The slowing growth rate in the Indian IT industry has had its share of impact on the capability of the current middle management layer in the industry. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw heady 100% quarter and quarter growth for IT companies leading them to hire fresh engineers at the bottom of the pyramid in large numbers and putting them to short technical training programs and early deployment in production roles. Now, 10-15 years later that generation of the workforce is vying for middle management roles with very little opportunities owing to the slowing growth rate of the IT industry. Competition to get into that level in organizations is very intense with many aspirants chasing very few opportunities.
Gone are the years of regular promotions every other year and annual compensation hikes of 25% or more. More than ever, there is a need to skill this generation of Indian IT workforce with management fundamentals while they still have an opportunity to apply those skills at work and deserve to move into the next level in management. However, most in house corporate training programs have failed to get this exercise to scale to cover most of their employees. The onus then shifts to the employee to invest into himself/herself to ensure the growth that they expect. There are several professional training schools that have dedicated themselves to this opportunity and provide a range of programs ranging from a broad MBA program to very specific program focusing on creating a specific category of professionals e.g. product managers or client engagement managers from the existing pool of technical talent.
The relevance of business knowledge in a technology professional's career is manifold;
-For professionals in the software products business there is the issue of awareness of the needs of the target market, the need and importance of certain features over others, the way a feature needs to be implemented so that it is meaningful for a business user etc. There is also a need to understand the economics behind the product being developed - how to position the product, how do you price, what channels do you use to provide access to the product, what about ongoing support, what features do customers value and hence what model of pricing may be relevant. Understanding of the economics of the product lifecycle management process - when does the customer derive the maximum value from the product, when does the provide incur the maximum cost, what is the cost of upgrade to a future version for the customer and what is the cost to the vendor of continuing to provide that support and many more.
-For technology professionals that are helping clients in the implementation of packages like ERPs and other large systems, there is a definite need to understand not only product features from a business usage perspective but also understand the fundamentals of the business process that the feature is trying to support. Instead of just being a passive recipient of client needs, a good grasp of business fundamentals could allow these professionals to proactively suggest alternate methods that could help the client meet their business objective.
-For client engagement managers it is critical to understand the core business of the clients they support while not losing focus on the economics of their own business. A good knowledge of business fundamentals allow client managers to understand the business of their clients better leading to better quality conversations, more meaningful relationship and a long term partnership.
A business education program that aims to help mid-career professionals progress further must focus on the 5 Cs in the way they impart the education
For the business education program to be meaningful there has to be sufficient coverage of different functional areas that a professional needs to work through during an average day not only today but tomorrow as well. While finance seems to be a fairly common inclusion in most curriculum, the less glamorous but perhaps more important areas like Operations and People skills are often deprioritized. A good program must cater to the functional knowledge needs of not only the next role but a few levels ahead as well. Some programs tend to be overambitious and be everything to everybody and probably end up not satisfying any of the populations. A program which is intended for professional from the technology industry alone may be better placed to provide appropriate coverage.
Adults learn best when the concept is illustrated through a real life experience that they can correlate with. A gold standard in business education for working professionals must present real life problems from the technology industry and allow for the students to try and solve them without the benefit of theoretical concepts. Once the concepts are clarified, the students must be allowed to solve the same problem again using the concept to realize the elegance in the new solution. This method allows for the concept to be internalized much better than completing a full subject starting at Chapter 1 and going all the way to chapter 11...
No one really works alone in any professional field be it super specialty doctors or space scientists. Most professionals either succeed as a team or fail as a team. Consider a program that allows in you to work in small groups of folks with similar backgrounds and similar future aspirations that you can work together, learn from and also make friends for life beyond the context of the course you are doing.
In order to complement the functional skills professionals must always be in the pursuit of professional skills that enable them to be successful. Basic interpersonal skills like communication of business value through storytelling, negotiations skills, ability to network and the likes. Any business education program must focus on these professional skills in addition to core functional skills around the different business functions like sales, marketing, finance, HR etc.
In deference to the age and experience of the mid-career professional the need is more for 'coaches' rather than 'teachers'. The coaching ability of senior management professionals with hands on management experience in the corporate world must be preferred over the research/theory orientation of 'professors' in a typical management school. The hands on experience of the 'player coach' helps them communicate in a language that is well understood by both parties and leads to the 'coach' empathize with the student community way better to facilitate real learning.
In the connected world the content of business education has ceased to be a differentiator in the success of learning for the students. It is typically the 'how they learn' that tends to decide success vs. 'what they learn'.
(Rajul Garg is Director at Sunstone Business School)