Competency combinations: the real skill shortage

Some IT staff have hard technical skills, others offer softer business and people skills. But it is the rare individuals with both attributes that IT departments need most


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an IT department in possession of a workforce will always be struggling with a range of IT skill shortages. In the UK, whole government policies and departments have been built on this assumption.

And sometimes the folk wisdom gets it right: you may remember the early days of SAP when anyone who could make any sense of this mysterious new German software could name their price. That skill shortage lasted for years.

In its very early days, of course, almost any narrow specialism can command a skills premium. Even HTML managed it for a few months. Then everyone realised it was quite straightforward and could be learned in a few weeks: skill acquisition that was faster than recruitment and cheaper too. This was in strict contrast to SAP, which had to be configured not programmed and took many months to master.

So skill shortages can arise anywhere but they only really last in specialisms where there’s an awful lot to learn. Or where the abilities involved can’t be learned – about which more, shortly.

Staying with technical skills shortages for a moment, it is worth noting that in a free market supply eventually catches up with, and often overshoots, demand. That happened with SAP, once the “mysterious German software” had been around for a few years and SAP training and certification organisations got into their swing.

By the late 1990s SAP pay premia faded. Since then there have been occasional SAP skill shortages – but only for newly introduced SAP modules.

Given all this, why should anyone worry about IT skill shortages? There are still sporadic reports of shortages relating to one or another technology. Many come from recruitment agents or headhunters who are indulging in wishful thinking – or perhaps business development.

There is now general agreement that it is the lack of “soft skills” that is now most likely to require a recruitment campaign. This is not news, of course: for at least 10 years there have been regular headlines to this effect.

But some fundamental thinking has been missing from all the talk of hard and soft skill shortages – and it’s the nature versus nurture issue.

I believe the core capabilities underlying the persistent IT “skill” shortages can be nurtured, but only to a limited extent.

A moment’s reflection on the role of those at the heart of the IT function reveals what these core capabilities are. IT people are the interface between those who need and use information, and the systems that supply it. They therefore must have two separate sets of attributes or “chromosomes”.

The first is to do with clarity of thought, analysis and logic, and equips IT people to deal with unambiguous and obsessively clear-thinking things, like computers. We could call this the C-chromosome, the “C” signifying clarity of thinking, not computers.

The second is the ability to interact productively with those ambiguous, changeable and very confusing things we call people. We could call this cluster of abilities the P-chromosome.

C-chromosomes and P-chromosomes are very different but they are similar in one important respect. Unlike HTML, or even SAP, they are capabilities that cannot be easily changed. They can be shaped over a period of years – especially the P-chromosome – but what nature gave you to start with counts for an awful lot.

Each chromosome is sought-after in its own right. Indeed, the whole offshoring movement is as much about finding more C-chromosome people as it is about lowering cost.

But it’s when you need people with both chromosomes that you are in serious trouble. Why are people with both chromosomes so rare? My theory is that having either one of these chromosomes makes you automatically much less likely to have the other. The factory that makes people makes them mostly with one or none, but only very rarely both.

And that’s why IT departments have always struggled to find top-class business analysts who can challenge business requirements in a helpful way, IT managers who can both motivate and provide helpful guidance to staff, and technical experts who can solve problems and take their colleagues with them.

But what does this mean for chief information officers or IT directors and their human resources colleagues? First, market forces are not much good to us here: the factories that make people cannot ramp up production. So we have to solve this shortage through our own efforts.

Second, offshoring cannot plug many of these gaps, because few of the roles that need these chromosomes – business analysts, relationship managers, technical architects – can be pushed offshore. And interfacing with offshore suppliers still takes both those rare chromosomes anyway.

This is a problem we have to confront right here in our onshore IT departments. IT must therefore make sure it grabs a bigger share of the few people with both capabilities.

Third, training, development, coaching and so on can help, but selection processes have to be right because these measures won’t have much impact if the raw materials are wrong.

Too many CIOs hire people mainly because they know specific narrow technologies, or because they studied computer science or IT. Once hired, the individual’s inability to shift or apply technologies (weak C-chromosome) and to interact effectively with those around them (weak P-chromosome) limits their usefulness.

Competency-based recruitment, increasingly valued by the HR community, needs to be taken more seriously by CIOs. There’s little point in hiring an IT graduate who’s not very good with people. Much better to hire a historian who has a full set of C-chromosomes and P-chromosomes and train that historian in IT.

Finally, there are implications for those responsible for national skills development. In the current climate, persuading more people to study IT and improving the education they subsequently get are seen as major achievements. And they are. But we also must ensure that more of those embarking on this route have better core capabilities and attributes.

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