Focus on your IT staffing strengths

In the next couple of years, more businesses will outsource their technical positions making IT a bastion of business strategy.
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I spoke with a friend recently who told me she hadn't been to a grocery store in months--thanks to the use of an Internet-based grocery-shopping service. The same friend couldn't remember the last time she'd touched a vacuum cleaner either (a housecleaner takes care of that).

Not that this is unusual. Families with two parents who work outside the home have learned that they cannot "do it all," at least not well. As men and women try--and fail--to be everything to everyone, they learn to farm out the household tasks that "anyone" could do, freeing them to focus on what is most important to the family.

That practice seems to be paralleled in the IT world. In the next three to four years, businesses will increasingly outsource the purely technical IT positions, according to Linda Pittenger, president and CEO of people3 Inc., a consulting firm in Somerset, N.J. Full-time IT staff will remain and become more strategy-, architecture-, and business process-oriented.

"We can't be all things to all people, and we need to decide which competencies are key to us."--Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s Bill Brannen
"Today, 65% of people in IT organizations are technical, and 35% are business/management folks. We see that flipping in two years," she says. In other words, 65% of the staff will understand things like strategy and supply chain management, while the remaining 35% will be mid- to high-ranking technical staff. In a nutshell, Pittenger says, "companies will keep people with contextual skills, things unique to the company, and they'll outsource generic positions, like programmers."

What's in and what's out

When you consider the fast pace of technology change, this makes a lot of sense. No one can excel in all areas of IT, so it's best to focus on a few chosen competencies and outsource the rest. Bill Brannen, director of workgroup transformation within the IT department at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Hoffman Estates, Ill., says it best: "We can't be all things to all people, and we need to decide which competencies are key to us." He adds, "I imagine there will be some skills we decide to outsource because it's not to our advantage to retain these skills in-house."

Sears is still in the midst of developing its competency model. But some of the skill areas that it has identified as being important to the company include the ability to develop and understand the overall technical and applications architecture, systems integration, strategic planning, financial management, project management, and electronic commerce.

Likewise, Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike Inc. decided to outsource all aspects of its IT department except application development, which it views as an area that will deliver a competitive advantage.

Like many companies, Sears is choosing to focus on competencies oriented to its particular business or industry. There are a few reasons for this. One, business changes more slowly than technology. If you hire 10 Visual Basic programmers today, you might need to retrain them in a new technology tomorrow. The day after that, they could walk out the door for a higher paying job. As a result, companies are a little less eager to make training investments.

A second reason is the value companies place on IT employees who understand the way their business works. That's just not something you can go out and buy. "You want to pay for someone who's not a doer but a planner," Pittenger says. "You want to spend more time focusing on the person who's going to build the database model, not create the database."

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