IT leaders offer advice for preparing to thrive in tomorrow's workplace

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

April 23, 2004

5 Min Read

At CDW, each year every IT employee creates a development plan of the skills they want to learn, which they map with their managers to where the company is headed technologically. Stevens reviews every employee's development plan with the person's manager to ensure that what they're learning connects with the company's tech strategy. "We ground ourselves in 'Are we moving our people in the same direction as our technology plan?'" he says. One reason companies end up outsourcing is because they embrace a technology strategy that the staff isn't trained for, Stevens says. So they leave the people and their business knowledge behind.

Anthem CIO Niederberger expects IT staffers to understand the businesses they support.

Photo by Sacha Lecca

Many executives believe the future of IT--and where the United States already leads--is in blurring the boundaries between traditional IT and other fields. Jane Niederberger, CIO of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and advisory-council member of Indiana University's School of Informatics, is well aware of this. The school, created in 2000 with the goal of teaching the application of IT to other fields, went from 288 students when it began to 1,125 now. The advisory council--a group of 28 business people--recently met to discuss what the curriculum needs to emphasize. "It was pretty unanimous that the key skills of the future aren't just around hard-core technology," she says. The emphasis was on project management, strategic planning, and putting IT to use in a business setting.

Yet with a $450 million IT budget at Anthem, Niederberger's 2,000 IT staffers across nine states do a lot of hands-on implementing, with only small-scale development projects outsourced. She expects all the IT staff to understand the businesses they support and take a high-level view of the processes involved, with an eye to making them run better and cheaper. "When you really challenge people, they're capable of [doing that] and find it fun," she says.

Anthem is in the midst of improving its call centers, including integrating automated voice response and E-mail inquiries with live phone representatives. There's a lot of technology related to that, but Niederberger also asks her IT people to understand both the patients who call in and the staff answering the calls well enough that they're involved in decisions on how to tune the smart-routing technology so the most-experienced people handle the toughest calls. "If you know why people are calling, and where you can provide an automated response, and when you need to talk to a person, and you know how your staff is deployed--then you can really add value," she says.

Niederberger has no reservations about IT remaining a vibrant career choice. "If you look at what we're doing in life sciences, that's all technology," she says. "Health informatics didn't even exist as a field five years ago."

Then again, neither did widespread offshore outsourcing and global sourcing. IT people who haven't worked with outsourcers or co-workers in India or other offshore locales are missing a key skill on their resumés. Global sourcing is an inescapable part of project management at many companies, and people uncomfortable working in that environment will lose out. "Without having global experience, you'll be less valuable," says Rick Davidson, CIO of the staffing-services company Manpower Inc.

Manpower has offices in 67 countries and territories, IT staff around the world, and about a dozen outsourced contractors in India. Davidson has led a recent effort to create Manpower Way--a management effort to get all the company's IT departments working in the same way, from their development procedures to the middleware they use.

That makes it much easier to share IT talent around the world. So when a Manpower manager in Mexico recently needed specialized work on an AS/400 system, he tapped a specialist from Brussels, who went to Mexico to do the work. In that kind of global environment, Davidson says employees need to specialize--either in a technology arena or in a business function. There's no guarantee how long that specialty will remain high-value, though. "Technology is fleeting," Davidson warns, urging people to push for new challenges and managers to provide them. "Specialization is the key, but be willing to change," he says.

It's inevitable that a lot of high-quality IT jobs will be generated in Brazil, China, India, and Russia--not just because the wages are lower, but because that's where the growth is. Dell recently revealed it has more employees outside the United States than within. "IT people have always gone where business is being developed," GM's Szygenda says.

Hewitt Associates' Tenner warns that because of all these factors--globalization, commoditization of some skills, greater efficiency--the United States might have a shrinking job market for traditional IT roles. Still, he's optimistic that high-quality jobs will remain here to tap innovative talent. "The entrepreneurial spirit in this country is head and shoulders above what I've seen elsewhere," says Tenner, who, in addition to spending time in India, spent six months in China, consulting with the government on IT systems for social security.

Tenner finds overseas companies and their employees much more defined by hierarchies--Israel comes closest in having the kind of technology-driven innovation U.S. employees generate. Foreign investment is betting on that spirit by backing U.S. companies, he says. "A lot of the world is voting with its dollars that this is still the place for innovation."

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights