16 Jan Scott Converse, UW-Madison School of Business, on IT workforce development
Editor’s note: As the director of technology programs for the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, Scott Converse is at the forefront of trends in information technology workforce development. In part one of this interview, he talks about the market need for courses that help IT professionals in their progression from technologist to manager or CIO. Look for part two next week.
Scott Converse also is a featured speaker at the Fusion 2007 CEO-CIO Symposium.
WTN: To what extent are information technology career trends shaping the courses you’re teaching?
Converse: What we have seen, both within the School of Business and the College of Engineering, is an audience whose continuing education and professional development needs haven’t really been met. Those are folks in technical-professional areas. They have not taken advantage of some of the School of Business management offerings, I think primarily because the courses are seen by technical professionals as being too soft science, people skills-oriented and not enough into the technical disciplines. And within the College of Engineering, the professional development courses are seen as specific topics for a specific problem, and not general enough for individuals’ long-term professional development.
And so we sat down, the School of Business with the College of Engineering, to try to come up with a plan for, okay, what we are doing here that’s not meeting their needs and how could we develop something? And we talked to individuals, we talked to companies, and we ended up with this thing called the Technical Leadership Certificate Series, which is a menu of courses that help people who are in technical professions that have just moved from a hands-on type role, where they were an engineer or a researcher or IT professional manager, IT professional technologist, and now have been assigned some sort of management or leadership position, whether it’s managing people or projects or resources.
We came up with a curriculum that tries to help them better handle those changing roles and responsibilities that they have. It integrates both courses from the College of Engineering and the School of Business.
WTN: How about basic, general business knowledge for IT professionals? Is that a need that’s out there right how?
Converse: Absolutely. When I talk to the leaders within organizations, and we’re trying to develop their workforce, one of the big concerns that they have is it’s not difficult to find technologists who are intimately aware of the technology they work on, whether it’s server administration or network security or portal development – any technology. Finding technologists within the organization that are excellent at that specific aspect of their jobs can be done. The problem that many directors and CIOs are experiencing is how do you make a technologist into both a very capable technologist and business analyst?
Somebody who can straddle the fence and speak both the language of the information technology with which they are familiar, and the language of their functional peers in the marketing or finance department or human resources area. How do you make them a more well-rounded business analyst and somebody that can work more closely with those different functional groups within the organization?
WTN: How important are those multiple skills to a CIO’s role in aligning IT with the business strategy?
Converse: I think that they are critical and the reason I think that is when I talk to companies and their leaders, they think that it’s critical as well. But quantitatively, do I have any research data that shows that? No, I can only speak analogously to it.
WTN: In the seminars that you’ve held regarding technology implementations, what insights have you gained from successful implementations?
Converse: I think one of the biggest “ah ha” moments that I got as a former technologist and a former IT manager, one of the traps that I fell into after taking a look at this course and realizing we were going down the wrong avenue, was the over-emphasis that IT professionals have in assessing the merit of a particular technology. The analysis that goes into which vendor should we include in the RFP selection, and do they meet all of the requirements of the solution that we’ve got or all of the requirements for the problem that we’re trying to resolve?
WTN: Why is that not as important as people believe?
Converse: There is just a tendency for folks that are tech-minded to spend a lot of time in that area, and it’s an important area, and time does need to be spent on vendor qualification and in trying to assess companies that have tool sets that are capable of solving your particular problem. But the reality is that much less time can be spent on that and more time should be spent on selecting the appropriate people in the organization that will be needed to implement this – setting up the processes for change that the company needs to do in order to match the particular technology coming in.
I’ll use the example of implementing a particular ERP system. There are hundreds of variables that are involved in creating a successful ERP implementation, and by no means am I saying there is one magic bullet that will make ERP implementations always successful. But I think there is an emphasis on organizations to take a look at vendors and try to determine every possible feature that you would need to have, or every possible report that would need to be created, or data set that would need to be stored within the software package.
And not enough time is spent on, “Okay, how do we need to change our existing processes and match this software implementation that’s coming into play. How do we make sure that we are incentivizing the people within the organization to work with this new system?” Matching people and process and technology together was the big insight that I got from that IT-business alignment course.