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Where the Heavy Lifting Is: Business Knowledge and Behavioral Skills for IT Success

by Stewart L. Stokes

There is ample evidence that business knowledge and behavioral skills account for as much (if not more) of the success of IT projects as do technical skills, yet they are often overlooked in reskilling programs.

As challenging as technology issues are, it is the people issues that surface again and again as critical success factors for effective project management. This article focuses on the importance of business knowledge and behavioral skills for IT success as seen through the eyes of three chief information officers (CIOs). It presents a comprehensive list of high-priority behavioral skills and business competencies, as well as strategies for acquiring them.

The CIO of a Fortune 500 company tells about one of his graduate school professors who conducts annual surveys of those in the 25th reunion class each year. One of the questions he asks is, "What have turned out to be the most valuable courses you took during your graduate program?" The answers are most often courses in organizational behavior. He also asks, "What were the courses you least wanted to take during your graduate program?" The answers, again, are most often courses in organizational behavior. One of the recent respondents is reported to have added this comment to his survey, "It's all about people. That's where the heavy lifting is!"

Indeed it is. A survey by the Aberdeen Group found that "the success of IT projects depends more on people-related components than on the technology itself." Aberdeen's summary of the study concluded, "Most [respondents] told Aberdeen that, in the end, the people and process issues were far more challenging than the technology issues faced during the project."

Additional evidence for the importance of both behavioral skills and business knowledge comes from the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) at the Sloan School, MIT. CISR reported on "Seven Leadership Imperatives" for IT in its Working Paper No. 288, "The Changing IT Organization." All seven imperatives require heavy lifting in the behavioral skills and business sectors of the enterprise. Indeed, one of the seven specifically advocates the reskilling of IT professionals in behavioral and business competencies as well as in technical skills.

Jerry Kanter, former Executive Director of the Center for Information Management Studies (CIMS) at Babson College, addresses the importance of understanding the organizational culture and its people in his CIMS Working Paper 96-04, "The Successful Chief Information Officer (CIO): You Gotta Know the Territory."

Kanter describes three major contexts within which CIOs must work: "the business, the technology, and the organization/people." He observes that "unless one reacts effectively to the organization/people context, the other two contexts will never be viewed positively you gotta know the territory."

What do CIOs believe are today's most important behavioral skills? And, what do they believe today's IT professionals need to know about their employer's businesses? Three CIOs contributed their ideas and conclusions:

  • Peg Nicholson, Senior Vice President and CIO, Acushnet Company
  • Denis F. Malin, now VP, Corporate Systems, Staples, Inc.
  • Wollaston (Wolly) Morin, now CIO at Ann Taylor Stores

Customer Service and Retention
The three CIOs agreed that a key challenge for today's IT professionals is that they understand they are in the customer service business, and, in the words of Denis Malin, "Our credo must be customer retention."

Once understood, this challenge helps provide the rationale for the disciplined and continuing acquisition of business knowledge and behavioral skills. Malin went on to state that, "All we do revolves around understanding the business; we want our people to understand the business impact (of technical decisions) and be able to appreciate why customer change requests are needed. I want our IT professionals to understand firsthand what it's like for an external customer to interact with WearGuard."

For Peg Nicholson, listening--one of the most important but least practiced behavioral skills--was high on her list of "must do" behaviors. In his best-selling book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey suggests that "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" is a habit worth cultivating. If we are to understand, we must first listen, and listening is a behavioral skill that could stand improvement in many IT environments.

Prior to joining Titleist and Foot-Joy, Nicholson was CIO at The Timberland Company. She used her listening skills to establish credibility as a business-savvy CIO committed to business problem solving. "I started to meet with our logistics people and I listened a lot. I learned what their business challenges were, then I looked at my own organization and determined how we might better align the IT organization to help focus our people and their projects upon the business issues that really mattered."

Wolly Morin echoed Peg's commitment to developing listening skills. He also emphasized the "necessity" of IT professionals improving their "capability to use the softer skills." Morin introduced the importance of identifying closely with internal customers and their business needs by stating, "Learning to listen and being empathetic are two areas that have increased significantly in importance."

Clearly, listening is a core behavioral skill that must be valued, acquired, and improved continuously if IT professionals are to be competent players in the customer service business.

Agendas and Business Literacy
The emphasis on excellence in customer service leads directly to the issue of IT/customer agenda alignment. "IT can't have its own agenda," Peg Nicholson emphasized. "We have to develop our agenda based upon the needs and goals of the business. When IT operates from its own agenda customer satisfaction can suffer. Everything in life is fit what is the right fit [for IS] within [this] company at this time?"

If alignment and fit are to occur, business literacy becomes a reskilling cornerstone. Peg Nicholson felt so strongly about the need for business literacy that she organized and facilitated a business tutorial for her staff. "There were two initiatives I launched at Timberland, both designed to enhance an understanding of our businesses," Peg stated. "First, I started a series of regular meetings to review business results, financials, and related topics. The questions and discussions soon convinced me that our IT folks weren't comfortable dealing with business concepts and practices, so I organized an Economics 101 course for our people. We dealt with the language of business, the numbers, and we helped our people learn how to read a balance sheet, income statement, etc. We began the process by looking at personal family financial statements, including assets, liabilities, sources and uses of funds, decision making, etc. and built from there."

The need Peg addressed was also expressed by Denis Malin. In response to the question of what IT professionals most need to know about their employer's businesses, and why, Denis replied, "They need to know about business. We are change agents and the more our people know about business and about our business, the greater understanding and appreciation they will have of why we do the projects we do [including] what is the impact [of the project] upon the business, not just upon the requester."

Denis is committed to being proactive. "We're putting our IT folks out in the business units, trying to get them to live their systems. They work in the customer areas, on the phones, learning what it's like for our customers to interact with us, to interact with our systems. They also practice their behavioral skills, like learning to listen! Our younger IT professionals learn early in their careers that they cannot survive only with technical skills. We have to prove over and over again that we are valuable business partners and acquiring high levels of behavioral skills and business knowledge help us to do this."

Dealing with the Uncertainty of Change
Wolly Morin targeted another learning challenge for systems professionals, that of developing the "ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty." There are those (among them Jerry Kanter) who observe that while IT professionals pride themselves on being organizational change agents, they do not do much better at managing their own changes than do most other people.

Change is clearly an issue easier to discuss in the abstract than to manage in the concrete. Bringing "theory into practice" is a demanding reskilling assignment. All three CIOs addressed the importance of managing change and uncertainty and suggested several areas of current change that are challenging their staff members' people skills as well as technical expertise.

They all represent reskilling and performance improvement challenges:

  • Matching increasing user expectations and an increasingly knowledgeable user base;
  • Understanding and supporting a changing user environment;
  • Replacing all outmoded technology and applications;
  • Recognizing that the problem is that companies have to work much more closely with our customers; and
  • Balancing work and home when pressure is increasing at both.

Underlying all these challenges is the need for IT professionals (including CIOs) to become increasingly competent in such behavioral skills as communicating under pressure, influencing without authority, leading team-based organizations, and building cross-functional partnerships. A recent Information Week article ("Wanted: More 'Soft' Skills") described a 12-year study of leadership traits among 2,500 CIOs and other technology managers. The study concluded that "many CIOs lack ability to motivate others and build relationships [This] lack of soft skills is a likely contributor to the high turnover rates in many CIO posts."

Most Significant Behavioral Skills
The list of the most significant behavioral skills as viewed by this team of CIOs begins with an observation and suggestion by Wolly Morin. First, the observation: "Many people who choose to become IT professionals do not understand that they have chosen a profession that requires significant understanding of human behavior.

In my opinion, most IT projects that have failed suffered from not understanding who the real customer was and what that person's expectations were, rather than from those reasons that get much attention, including not enough resources, too little time, etc."

The most significant behavioral competencies, as suggested by this team of CIOs, were:

  • Communicating in nontechnical terms
  • Understanding the contexts and perceptions of the communicators
  • Practicing active listening
  • Understanding the impact of business unit cultures upon communications
  • Developing a customer service orientation
  • Influencing where authority is minimal or nonexistent
  • Negotiating: focusing upon interests rather than positional bargaining
  • Understanding team dynamics and development
  • Leading and managing in team-based environments
  • Educating and coaching users/customers
  • Human networking: building and sustaining a wide circle of contacts and
  • Knowledge management; i.e., learning intentionally from experiences.

Essential business competencies included:

  • Understanding the "essence of the business"- those critical success factors that, if not done extremely well, cause difficulties and even failure
  • Knowing business unit mission(s), goals, and objectives
  • Understanding the cultures of the business unit(s) and their departments, and the impact of these cultures upon how work is accomplished
  • Understanding business unit strategies and agendas and the "fit" necessary for the IT organization
  • Valuing the model of the business(es) driving and controlling projects and
  • Understanding business financials, including knowing how to read the company financial statements and understanding the annual report, as well as being able to do cost-benefit analyses.

Reskilling Strategies
There are a variety of learning strategies from which to choose when selecting the most appropriate reskilling programs for given sets of circumstances. However, just as adults have preferred learning styles, so, too, do organizations. Articles will be published that will describe not only the different ways in which adults learn, but also how to integrate learning methodologies and techniques with preferred learning styles. For now, however, here are two recommendations.

First, avoid "sheep-dip" training or education, which is running everyone through the same courses or programs on the presumption that "the pilot group liked it so we've decided that everyone should take it." Such well-intentioned but wasteful training can include programs presented in just about any delivery system, from a media-based through an instructor-led system. Huge chunks of scarce reskilling budgets are consumed by those who make their quarterly "MBOs" look good by reporting how many people were exposed to this or that course. Avoid broad-brush training like the plague.

Second, do the homework before calling the vendors. Ask "Why?" (as in "Why are we scheduling this program?" and "Why are these people being selected for it?") rather than "How much?" (as in "How much is this course and which vendor is cheapest?"). The goal is still that the right people learn the right things and be able to apply them in the right way to accomplish what needs to be done. Too many training reports still focus on "body counts" rather than goal-oriented results that support departmental and corporate strategies.

Learning strategies run the gamut from individualized, media-based training to discussion-oriented case study programs facilitated by not only the instructors but by the participants themselves. For many people, learning by doing is still an excellent strategy, and this can be applied to learning behavioral skills as well as new technologies.

As far as learning behavioral skills is concerned, probably the least effective way (but, unfortunately, the most comfortable way for many introverted colleagues) is through lecture, or by being told what to do. The reason this is least effective is that respectable skill levels are not developed by listening to someone tell one how to do something. No one ever learned to swim by sitting on dry land and listening to an instructor describe what it feels like to get one's face wet. One must do it and learn from the experience.

The most effective way to develop behavioral skills is through a combination of lecture and demonstration, practice, feedback (either through videotape feedback, from observers, or both), more practice, more feedback, etc. Role playing-or role simulation as some prefer to describe it-is a very effective way to learn and improve behavioral skills; it is also a very uncomfortable way for many IS professionals who have a personality preference for introversion.

Learning by doing, combined with coaching and mentoring, is also a powerful combination of strategies for acquiring business competencies. Remember Peg Nicholson's "Economics 101" tutorial for her people? She helped them learn how to analyze the company financial statements by "crunching" the numbers, doing ratio analyses, and so forth. She also moved into a coach/mentor role by acquainting them with key players in the enterprise with whom she was working, and sharing information that her people might otherwise not have had access to.

Case studies can be useful and challenging learning resources for acquiring both behavioral and business competencies. Properly facilitated, they can become excellent discussion vehicles and vicarious learning-by-doing experiences. There are many IT-related cases available through the Harvard Business School Case Services department, and for those who ask themselves, "How do I facilitate a case discussion?" there are many teaching notes available on just that topic.

In conclusion, remember one of Wolly Morin's observations: "Many people who choose to become IT professionals do not understand that they have chosen a profession that requires significant understanding of human behavior." Not long ago the writer was discussing the importance of behavioral skills with a senior IT manager at a Baldrige Award-winning company. The discussion had involved the writer's three-tiered model for continuous learning:

  • Technical skills being the threshold competencies
  • Behavioral skills being the enablers
  • Business knowledge being the context

The senior manager had used the familiar terms: "hard stuff" to describe the technical skills and "soft stuff" to describe the interpersonal or behavioral. When asked what he had learned from his Baldrige Award experience, he thought f or a moment, then said, "We all learned that the hard stuff was easy; the soft stuff was hard."

The soft stuff, the organizational behavior stuff: "It's all about people-where the heavy lifting is!"

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