In quest for business alignment, CIOs looking to fill soft skills gap

Foundational IT skills are in high demand, but CIOs want to fill a project management and analytical skills gap to tie IT directly to business needs.

Dan Sheehan is looking to fill a soft skills gap. Asked what skill sets he's most in need of now, Sheehan -- former CIO at Dunkin' Brands Inc. and current chief operating officer at New York City-based Henry Modell & Co. Inc., owner of Modell's Sporting Goods -- immediately went to project management. Technology can be taught, he said, but teamwork and innovative thinking cannot.

I don't need someone who sits in front of Excel all day. I need someone to get out there and drive all the functions that work together.

"I need someone with project management skills who can take a project from start to end and has an extroverted personality, because I don't need someone who sits in front of Excel all day," Sheehan said. "I need someone to get out there and drive all the functions that work together."

Also on Sheehan's radar are business analysts, "people who understand the process and can translate that process into some type of technology." But, as with project managers, he said good analysts are hard to find.

"I can teach or have my folks teach the technology, but having the right personality is key, someone that can get cross-functional folks to work together, and that's always hard," Sheehan said.

Skills gap an industry-wide concern

Sheehan is not alone in his cross-functional quest.

The dual needs of IT alignment with the business and alacrity with emerging technologies are more important than ever. But a skills gap in many IT organizations may be hampering these efforts, according to a recent study by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). And while technical skills are the main focus, a perceived lack of soft skills is a big concern.

The study, reflecting responses from IT and business professionals at 500 U.S. companies, revealed that 93% of those surveyed feel that a skills gap between what exists and what they desire among their IT staffs. Nearly 60% said they were not close, or only moderately close, to where they want their staff to be with regards to IT skills.

Respondents placed high importance on improving skills associated with the foundations of IT, such as networks, security and support functions, but a majority also indicated that they want to improve soft IT skills, including innovation, analytical skills, teamwork and project management.

IT leaders still need their bread-and-butter programmers and network administrators, but they also see the need for something extra. Of the professionals surveyed by CompTIA, 48% indicated an equal focus on improving hard and soft IT skills gaps, while 19% said they were focused solely on soft skills.

Beyond coding: Connecting IT functions to the big business picture

John Johnson, president and chief technology officer at Springfield Printing Corp., a marketing solutions provider based in North Springfield, Vt., identified a particular hiring pain point: Finding programmers capable of bringing more than code-writing skills to the table.

"What we're looking for that's most difficult to find are programmers who have multiple-language skill sets, are very familiar with connecting to multiple service providers through APIs [application programming interfaces] and who have the ability to understand the solution to a problem, versus just writing code," Johnson said.

Thinking critically and seeing the big picture of how IT can aid and affect the business is not only helpful, but has become an imperative. A failure to bridge that soft skills gap is a detriment to the organization and the future of the CIO, Johnson said.

"The reality is marketing and sales rule the world now. CIOs need to understand how they can build systems to serve the needs of marketing and sales," Johnson said. "In the old world, the guy who controlled the data was king. It's no longer like that -- now it's the person who can recognize the patterns, identify the behavior of people. It's back to Business 101: 'Find a need and fill it.'"

 Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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