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5 July 2005

Escape from IT skill shortages

By Andrew Clifford

Businesses are caught in a tarpit of excessive IT staff costs. The way to escape is to ignore staffing issues and concentrate on the underlying value of IT.

"They've asked us for six months, but I think we can get two years from them," was how the man from the IT consultancy described the contract to me.

This was quite an eye-opener into how a typical IT consultancy views its clients. IT consultancy is sold on nebulous promises like "creating and releasing business value". But internally, the consultancies are much more down-to-earth. Their clients are just a revenue stream. And like any good business, the consultancies will maximise their income. Even if it means turning a six-month request into a two-year opportunity.

I could write at length about the dangers of working with consultancies like this. Having been a client of this same consultancy, I could detail how their architects and project managers inflate work requirements quite outrageously.

But I'm not being critical of the consultants. Good luck to them. They deliver on their promise of creating and releasing business value. For themselves.

What worries me is how the IT industry has allowed this to happen. Why do businesses spend so much money on often unnecessary IT staff? Why can't they see when they are being ripped off?

The shortage of IT skills is easy to understand. Like any specialist profession, IT requires a reasonable degree of skill. The demand for skills has been exacerbated by rapid growth in the use of IT, and by rapid changes in technology. The ever-growing legacy of older IT systems which need maintenance constrains the pool of skilled people for new work. Confusing pure IT with broader business change has increased both the level of skill required and the demand.

Slowly and subtly the IT skills shortage has altered our perception of IT:

  • IT activities are characterised by the number and type of people required, not by the value that they can bring.
  • Anyone planning an IT initiative is more concerned about how to build a team than what the purpose and value of the team should be.
  • An IT manager who can procure staff is seen as more valuable than one who spends their time understanding how they can create value.

This preoccupation with staffing is so acute that IT has become detached from its underlying value proposition. IT is seen solely as the provision of IT skills. This creates the opportunity which many IT consultancies are exploiting so skilfully.

How can businesses escape the tarpit of IT skill shortages?

By ignoring it.

Businesses need to stop focussing on the supply-side problems of IT staffing. They need to focus on the underlying value proposition of IT, which is to gain efficiency through the automation of information storage, transformation and communication. By doing this, businesses will be able to create simpler, smaller and better defined requirements for IT. As well as reducing the demand for IT staff, this gives the clarity required to defend against the more predatory practices of some consultancies.

Next: The paradox of business change

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