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Business Learns to Speak IT--and Vice Versa

September 15, 2004
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article

If men are from Mars and women from Venus, then employees from IT often seem to come from entirely different solar systems than their colleagues in other departments. The IT side mystifies with talk of bits and bytes, says Maria Schafer, senior program director with Meta Group in Stamford, Connecticut. The business people make unreasonable demands because they often have no concept of the realities, cost and complexity of technology. The result is a frustrating waste of time and money.

    How can you get the two alien life-forms speaking the same language? Southern California Edison, the nation’s ninth-largest utility, has implemented two innovative training programs that bring both the IT and business sides down to earth--and help each understand the other’s point of view.

    In August, Edison kicked off a program called "IT Essentials for Business Leaders," in which 20 of the company’s most senior executives spent three intensive days learning such things as IT terms and how to cost-justify IT projects.

    The IT Essentials program dovetails with a recent organization-wide initiative to improve business processes that is being spearheaded by Southern California Edison’s CIO, Mahvash Yazdi. As Mariette Keshishian, Edison’s manager of IT training and communication, points out, improving almost any kind of business activity, from marketing and selling products to supply-chain management, often hinges on technology. So executives across all departments need to be well versed in technology issues if Edison is to wring out the efficiencies that are required for a heavily regulated utility to thrive.

    Edison considered 12 universities for the IT Essentials program, including the usual suspects like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. After site visits to six schools, Edison chose the business school at Pepperdine, whose main campus is near the sandy beaches of Los Angeles, because of cost, location and reputation. Over the next two to three years, the top 300 executives at Edison are expected to take the "IT Essentials for Business Leaders" program.

    "I don’t know of any other companies doing this type of thing," says Schafer of Meta Group. "This is an uncommon approach, but it shouldn’t be."

    While the IT training for business executives is brand new, Edison’s IT workers have been learning about their counterparts’ issues for two years. In April 2002, Edison launched a yearlong IT leadership-development program. It starts with a 360-degree evaluation in which the IT managers’ competencies are measured along 10 dimensions--such as how passionate a team leader they are--based on feedback from their employees, peers, managers and others.

    This is followed by a "boot camp," four half-day sessions where IT managers study things like how to influence direct reports. Edison’s overall IT managerial training program comprises 17 to 20 days of classroom and computer-aided training in such key areas as team-building and budgeting. "We have an incredibly talented group of IT individuals who are quite technologically competent," Keshishian says. "What we need to do is add the soft skills to humanize the technical qualities."

    Schafer says that Fortune 500 companies usually provide this kind of training only for high-level IT executives who report directly to the CIO. Edison, however, is starkly different for including lower-level managers such as senior project managers and technical specialists. Indeed, more than a tenth of Edison’s 1,400-person IT workforce has entered the program, which is a prerequisite for certain promotions.

    Edison’s management-certification program has modules that include topics such as "finance and budgets within IT" and "leading in uncertain times." The IT leadership program focuses on some areas that are not part of Edison’s general corporate managerial training, such as "client partnering"--working more closely and better with employees of other departments. "We are moving from a mind-set where the IT department was only interested in the technical aspects to where we see the importance of partnering and collaborating with partners," says Carl Langaigne, Edison’s manager of IT human resources.

    A few top universities offer certification programs in IT management, but Keshishian says these are not necessarily endorsed, managed or measured by the companies of the people who attend them. "What we saw was that IT executives who wanted to take such programs had to sell it to their management," she says. "It was not consistently applied or endorsed by senior managers."

    The IT leadership program succeeds, Edison officials say, because of high-level endorsement. The boot camp always begins with a presentation by the CIO. Indeed, Edison’s Executive Technology Council has identified leadership competency as a core emphasis for the IT department, along with project-management skills and information security.

    "In many companies, IT people aren’t even allowed to take any training that falls outside pure technology subjects," Schafer says. "But what they need is a three-dimensional approach like this that includes the technology, business and interpersonal aspects. For the IT departments to operate at peak efficiency, they need to understand the business premise of why their projects are being done in the first place."

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