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On-top of your game?

On-top of your game?

Most senior ICT executives are hard-pushed to find the time to upskill, never mind decide what the content and delivery method of that ongoing education should be. So what do CIOs need most right now and will education providers deliver?

The enemy of ongoing education for any executive is undoubtedly time, while New Zealand’s ICT executives say there’s also a dearth of useful educational opportunities to fit those limited time frames — particularly a lack of online learning opportunities and courses with practical, real world content. Robin Johansen, chief information officer for Beca Corporate, says while he has embraced a number of learning styles, he is unlikely to attend courses or seminars that don’t have “immediate utility” and is more likely to pay for an online course that can be used to meet immediate needs.

“I’m not sure that course providers are up for that in a general sense as yet,” says Johansen.

Walter Chieng, director of ICT for St Kentigern’s School says with 12 hours in 12 months to spare for his own education, he wants courses able to deliver instant results.

“Any training needs to be structured so it is applicable and able to be applied in the business right away. I don’t think there’s a lot on offer, and I don’t think [course providers] understand that the role of the CIO has continued to evolve and change over the years,” says Chieng.

Phil Brimacombe, CIO for healthAlliance, says what he probably needs is a personal mentor to help him decide what training would be best.

“I imagine I would want more than one thing, for example, the last major education I did was the MBA that I completed 10 years ago. So it might be useful to have a general update on business practices since that time. But also I want to extend myself beyond IT, and I imagine the best way to do that is to get secondments into other areas such as finance, HR, procurement and general business operations, with responsibility for specific deliverables. The benefit would be a broader skill set and experience for me and my employer.”

Brimacombe echoes the feedback we received from many CIOs, which included frustration over misperceptions of the senior IT executive role on the part of education course providers and, on occasion, employers. Senior ICT executives are business executives first and foremost, with a corresponding desire to upskill in executive management skills including leadership, recruitment and retention, cultural diversity, media and presentation, along with global sustainability. At the same time, their role is unique and so are those of their team members, meaning generic management courses are rarely of help. Most CIOs also feel they don’t have the time to engage in lengthy cerebral courses or accumulate knowledge that can’t be instantly applied.

“Universities probably have the best potential to deliver what CIOs want, but do they really know the real world or is it just theoretical? You want an [educator] who has been out there, with real life experience, who has lost a few hairs from their head,” says Johansen.

Brimacombe says another issue for CIOs is that as strategic managers, they focus on the business being at risk should their technical knowledge get out of date.

“A regular, high-level technology refresh explained in a practical, specific, down-to-earth summary would be of interest. So many briefings are either techno-babble, or so general that you are no wiser at the end,” says Brimacombe.

Overwhelmingly, the CIOs we spoke with said they valued industry conferences and events that drew them together, quipping they often receive more value from networking between themselves than from actual conference content. Collaborative opportunities of any kind are valued and many CIOs said they would benefit from a widespread national online forum, where they could share ideas and experiences and exchange IT vendor intelligence.

Our interviews revealed the following short ‘wish list’ for ongoing ICT executive education: Recruitment and retention skills (in particular, how to retain that pesky generation labeled ‘Y’); understanding global sustainability and how to promote and contribute to it; how to better communicate goals and aspirations to upper management — and how to be a more effective leader. To a lesser extent, technical skills on the wish list included better understanding of software virtualisation, effective deployment of standards such as ITIL, new mobile technologies; and how to embrace and implement service oriented architecture to its fullest extent.

One CIO explains: “The benefit for me would be gained through soft skill, leadership and management rather than technology courses. I need better staff retention and more contented happy people. It’s very clear to me the young people coming into IT march to a different drum and better knowledge and discernment would help us to know what to look for, because they may be Gen Y but they are also individuals.”

We canvassed a variety of education providers and asked them how all these specifically-identified needs might best be met. John Wall, CEO of leadership education specialist Sugar International, says management issues to do with recruitment, retention, leading different cultures and generations, and communicating effectively with upper management and others can all be addressed through personal development exercises and effort.

Wall says anyone can go on a short course with the goal of obtaining improved people management and other soft skills, but their attitude towards others and themselves is what determines whether that education will be a success.

“The number-one job at executive level is leadership; nothing else is more important. The CIO that wants to be seen as a serious business leader needs to demonstrate very clear leadership skills. Many senior executives see employees as staff rather than as their most important customer — and consider all the things managers are prepared to do to win a customer. Unless their attitude changes they won’t get the results they want,” says Wall.

He says younger ICT team members are likely to want to move on from a position within two or three years, regardless of the quality of that position or the culture of the organisation, and senior managers need to manage that reality.

“It’s important to avoid the build-up of cynicism that occurs when people leave and realise that people retention will never be what it used to be. Instead, build an infrastructure around the reality and develop strategies around that,” says Wall.

He says ICT executives might consider offering young team members funding for ongoing education, something Generation Y still values and that “locks in” the commitment of an individual to an organisation for at least the duration of the qualification; other strategies including revising induction courses.

“If Gen Y is going to get up and leave, then you have to build up a system around that to survive; be always recruiting, develop induction programmes that ramps up productivity from the start. Accept people will leave and get as much from them as you can while you have them,” says Wall.

This is not the same thing as growing cynical and treating new employees with a cavalier attitude — executive managers need genuine care and empathy when dealing with those above and below their positions, says Wall. Other goals in the Sugar programme, (which delivers bite-size collaborative and discussion-based modules spaced across several months), include how to develop visionary ability about where the organisation or division is heading, how to be an architect for business unit strategy, how to convey those ideas and goals to others including upper management; and how to confront personal demons in order to be a manager capable of managing people performance. Most people do not like confrontation and hassle, and the worst manager is the popular manager, says Wall.

“We try to change people’s behaviours, not ingrain them, and most people are really scared of that [change]. You need to challenge people to voice an opinion and to workshop around a room — online courses are great for imparting content, but not in effecting personal change,” says Wall.

Academic action

Patricia Fulcher, executive education manager for the northern region for Massey University, is interested in CIO feedback. She is aware there is a perception educators at academic institutions are out of touch with the issues faced by those at the coal-face of ICT management.

She says Massey has a leadership development programme in which workshops can be taken separately and are run by academics who have worked “in the real world”. Topics include global sustainability — a crash course on the ‘green factor’ if you like — international relations, inspirational leadership and cross-cultural communications, which Fulcher says is highly relevant for ICT managers wanting to recruit and manage employees from different cultures and generations.

“I was in India in December looking at [international executive education] trends. They included IT engineers graduating from the top Indian universities and enrolling here, because they have all seen the need to do an overview management qualification,” says Fulcher. This fits an observed international trend in which management programme leaders are actively encouraging their students to spend time experiencing management challenges and concepts in an environment culturally or economically different to their own — a concept more than a few New Zealand CIOs are quite keen on.

“I received an advert for a week’s CIO Masterclass training course at Oxford University in the UK, the content of which looked very interesting,” says Brimacombe.

As far back as 2004, the New York Times reported executive educators in the US were beginning to include opportunity for overseas exposure to management subjects as part of course content. Accordingly, China, South Korea and Japan were used to help students gain skills in foreign business logistics, ethics, global citizenship and supply-chain management.

Fulcher says Massey recently surveyed members of its MBA alumni to determine what categories of ongoing education executive managers were most interested in. The results are interesting because they underscore the needs identified by the CIOs we spoke to. Respondents highlighted management (48 per cent), personal development (46 per cent), finance (46 per cent) and marketing (39 per cent) as desired areas of further education — despite the fact they had already obtained an MBA degree.

While 40 per cent of respondents were ambivalent about course duration, 31 per cent preferred a one-day course, and 29 per cent a two-day course. Half of all respondents preferred short courses to run in the weekend, 72 per cent said their company or employer would pay toward short course fees, and a full 95 per cent said they would attend a university short course if it was offered in their region.

“Massey works with industry bodies and associations and that is how a lot of [ongoing education] connections are made. The bodies organise proper professional updates and we bring in speakers from overseas and pay them. The Massey executive education area would be happy to put their hand up to help co-ordinate that for a body of [ICT executives],” says Fulcher.

Raymond Harding, business and marketing manager for the Centre for Continuing Education and Executive Development at Victoria University of Wellington, says the Centre is committed to drawing from resources across the university to create courses that are both instantly useful and accessible for executive ICT managers.

“We have a number of courses around governance and people management including one on IT governance, one on enterprise and value management that focuses on the management of an organisation’s information assets; and another around ICT business investments and ICT architecture. We also have a number of courses around people coaching and how to manage staff across all levels, and a short course on exposing myths and explaining the traps and pitfalls to approaches to global sustainability,” says Harding.

Like Fulcher, he says VUW’s Centre for Continuing Education and Executive Development is at its best when given the opportunity to develop customised programmes for specific organisations or individuals — those who look only at existing programmes will find it more challenging to meet their ongoing education needs.

“We are more than ready to pull together a programme and offer a fixed price quote for one person or 20 people. We will send out a business development specialist and we can do that anywhere nationally or internationally,” says Harding.

Brendon Livingstone, manager for Equinox Learning, which specialises in education in and around the software development lifecycle, says Equinox includes courses for senior ICT managers and executives, while also engaging in practitioner-led training.

“We are first and foremost a software development and IT consulting business and training is the third part of the business. So we weave real world experiences into training, and deliver exercises based on those. Often when execs raise an issue relating to their work environment, our instructors can relate to that pretty quickly,” says Livingstone.

In keeping with widely accepted feedback that indicates ICT executives have almost no time to spare, Paul Ramsay, national consulting manager says most Equinox courses are two days long. “Where we do have larger courses, we tend to then break those up; such as a five-day programme delivered over two weeks,” he says. Equinox believes in instructor led, classroom training, yet realise online education offers flexibility and has its place.

“There are a lot more webinars as part of professional memberships, which offer free online training and online books. There’s already [online] interaction between CIOs in the public sector; but that’s more of a challenge to achieve in the private sector,” says Ramsay. Equinox also gets that CIOs are after collaborative opportunities. Senior consultant Pete Tansey says Equinox held one such meeting in which a CIO speaker had a 40-minuute presentation and then took questions from the floor.

“The whole process lasted around two hours and there were discussions around managing staff, communicating with upper management and IT governance. Where there are war stories and experiences to share, there’s always an interactive learning environment,” says Tansey.

Fairfax Business Media

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