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The human inventory

The human inventory

At the most recent CIO/Computerworld roundtable, key players in the New Zealand hi-tech community dissected the skills shortage, the number-one challenge facing the sector.

Around the table Kevin Ackhurst, managing director, Microsoft NZ

Dr Margo Buchanan-Oliver, associate professor and co-director, Centre of Digital Enterprise, The University of Auckland

Aubrey Christmas, CIO, Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern)

Paul Matthews, chief executive, The 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

On a scale of one to 10, Paul Matthews, chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society, ranks the ICT skills shortage a “nine”.

The talent shortage is one of the critical issues affecting the growth of the economy, says Matthews. “There is a lot of talking about it, there are probably four or five different groups [in government] talking about it. We are trying to move it beyond talking.”

Matthews voiced his concern during the CIO/Computerworld roundtable, where he joined other major players in the New Zealand ICT community to dissect the number-one issue facing the sector.

Here are excerpts from the discussion:

So why aren’t the young people flocking to ICT?

Paul Matthews: I have talked to parents who would rather have their children do an accounting degree because they think it is more exciting than ICT. There is no incentive and there is no message getting through about the passion and excitement that is available in ICT. The money is there. IT is actually a very well paid profession once you get into the professional level. It is [about] the perception of ICT as a profession and a sector.

Bennett Medary: The young actually love using ICT to engage and to do things, so they are actually very active in ICT in that end-user kind of way. We are establishing platforms and tools that will enable lay people to do an enormous amount with IT and take it for granted as just the way you get things done. So the concept of ICT as an engineering profession, as a manufacturing profession, is lost on youth because they see that as something that is embedded within the products and services that they use. So while we created that shift because it is enabling mankind to do so much more, we have not actually necessarily amassed the consequences of that in terms of rolling the next generation of users on the creation side, as opposed to the user side.

What are your thoughts on how to go about it?

Kevin Ackhurst: We provide access to ICT without calling it ICT. Show people something that is of interest to them as opposed to showing them this is associated with ICT, which is important to know.

We do that through ICT competitions, by giving students access to competitions [like] the Imagine Cup. We showcase some of the things they do with ICT and it doesn’t have to be just computer programs. Different categories allow people to demonstrate some of the things they can do.

Bennett Medary: We are focusing on technology enhancing lives, on what does technology make possible and how exciting that can be. A lot of these young folk are an idealistic bunch. What they get excited about is how they can make a sort of difference to something. We did a lot more work in sharing these

technology-led miracles and how they transform life, society, supply chains or arts or medicine or education and make possible things that previously weren’t. I think that is where the magic is.

The role of the school

Don Sheridan: We have to teach them business principles because they have grown up with the technology, but they don’t understand the business system or systems. It is astonishing, they go to McDonalds and they have no idea what a supply chain is. They are surrounded by the business and have no idea. [After they finish the course] the students are given interesting tools to play with and they say, ‘this is not as bad as I thought it was’.

Margo Buchanan-Oliver: There is a bigger issue. I think there is a lack of appreciation of the business as a concept in the school system and that is from the primary right through. It is a job for all of us, business people can get together to revitalise the concept of business’ contribution [to society].

The leadership challenge

Owen McCall: The young people are not different, I think they have a lot more choices. And we are confusing the fact they have got those choices and are using them when in fact we never had those choices. Whereas today they have more choices and they have experiences from growing up in the digital world that we didn’t. Their central motivations are the same. The young people of today will eventually find their niche whatever it happens to be. And they will find that going forward. But it is always a leadership challenge. Maybe it is a function of the people we employ, but I don’t see any shortage of commitment to come in and start at the service desk and work through the organisation.

Developing ICT’s most wanted

Paul Matthews: We are looking at putting framework and structure of ICT as a profession as opposed to just having the knowledge and skills, communications, leadership and business understanding and those sorts of things. We are concerned about the process getting there, coming out of university.

We have got to understand ICT is about processes and about the profession as a whole, as opposed to using tools [for] underlying issues. The business stuff and entrepreneurship is a better term for that. We don’t teach them entrepreneurship, it is a slightly different issue from ICT. We are teaching people how to use Word or Excel, we are not teaching them how to create.

Owen McCall: It is our inability to attract technology-literate people who understand the business [that] is hurting us the most. And a catch cry for us as the moment is ‘we need to put more business into our business analysts’. That is the sharp end of the stick for us — to bring business-literate business analysts, who know the business as well as if not better than the people who execute the business. So we can take that experience and figure out how to deploy the solutions that help them.

Kevin Ackhurst: 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 [with] elements associated with the skills and productivity within the country. And then, also use the people as evangelists outside as well [for] the programs that you have for interaction with the Ministry of Education, universities, polytechnics. 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.

The route less travelled

Aubrey Christmas: “We have migrants coming in and half of them driving cabs or doing jobs they are not trained in. 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 so [we] give them flexible hours — nine to three or nine to two — so they are able to contribute to the workforce while the kids are in school.

[We are] getting people who want to switch careers, give them opportunities to do that. I think 60 percent 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 whether it is project management or project development; sending them for training in Microsoft or some course they think they want and they become the best producers because they are focused on making something happen, they will pick up anything they can to do it.

Building essential skills for the future

Bennett Medary: You look at all our business analysts and probably 70 per cent were the ones who came from business, as opposed to the ones who grew up in a formal training scheme through IT.

Owen McCall: As long as you are a systems thinker, developing an understanding of how the business works is absolutely critical. I am less concerned about hard core IT parts. I have seen too many systems implemented and failed 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.

Business community responsibility

Bennett Medary: I am not sure whether it is incumbent upon government or the educational system to promote the sexiness or the attractiveness of ICT per se, other than perhaps to assist us to do that if they view [ICT] as key to the economy which it is. That is our industry job and I think our industry is notoriously poor at coming together and trying to jointly present a single message that is easy for our audiences to get hold of. We present ourselves as a complex, interesting, exciting, but very diverse industry.

Aubrey Christmas: We don’t look at the end game of why we are trying to meet this need. We look at the traditional way of meeting the need [by] getting the people trained, [so] that supply becomes irrelevant if the demand is no longer there. I think we have to be conscious the Y generation are more agile to change than baby boomers or the generation X. I think we need to look at what is the end game or what the market segment [is] we want to look at, which is in this case the ICT industry and how do we grow people. 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. So we have got programmes where we can do that with businesses and not just say this is the responsibility of government or institutions or schools, but businesses and vendors should be able to say [that] to themselves.

Kevin Ackhurst: No one has sole responsibility for it, collaboration is the way.

I was recently with 25 CEOs of vendor organisations and ICT companies talking about common problems we can solve. At the end of the day we settled on a small number of things that could be impactful, and [the] first of these is the element associated with skills. 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.

And the government

Bennett Medary: If you look at Malaysia, India [and] places that are chasing the national strategy to become a developed nation over 25 years, [they are] consistent. Party after party stay in the programme, the vision is well established and so obvious.

In New Zealand we are not prepared to do that as a nation. [There is] no government or party that will give us a vision beyond 18 months to get us where we really want to go. We can’t go where we want to go if [we have] short-term systematic issues. What we have talked about will require [a] multi-party, multi-year commitment to get there.

Fairfax Business Media

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