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Past Issue • Jan-Mar 2015

Creating the Next Generation Information Technology Workforce

With the information technology (IT) landscape growing and shifting at a rapid pace, the definition of the IT professionals is also changing. The new generation of IT professionals will need skills and training, beyond the traditional technical or “hard” skills, to be productive and successful in the new information economy, writes Professor Nishtha Langer. The question is how best to equip and arm the next generation of IT professionals to be effective contributors. 

In a 2014 report, Gartner predicted that worldwide IT spending would reach US$3.8 trillion in 2014. The vast size and dynamic nature of the information economy, spearheaded by IT enabled services (ITeS), begs a closer examination of the factors that affect this industry’s productivity. Given that knowledge workers are the key assets of the information economy, the emphasis naturally shifts from firm-level production factors to the skills and capabilities that these workers bring to the table. Today’s knowledge economy is witness to rapid changes that are both technological and non-technological. A startling factor, in this change, is the human capital of IT professionals, calling on us to transform our understanding of the role that they play and the skills they need. Technological innovations and competitive environments are constantly shaping and reshaping corporate IT departments, and hence, their human capital (Agarwal and Ferratt 2002). While change has always been an accepted fact for IT human capital; it is now occurring at a faster pace than ever before and is not limited to the skills needed to perform the IT role, but concerns the fundamental nature of the IT role itself and the very definition of who an IT professional is.

Tectonic technological changes and blurring boundaries between IT and non-IT workers in organisations call for a shift in the ways we perceive the next generation workforce. For instance, as the new generation of digital natives enters the workforce, it is likely that IT departments will lose their position as the sole custodians of all IT in a firm. New and emerging roles such as social media managers require people to be both technical and business savvy; these roles may or may not be within the purview of IT departments (Chui et al. 2012). In fact, Gartner predicts that more than 70 percent of social media projects led by IT departments will fail. Thus, today’s changing business imperatives demand a workforce that is drawn from various organisational strata, versed in skills that go beyond traditional IT skills.

Technological shifts are also calling for a retooling of the IT workforce both in terms of hard skills as well as soft skills (Langer et al. 2008). The use of networked, interdisciplinary and global work teams has radically changed the work environment. Recent trends such as the emergence of online labour markets and cloud computing are changing the way IT is procured. These changes imply that “soft” skills such as negotiations and contracting take precedence over “hard” skills such as programming and project management. More recent research suggests that as IT workers become more cross-functional and manage projects of increasing complexity, they need additional skills such as practical intelligence (Langer et al. 2014).

IT human capital is not only affected by technological or environmental changes, but also by the demographic mix of the new generation workforce. At one time, the IT worker was perceived to be a technical geek with fewer social needs; it was a workforce dominated by Gen Xers (Couger et al. 1979, Smith 1989). Technology-driven phenomena, such as the explosion of data and social media as well as the consumerisation of IT, are stretching the limits of the expertise and operations of IT departments worldwide. In response, the IT workforce today is changing and the motivations and career aspirations of new generation workers, i.e., the Millenials, are likely to be much different than those of the previous generations.

Organisations call for a shift in the ways we perceive the next generation workforce. For instance, as the new generation of digital natives enters the workforce, it is likely that IT departments will lose their position as the sole custodians of all IT in a firm. New and emerging roles such as social media managers require people with both technical and business knowledge; these roles may or may not be within the purview of IT departments.

In short, these trends are likely to result in the emergence of a workforce that is very different from what the traditional perspective would envision. We attempt to anticipate this shift by providing a systematic commentary on how to aid and equip the next generation workforce.

How is the Definition of IT Workers Changing?

Who is an IT professional? Most of the prior academic literature has IT professionals as programmers, analysts, network specialists or project managers (Ang and Slaughter 2000, Kaarst-Brown and Guzman 2005). But consider for a moment the freelance IT professionals selling their services through e-markets such as vworker.com, a purchasing manager in a Fortune 500 firm responsible for procuring IT services or to an entrepreneur developing mobile applications. They are all part of a new class of IT professionals, whose motivations and career aspirations are likely to be different from those employed in corporate IT departments and warrant closer examination.

Since the late 1990s, there has been a severe imbalance between the demand for individuals to fill IT jobs and the supply of individuals with formal IT training or a degree in a traditional computer and information science field (National Science Foundation 2002). This gap, along with the multi-dimensional skill requirements of organisations, has caused employers to turn to applicants from other disciplinary backgrounds to fill IT jobs. As a result, the IT workforce increasingly includes individuals from a variety of educational and work experience backgrounds. Going forward, the boundaries between IT and non-IT functions can only be expected to become less rather than more defined. The emergence of new technological platforms has resulted in new roles and careers for the IT workforce. While traditional computer and information science degrees are now required for highly technical specialty jobs such as database administration and network administration, storage or security administration, new platforms such as the Internet, Facebook and the Apple and the Android app stores have created opportunities for individuals with some technical training but no formal IT degree to perform some low end IT tasks. For instance, Hann et al. (2011) estimates that the Facebook economy created close to 182,000 jobs in the United States in 2011 alone. The increasing emphasis on analytics, business intelligence and business process is also redefining the role of the IT worker as one that integrates technical skills with knowledge and experience in line functions.

In short, we need to not only redefine who an IT professional is, but also understand the mechanisms through which these individuals can embrace boundaryless careers and effectively bridge occupational boundaries (Joseph et al. 2012).

How are the Requisite Skills for the Next Generation Workforce Changing?

Given the global context in which most IT professionals operate, what are the most valuable skills for the new generation workforce to have? While facets of cognitive ability such as verbal acumen, logical reasoning and programming skills are desirable. Do these ensure success in the ever changing global IT environment? Prior literature on IT human capital emphasises the importance of cognitive, technical, managerial and emotional abilities in IT workers, especially in the case of project managers (Duncan 1996, Napier et al. 2009). However, due to the increased globalisation and complexity of IT projects, research has begun to focus on two additional dimensions of intelligence essential for IT workers in the 21st century – cultural intelligence (Earley and Ang 2003) and practical intelligence (Langer et al. 2014).

Recent research proposes that for global IT workers, “hard” skills such as technical and managerial skills are necessary, but not sufficient. Consider the typical cross-cultural scenarios in which IT workers interact with clients; these workers could be serving as temporary labour in a client’s country on a work visa, or could be providing IT services from thousands of miles away via an online labour platform (Mithas and Lucas 2010). The varied cultural and geographical constraints that define today’s IT milieu require intelligence beyond academic tasks; therefore, abilities such as cultural intelligence (CQ) are essential.

In addition to technical, emotional, digital and cultural intelligence, today’s IT work environment demands yet another form of intelligence in IT workers, namely, practical intelligence (PI). Over the past few decades, software projects have become larger and more complex, and are often delivered across organisational and geographical boundaries (Banerjee and Duflo 2000, Langer et al. 2014). Such projects can suffer from poor project management practices, inadequate incentives and stakeholder conflict, requiring skills beyond mere technical expertise (Duncan 1996, Thite 1999, Kirsch 2000, Napier et al. 2009). While the use of high capability maturity models and sophisticated project management methods will help improve information flow within the project and reduce the risk of failure, even well managed projects are challenged with intense cost and schedule pressures, constantly shifting requirements, complex organisational structures, ambitious scope and the mantra of doing “more with less.”

Platforms such as the Internet, Facebook and the Apple and the Android app stores have created opportunities for individuals with some technical training but no formal IT degree to gain a foothold in the IT industry.

More recently, Langer et al. (2014) suggested that in addition to traditional project management skills and processes, project managers also need PI or need to be “street smarts,” that is, the capability to resolve project-related work problems in a specific context, given their long-range and short-range goals. They study the impact of project managers’ PI on the success of IT projects and argue that offshore software outsourcing projects operate in highly uncertain environments and are prone to severe information gaps, creating major uncertainties and leading to critical incidents that are unexpected, non-routine and situational, and which cannot be managed using typical project management skills. They show that PI positively affects performance, measured as cost efficiency and client satisfaction, in such projects. Interestingly, hard skills such as domain or technical expertise are less critical for project managers, especially when it comes to client satisfaction.

In sum, as the next generation workforce negotiates different geographical, organisational and functional roles in today’s business environments, skills such as CQ and PI become more important. 

How Do We Equip the Next Generation Workforce?

The constant change in the technological landscape in the information economy demands the constant renewal of usable skills (Agarwal and Ferratt 2002) through formal mechanisms such as training (Bapna et al. 2013). With technology developing at a fast pace, IT professionals are finding that their technical skills can quickly become obsolete if they do not constantly refresh and upgrade them. With abundant opportunities for both non-IT and IT professionals to gain experience and knowledge in the newest technological platforms, IT professionals may find themselves less proficient in the newest technologies than new entrants if they do not regularly maintain and renew their skills. Thus, the basic tenet of human capital research is that training investments should impact the quality of IT workers as well as their productivity (Becker 1964, Mincer 1962). 

Bapna et al. (2013) examine the effect of training in the context of the Indian IT services industry, which invests substantial resources in employee training. They find that employee training has a significant positive impact on employee performance; a unit increase in training is linked to a 2.3 percent increase in an employee’s performance relative to his peers. Similarly, Mehra et al. (2014) examine the effect of training investments at the firm level and find that by making employees more productive, training provides returns that help improve firm-level productivity. Further, training is directly proportional firm size. Therefore, relatively speaking, large firms benefit more from training.

While formal mechanisms such as training are important, informal mechanisms such as peer networks and knowledge communities may also help increase worker productivity by enabling information aggregation and learning (Gulati 1999). More recently, intra- and inter-organisational knowledge communities such as employee blogs, gamification and knowledge management (KM) portals have been identified as the mechanisms through which IT professionals acquire the necessary skills to collaborate and be more effective.

More importantly, Bapna et al. (2013) finds that lateral employees are more likely to benefit from training, perhaps because they do not have access to “watercooler” peer networks. IT workers who lack peer networks in an organisation are more likely to opt for and benefit from training; therefore, such networks are an important source of learning and knowledge dissemination. Thus, while formal mechanisms such as training are important, informal mechanisms such as peer networks and knowledge communities may also help increase worker productivity by enabling information aggregation and learning (Gulati 1999). More recently, intra- and inter-organisational knowledge communities such as employee blogs, gamification and knowledge management (KM) portals have been identified as the mechanisms through which IT professionals acquire the necessary skills to collaborate and be more effective (Sayeed and Meraj 2013).

Thus, as firms prepare the next generation workforce for future challenges, they need to understand not only the effect of peer networks and learning communities on the development of human capital, but also how formal and informal mechanisms of human capital formation can contribute to employee productivity and firm revenues.

Conclusion

The IT profession is changing more rapidly than ever before, with far reaching implications for today’s organisations as they compete in the information economy. Given this scenario, we need to learn to redefine the role of IT professionals and the skills they need to stay relevant. Only by identifying the demographic changes and the technological and organisational trends that are transforming the role and management of IT professionals can we develop the means to create and facilitate the next generation workforce.

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