being applied in IT departments for managing projects, improving processes and cutting costs, Colarusso says.

Bob Veeneman, director of IT integrated planning at Blue Shield of California, a health insurer in San Francisco, says he’s looking for IT professionals who understand business processes.

“It helps the IT organization to deal better with the business when the business knows that the IT person they’re looking at actually has knowledge and maybe even experience in their business area,” Veeneman says. “We used to have IT people who were well versed in IT solutions, who would say to build or buy this application. The business is saying that’s not good enough.”

That’s why Blue Shield of California’s CIO Elinor McKinnon is creating an internship program that will let key IT professionals rotate into business units.

“It may make sense for us to recruit for our operations inside the organization by going over to our business partners and asking them to profile people who over the years have acquired systems knowledge and own a business process and then bring them over to the IT world,” Veeneman adds.

Blue Shield of California also is training 50 IT directors and managers in Version 3.0 of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), an IT management technique. “If we invest in their education and applying the ITIL service catalog, we’re going to get managers who understand how to compute the cost of their business or IT function,” Veeneman says.

Finding the right balance

The key for network professionals is to strike the right balance between keeping their technical skills current and polishing their general business skills, experts say.

“If you have business skills but you don’t have the technical skills, you’re going to come up with the wrong technical answer,” Pickett says. “Someone who has technical skills and can learn business is probably the preferable choice.”

IT folks don’t need MBAs, Veeneman says, but they do need to understand how business works.

“We’re asking our IT people: How do you know there’s a bona fide return on investment? What would you do at the end of your effort to explain what benefits were realized as a result of doing this effort?” Veeneman says. “Some IT folks say: ‘Why should I have to do this?’ But that’s the business.”

So at the end of the day, what’s more important for IT professionals: business or technical skills?

“Business skills are becoming equally important because you have to be selling your projects and justifying your expenditures and doing presentations,” York’s Eckstein says. “You have to understand how to read a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement. You need effective technical writing skills because there is a lot of interaction with the business….I’d rather have a person with strong business skills than strong programming skills.”

“If I had to pick one, I’d say business skills,” Lauth’s Ton agrees. “I don’t want to trivialize learning the technology, but I think the way that technology is evolving is becoming more mainstream. The skills of understanding the business and being able to apply technology to the business are paramount.”

IT technical skills that still matterWhile business acumen may help you finesse your next great career move, technical skills are still important, particularly in VoIP and security.

At Sapphire National Recruiting, the number of client requests for VoIP positions increased more than threefold between 2006 and 2007, and the number of security positions is up 153% during the same timeframe, says Matt Colarusso, a branch manager for the Woburn, Mass., firm. (read our archived career chat with Colarusso).

“Cisco is the highest demand. We definitely see demand for VoIP, and we see demand for network administrators who understand all parts of the network: the LANs, WANs, voice, Internet and how they all work together,” Colarusso says. “Our clients are interested in people who have done VoIP implementations.” Plus, the demand for network professionals with security expertise has “hit us in the face in the last 12 months,” Colarusso says. “I don’t remember that being in the forefront in the last two quarters of last year.”

“Network security management is huge,” agrees David Foote, president of Foote Partners, which conducts IT salary surveys nationwide. “In terms of great networking skills that are going to help your career, I’m seeing VoIP, unified communications, convergence and virtualization. I’m also seeing mobile user support…and the ability to support hybrid networks, with Unix, Windows and Linux.”

Henry Eckstein, CIO of York Insurance Services Group in Parsippany, N.J., says the technical skills he needs most on his IT staff are virtualization, storage-area networking and network security.

“Our focus is on higher-level skill sets — five to 10 years of experience as opposed to two or three,” Eckstein says. “The experience matters as much as the skill sets. Certifications are important, but we’ve got a lot of super people who didn’t necessarily get their certifications or who let them lapse.” Foote recommends that network professionals develop broad technical skills, rather than becoming experts in one area.

“If you’re going to be a technical specialist, you can’t get away with being deep in one area,” Foote says. “You’re going to need to be able to work across the enterprise and across several platforms…God forbid if you are too narrowly focused.”

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