For better or worse, the phrase “technical professional” often conjures up images of pocket-protected IT geniuses. Stereotypical techies might seem a little awkward, but they can dismantle and reassemble equipment in minutes or quickly diagnose technical difficulties and fix them even faster.
Of course, this view is too simplistic to be accurate, but one piece of this stereotype has merit: Regardless of industry, overall, there is a lack of business acumen and skill for technical professionals.
For the purposes of this feature, technical professionals will be defined as people who have a deep or specialized technical ability, whether they’re project managers, business analysts, scientists, engineers or IT people.
Customers continued to say the same thing, and ESI commissioned a third-party research firm to compile information for a study titled “Defining the Market Need for Business Skills Training.” Research confirmed that yes, there is a need for business acumen among the technical workforce, and one of the primary issues or business needs uncovered was a need to better uncover business problems or opportunities with an eye toward creating better enterprise solutions.
She also said this has become more of an issue recently because IT has muscled its way to the management table. Most organizational endeavors, transformations or even simple work processes are supported by IT. Thus, as IT professionals become more business-facing when they lack a certain business savvy, it’s often obvious.
“A few years ago, we started hearing from customers that as they get more mature with their project management or other technical areas, they’re still not seeing the performance that they would like to see among their technical people,” Zinn said. “Anecdotally, they’d say to us, ‘Something’s missing.’”
Customers continued to say the same thing, and ESI commissioned a third-party research firm to delve further into the issue. Research confirmed there is a need for business acumen among the technical workforce, and one of the primary issues discovered was a need to better uncover business problems or opportunities with an eye toward creating better enterprise solutions.
“We keep hearing that planning is an issue, and that’s across both private and government sectors,” Zinn said. “The baby boomers are retiring, and there aren’t enough people with the technical ability, as well as the business savvy — how do you transfer all of that expertise and knowledge that these folks have accumulated over a number of years over to the up-and-comers?”
Another big identified gap is the need to make better business decisions, particularly as they relate to a global marketplace. Zinn said the days of picking “A” or “B” solution are over. Now, it’s all about, ‘What are the ramifications or larger issues affected if you pick A versus B?” Closely related are the need to be a better team lead and the ability to deliver persuasive messages and presentations.
“Communication, in general, is one of the challenges that we hear over and over again,” Zinn said. “This research crossed all industries. We interviewed decision-makers from large corporations like Fortune 1000 companies. Business skills are in need in the insurance industry, pharmaceuticals, telecom, IT and biotech, not just in one particular segment.”
To combat the lack of business skills, Zinn said that as with any type of learning, you must first identify the gap or the current skill state versus the future skill state.
ESI has developed a framework for business skills curriculum that uses four different perspectives to help learners get a firm grasp on exactly what business acumen or business savvy really is: strategic, operational, interpersonal and personal.
Zinn said business savvy is a relatively intangible skill set, therefore, the CLO has to work hard to make it tangible. This is especially relevant when one considers the typical technical audience: people who are logical, analytical and not always receptive to “soft” skills learning programs.
“We have tried to create a very ‘hard’ way of looking at this sphere of business skills, defining exactly what they are and providing specific tools, processes and procedures to help people execute with sound business skills,” Zinn explained. “For example, one of the areas that we have defined as a business skill is critical thinking. We often take thinking for granted, but if you have a group of technical people who have a challenge on a particular project — perhaps they haven’t met a particular customer requirement — most people would assume that the project manager would bring the team together, they would talk about it, analyze it, figure out what they’re going to do, create an action plan and implement.
“In our critical thinking area, we provide specific ways for them to think differently. We explain that there are four or five different types of thinking that they may use to address this particular problem at different times. For instance, they may first use analytic thinking to pick apart the problem, then use root cause analysis to figure out whether they dealing with the right issue. Once they do that, they may use creative thinking to generate a number of solutions to address the problem that they have identified. We provide a lot of different tools to help them think creatively. Once they’ve done all of this brainstorming, they may employ a different type of thinking, let’s say implicative thinking, to determine what the ramifications are of any one of those solutions. Then we have them use tools to select the most appropriate decision or solution. Whether that’s a decision tree or a fishbone diagram, whatever, we’re looking to provide very tangible and practical tools and instruments that this group of people can use to be successful.”