Consultancy skills pay off for in-house staff

Getting IT workers to pretend they're external advisers can be beneficial

Jeff Ansell is trying to think less like an IT guy and more like a business person. “There are times when I’m in a conversation with a client and I have to step back and think, ‘If I were that person, would I know what I’m talking about?’ Because they don’t care about servers; they want to know they can click a button and pull up what they need,” he says.

Ansell, a junior database administrator, says receiving training in consulting skills has helped him empathise with the co-workers he’s meant to serve. And it’s paying off.

“The conversations are shorter, and things seem to get done quicker,” says Ansell, who works at CommunityAmerica Credit Union.

IT workers today are required to have more than technical know-how; they also need strong interpersonal skills. They must know how to build bridges, collaborate with business colleagues, influence outcomes — in a word, they must act like consultants.

“We need to be more consultative so we can understand our clients’ reality,” says Laura Gorman, who teaches Consulting Skills for IT Workers, a workshop run by Ouellette & Associates, a consulting firm. “But in general, people have not developed these skills, so they have to be much more conscious about how they’re communicating, how they’re listening and how they’re building trust.”

Gorman defines “consulting skills” as the ability to influence where you don’t have direct power. “Whenever you’re trying to influence someone, you’re trying to give them insight and perspective that they would not be able to understand or see on their own,” she explains.

The organisers of the IT Leadership Programme at Santa Clara University in California consider consulting skills to be so important that they devote nearly one-third of the three-day seminar to the issue, says Pete DeLisi, the program’s academic dean and president of Organisational Synergies, a consulting firm.

“The new work of IT has to do with successfully engaging the business community and delivering value to them,” he says. “That’s where the consulting skills come in.”

The programme teaches students how to communicate effectively — that is, to ask the right business questions, probe for the business needs and really listen to clients’ answers.

Wayne Brown considers consulting skills to be the ability to define business needs, to communicate those needs to a technical audience, and to then explain to business people how IT can address those needs. “CIOs and IT managers are consulting all the time. It’s what we spend most of our time doing,” says Brown, CIO at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. That’s why he believes that “anybody in IT management or anybody who wants to get into it” needs to take part in training like Santa Clara University’s IT Leadership Programme to develop consulting skills.

Brown took the course in 2000, when he was CIO at Heald College in San Francisco. He sent several of his managers there, too.

Guy J Russo, CIO at Community-America Credit Union, has found a similar payoff by having his staff attend the Ouellette & Associates workshop.

“The course really opens your eyes to the fact that there’s this whole business out there you’re supporting and you can’t isolate yourself,” he says.

“You have to step out of your shoes and look at it from their perspective,” Ansell says. The class has to cover a lot of ground over two days to get to that point, from building trust to applying consulting skills in specific circumstances, Gorman says. Instructors use case studies, role-playing and discussions to help IT workers learn to better understand and influence their non-IT colleagues. They talk about audience profiling — thinking about their audiences both within and outside of IT — and how to reach those audiences.

That’s one of the biggest messages that Jessica Sullivan, a developer at Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, took away from the Ouellette workshop. “I try to think about what the client is asking for, and I’m more willing to dig deeper,” she says.

“It’s a different mind-set,” says Paul Dachsteiner, vice president of IT at Cole Haan Holdings, a subsidiary of Nike. “It’s not just sitting down with someone and saying, ‘Tell me what you want.’ Now when we sit down with people, we want to hear what they’re doing from a business perspective.”

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