The geeks will inherit the earth…

It’s difficult to judge whether the non-technical ‘relationship manager’ Jen, in Channel 4’s comedy The IT Crowd, is more or less weird than the two geeky technicians she is hired to manage.

Yet, according to Roger Clements, a sales manager at outsourcing firm Capita Managed Services, not knowing your Java from a jam sandwich need not be a drawback for HR professionals whose brief includes IT.

Just like HR, IT is no longer just a backroom support function, but an essential part of the business, helping to drive competitive advantage. It’s up to IT professionals to adopt non-techie language when justifying why the business should invest in the latest high-tech system.

“In an era when the guys in the basement are being pushed into strategic positions, and where IT’s internal status is higher than ever, HR’s role is to support the increased commercialism of technical staff, not engage them in nerdy talk,” he says.

Language aside, managing IT staff may present other challenges, even for HR people who are confident around technology.

Intellectual challenges

Predominantly male and often nomadic, the majority of systems support or database technicians work on a strictly contract-only basis. But despite this apparent flexibility, strict rota and shift systems are the norm in this 24/7 environment.

Like the fictional characters of Roy and Moss – the socially inept but largely harmless geeks who get very excited about wires in The IT Crowd – IT people, on the whole, are less motivated by money, titles or status than other functions, says Jeff Wellstead, global vice-president of HR at the MessageLabs IT security group.

“In my experience, they largely get their kicks from the intellectual challenge of playing around with the latest technology. The highlight of their working lives may simply be the opportunity to showcase their talent,” he says.

“It would be fair to say that in some respects, technicians do appear to come from a different planet to the rest of us.”

And while senior IT professionals are increasingly landing in the boardroom in the form of chief information officers (CIO), Wellstead believes when it comes to developing IT talent in an organisation, HR needs to know their limits. He says great technicians may lack emotional intelligence and may be unsuited to managing other people, partly because they find it difficult to talk about performance.

“Rather than losing a great technician to a rival firm, these people are best given a title that reflects their seniority in IT – something like ‘chief’ or ‘head’ – without all the messy stuff around actually managing others,” Wellstead advises.

It is also important to understand the pressure IT is under and the change it has experienced since the heady days of the technology boom, says Clements.

Five years ago, when the e-commerce revolution was keeping business leaders in a state of frenzy, many organisations took on more IT staff, and gave them more money to play with than was necessary.

Today, IT budgets have been slashed along with staff numbers. For most organisations, the question is not how quickly a firm should adopt the latest IT gizmo but whether getting it will add anything specific in terms of competitive advantage.

With fewer technicians managing an organisation’s IT infrastructure – and with the constant threat of viruses or hackers disabling it – the list of ‘essential skills’ on an IT job spec also gets longer, according to Jan Stevens, corporate services director at the IT recruitment firm DP

While many IT technicians would like the opportunity to plan and document projects in advance, companies have to be more flexible to compete, meaning that plans are often thrown out right at the last minute or they are changed ‘on the hoof’.

“All IT spend is carefully scrutinised. Decisions about spending money on technical staff, signing off contract roles, the feedback on contract offers and contract extensions are all far more protracted than before, which is very frustrating for the people involved,” says Stevens.

Old-school skills

As far as skills go, recruitment firms say that while the biggest demand in the job market is for IT specialists who are as well-versed in business administration or marketing as they are in web-based applications such as dot net, Java and C++, there is still a requirement for workaday systems engineers who can continue to service old technology.

“Some firms would be happy to employ only sharp-suited IT professionals who studied technology with business, and who are at the forefront of e-commerce developments, but there is always a need for those who can support and tweak the ‘legacy’ systems already in place,” says Clements.

Technicians who have brushed up their inter-personal skills are also sought after, according to James Smith, senior business manager at IT recruitment firm MSB International.

“IT has been a buyer’s market for quite a while, but it’s changing into a candidate’s market,” he says.

A well-qualified technician who can do all the wizard stuff in the IT department and then explain to technophobe senior management why system X is so important to the health of the entire business will find that the world is fast becoming their oyster.

With these different skills making up an IT department, HR must take a balanced approach to how they are managed, Clements concludes.
“HR has to motivate the different types of people without there appearing to be a divide between those who are hired to develop the future and those who are essentially managing the past,” he says.

Is your IT department as good with
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