Let’s get down to business

The ability to sit and write code all day won’t get IT workers very far in the business world. Having an understanding of how a business works, how to be a team player and how to communicate effectively are becoming critical skill sets for IT workers who want to climb the corporate ladder.

One of the most important reasons to acquire business knowledge is to understand the impact of what you do on the business, said Linda Boisvert, chair of business programming with NAIT’s School of Professional and Continuing Education in Edmonton. “IT doesn’t exist in isolation,” she said. “It exists in a business environment.”

When you’re doing long-range planning, for example, you have to think outside the box. “That’s where creativity comes in,” she said. “It’s a different skill set.”

When the tech bubble burst, students graduating from IT programs couldn’t get jobs, so they started to look at how they could expand their skill sets. IT workers were faced with the same problem: as jobs were cut and the industry scaled back. Now CIOs and IT managers are looking for employees with a diverse set of skills to better understand how technology fits into the overall requirements of the business.

“What you want to focus on is your communication skills, understanding how businesses work, being able to understand what your business partners will need,” said Curtis Gittens, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research in London, Ont. “You can then translate your technical knowledge into business speak.”

You don’t necessarily have to quit your job and go back to school for two years, he added. You could try to move into a team leadership position at work, which would allow you to interact more with your business unit. But, if you believe you’re not up to snuff with your business analytic skills or don’t have the ability to articulate your ideas within a business context, you may want to consider taking some business communication courses.

NAIT, for example, offers both credit and non-credit programming. IT workers can either take a two-year business diploma or look at other types of training that require less of a time commitment. NAIT’s Business Management Certificate Program offers some 20 non-credit courses that are 16 hours each, such as basic accounting, organizational behaviour and business communications. A student has the option of taking a module over the weekend or as evening classes during the week.

The Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA) has teamed up with the University of Ottawa to offer a new program for “next-generation leaders,” called the Leadership Forum. This involves bringing together a peer group of about 30 people and having them learn from each other.

“It’s done in conjunction with the university so it has the credibility and the feel of a recognized institution,” said John Reid, president and co-chair of CATA in Ottawa, adding that CATA would like to take this model and replicate it across Canada.

While certification is important because it provides employers with a certain level of comfort and a better idea of an individual’s skill sets, said Reid, it’s also important to understand that professional accreditation is only one component of leadership. It all comes back to teamwork and communication skills, and the onus is really on the individual to build these skill sets.

More CIOs and IT managers are requiring these skill sets of their employees, said Gittens. “They don’t want another person who can sit down and code all day,” he said. “They need people who can actually understand the business.”

He recommends finding a mentor – someone on the business side who is knowledgeable about IT. A mentor can provide guidance, he said, and set you in the right direction.

Larger organizations will have career counsellors, who generally have a good pulse on how the industry is evolving. In a smaller organization, an HR department may be able to provide advice, though not to the same extent as a career counsellor – but an HR person might know of somebody who can give you some guidance.

“It’s only limited by your imagination and your determination to reinvent yourself,” said Gittens, “and recast yourself in the mould of a person with business skills.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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