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Government CIOs urged to hire IT workers with soft skills

Kenneth Corbin | Aug. 22, 2014
As the federal IT operation shifts to a service-oriented model, CIOs need to staff up with managers with diverse backgrounds and the ability to work collaboratively with a diverse array of customers and providers.

The latest administration initiative came earlier this month, when the White House announced the U.S. Digital Service, an effort to improve consumer-facing government websites and upgrade the federal IT infrastructure. That program seeks to set "standards to bring the government's digital services in line with the best private sector services," and to identify "common technology patterns that will help us scale services effectively," according to a White House fact sheet.

... And That Means Federal CIO (and Team) Need Soft Skills
So where does this leave the federal IT workforce?

"You as a project manager in the IT organization have to understand more about the entities that are providing the service," Ash says.

That argues for hiring managers with a more diverse mix of experience that could include time spent in the private sector, along with stints at the federal, state or local levels of government.

"If you're a CIO and you want to get the most out of your contractors, it really helps to understand how contractors think," Cameron says. He suggests that CIOs focus on succession planning and building a pipeline of junior managers an effort that can be furthered by formalizing professionally enriching career paths.

Cameron also calls for CIOs to assume a more customer-service-oriented role. In that regard, he draws a line between commodity IT functions that can easily be outsourced or provisioned among agencies as shared services say, email and storage and those more specific "programmatic" applications that sub-agencies and bureaus might require. (The software that the TSA needs to support its airport screening operations, for instance, isn't as likely a candidate for the shared-service model as a payroll system.)

To serve their clients within the agency, though, CIOs and their top managers can position themselves as "facilitators" who can work with leaders in various corners of the organization and fulfill their IT needs, even if they aren't experts in the technology themselves, he argues.

"You're better off finding people who have solid, if not superior, technical skills but are really good at people management," Cameron says.

"If you look at almost any functional specialty whether it's IT or research biology at NIH or procurement at any agency once people move into management, they tend to have a much tougher time being on the cutting edge of technology, anyway, because they're necessarily involved in administrative activities," Cameron adds. "This is true in the private sector, too. Your real technical experts, the people with the best technical skills, tend to be the 25- to 40-year-olds who aren't in supervisory roles."


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