Developing staff key to ICT skills shortage

Part two of an industry roundtable addresses solutions to the skills crunch

Formal training is just part of the solution to the ICT skills crunch, according to Microsoft New Zealand’s managing director Kevin Ackhurst. While Microsoft drives many of the most popular ICT certification programmes, Ackhurst says that is not really what it’s all about.

“It is the aspect of whether a CIO within the enterprise organisation might recognise skills inherent in a particular individual and utilise them,” he says, arguing the elements of ICT skills are broad and getting broader.

“Certification is never going to be something that completely fulfils that demand,” Ackhurst says. “I firmly believe if you are going to do business in a country like this you have got to prepare the capability of your own staff.”

That will augment the more formal activities of public agencies and education providers.

“We believe there is an opportunity for players such as ourselves to work together with others to make sure this is a common problem we will focus on. My suspicion is there is too much going on and not enough focused activity necessarily going on.”

Ackhurst says Microsoft could probably itemise 10 programmes it is involved in to improve ICT skills and he suspects other industry participants could do the same. However, it is more unusual to find several industry participants working together on these.

“Whether that means the vendors, industry, universities and our customers, we can work together to solve this problem more effectively than trying to solve it on our own,” he says. He adds that a recent meeting with 25 vendor organisations settled on skills as the first of a handful of issues that they could collectively address.

“If we can get 25 people, some of them partners and some of them competitors, sitting around a table in a couple of hours saying ‘Yes, we can do something’, at least we have got an intent there. The challenge we now have is to take that intent and translate it to some sort of action.”

For Margot Buchanan-Oliver, associate professor and co-director of the Centre of Digital Enterprise at Auckland University, the issue is about getting business back into the education system at secondary level and perceived as a desirable career path.

“The fundamental thing is I don’t think they [students] understand economic principles,” Buchanan-Oliver says. “We don’t teach them the same way perhaps the Americans teach them. They talk about the importance of economics they talk about capital… we don’t do that here.”

She says in New Zealand these are treated as discrete subjects, but they are not discrete.

“ICT shows us business and the world is not discrete everything is interwoven, everything is complex.”

Simpl Group CEO Bennett Medary says that rings “phenomenally true”.

“There aren’t many kids who say... I want to be a great business person; I want to be successful in business.”

That may change when people hit their 30s, but it is not happening at high school or university enough, he says. There has to be excitement about the ability of ICT to create change.

“If you get them excited about what technology will make possible; if we did a lot more work in sharing these technology led miracles and how they transform life or society, or supply chains or arts, or medicine or education and make possible things that previously weren’t, I think that is where the magic is. I think that is where we’ve lost,” he says.

Ackhurst says the broadness of ICT is one of the challenges it faces. It is ingrained in everything we do. We can provide access to ICT without calling it ICT, he says — as part of space programmes and research, for instance. He cites the recent Imagine Cup programming event as one such success, where students tackled issues of sustainability through original ICT development.

Aubrey Christmas, CIO of the Employers and Manufacturers Association Northern, takes another tack to the issue, focusing on unused or unrecognised capabilities — what he calls “non-traditional pathways”.

“There are lots of professionally skilled people out there that are not getting jobs,” he says. “We have migrants coming in and half of them [are] driving cabs or doing jobs they are not trained in.”

He also says there are a lot of mothers who, given the chance to work flexible hours, would come back into the workforce.

“Some things I have done with EMA and members is to hire these mums that want to be home with the kids but want to work when the kids are in school. Give them flexible hours 9 to 3 or 9 to 2 so they are able to contribute to the workforce while the kids are in school and will be there when the kids are back.”

A further opportunity, he says, lies with people wanting to switch careers.

“Give them opportunities to do that. I think 60% of my team are non-IT people. They picked up ICT because they saw the glimmer of hope and excitement about how it is working and how it is doing whether it is project management or project development.”

He says providing them with training can make them some of the best producers because “they are focused on making something happen, they will pick up anything they can to do it”.

Christmas says we have to look at the end game.

“I think we have to be conscious the Y generation are more agile to change than baby boomers or the X generation. I think we need to look at what is the end game or what is the market segment we want to look at which is, in this case, the ICT industry. You don’t grow people the traditional way because getting into university for four years and coming out of that is going to be too long, it is too late for most people.”

The Warehouse CIO Owen McCall says he is less concerned about the core IT function than the level of business understanding.

“I am stunned at the lack of intellectual curiosity that other people have. For me a business analyst who is not intellectually curious and just sits there and says, ‘Tell me what you want’ is dangerous — absolutely dangerous,” he says.

He says people have to be able to understand what is going on; have to be “systems thinkers” and develop an understanding of how the business works.

“I have seen too many systems implemented and fail when the technology was fine. It is the people and process capabilities issue that typically kill us. And those are the things that are critical, that we don’t do particularly well.”

McCall says the central motivations of young people are the same as they have always been, but they have more choices than older generations.

“Because they have the choices we have to be more conscious of how we lead and manage them, which we never had to in the past. And they have a lot of choices of where to go. So it is predominantly a leadership challenge.”

Skills panellists:

Kevin Ackhurst, managing director, Microsoft NZ

Margot Buchanan-Oliver, associate professor and co-director, the Centre of Digital Enterprise, University of Auckland

Aubrey Christmas, CIO, Employers and Manufacturers Association

(EMA Northern)

Paul Matthews, chief executive, NZ Computer Society

Dr Don Sheridan, associate professor, head of department of information systems and operations management, University of Auckland

Owen McCall, CIO, The Warehouse Group

Bennett Medary, CEO, Simpl Group

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