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What's next for IT?

Things change fast in IT. Just a little more than a year ago, we were writing about the critical IT shortage in this country. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were unfilled because there weren't enough qualified people to fillthem.

Al Gore talked about the need for skilled IT people to ensure the continued success of American business. Workers from other countries were granted special visas to fill IT vacancies. Now, these foreign workers are being laid off and sent home, and they and their American counterparts are wondering what to do next.

In the face of the unknown, a few things seem inevitable. One is the growth of e-business. Despite the current downturn, the Internet provides irresistible business advantages, including cost savings and reduced business cycle times. Companies that successfully utilize supply-chain integration and e-business technologies will have a competitive advantage over companies that do not. The current IT spending freeze will eventually give way to large-scale investment in e-business solutions, which will once again increase the demand for IT skills. The only question is when this will happen—will it be three months, six months or a year from now?

In the meantime, how should companies prepare for the inevitable swing in demand, even as they are in the midst of layoffs? Perhaps it's a sign of age (although I prefer to use the terms maturity and experience), but when looking toward the future, I usually revisit the past for applicable lessons. One lesson we learned from the last era of massive downsizing was that a great deal of irreplaceable business knowledge walked out the door with the people who were let go. Many of the "dinosaur" mainframe programmers who were let go because they didn't have new Unix and client/server skills had to be called back when it came time to update systems for the year 2000. These individuals were needed because they actually knew how the systems worked and, more importantly, they knew how the business worked.

Future competitive advantage lies in optimizing business processes—doing things faster, cheaper and better. For companies to move forward, an essential first step is to understand how things are actually done within a company—what is done manually and what is done electronically by various systems. Only a fraction of business expertise is currently contained in business systems; the rest lies with employees.

In an article entitled "The kindest cuts," in the September issue of Darwin magazine, author Christopher Koch states that "about the only universal truth in IT cost management" is prioritizing spending based on whether the project improves the work of employees, customers and suppliers. The general advice was not to make cuts in IT that prevent future strategic advantage.

But while waiting for the inevitable upturn in the market, what should downsized IT professionals do to upgrade their skill sets? If workers want to return to work sooner rather than later, it will be those skills that contribute to a return on investment—those that help companies improve work, such as business process modeling and business process improvement—that will be in most demand.

Unfortunately, these skills are in short supply. While integration vendors are gearing up with process integration capabilities, harnessing the tools' capabilities is tied to the ability to design efficient business processes. If the message is that business processes must be improved, organizations must first measure the processes, apply appropriate business metrics, and then have the knowledge and skills to optimize them. At that point, the tools can implement the changes. But much human knowledge and expertise are required to obtain full value from the tools.

Aside from business process improvement, the IT skills we predict will be in greatest demand in the next 12 to 18 months include: Web services development, user interface design, business domain expertise, security expertise and mobile application development.

As the trend toward abstraction increases, the chasm between programmers who know technology best and the programmers who understand the business best will widen. The promise since the dawn of 4GLs is that business analysts will be able to create business applications by linking reusable components. While this silver bullet has yet to appear, there will probably be a division between Web service developers and programmers who integrate Web services into business applications.

Because more non-technical people will be using technology, user interface designers will be required to make the applications truly intuitive (another silver bullet we have yet to see actualized). And technologists with business domain expertise will be increasingly needed to create vertical industry solutions and add business value.

In light of recent events and our increased feelings of vulnerability, security is bound to become a hot-button issue. Security experts will be required to safeguard e-business transactions, and the trend that presents the greatest challenge to security is mobile computing. Just a short time ago, analysts were predicting that by next year there would be more mobile devices connected to the Internet than wired devices. Curtailment of business travel may slow this trend a bit, but it will not stop it.

The bottom line is that in the face of more budget cuts and layoffs, IT must become more business-focused and demonstrate an ROI for technology solutions. Organizations that maintain business focus and continue to invest in IT will gain a competitive advantage. Individuals who focus on delivering business value through technology will thrive. All others need to sharpen their pencils and their skill sets. While an upturn will occur, the bad news is that it looks like it's going to get worse before it gets better.

About the Author

Beth Gold-Bernstein is vice president of Strategic Products and Services at ebizQ.net, an e-business integration content portal in White Plains, N.Y. Contact her at bethgb@ebizQ.net.

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