The curse of IT specialisation
Losing sight of the big picture?
The Internet has changed many aspects of the way we work. From an IT professional's point of view it has made a fundamental difference to the efficiency of the market for IT skills. Agencies used to build their business on a large database of CVs they could match to client's job opportunities. Today they can reach a much wider selection of suitable candidates through job portals such as Jobserve and Top Consultant.
This has profound effects on the IT skills market. Where getting a job was a matter of luck and your diligence in contacting as many agencies as possible, success now depends on closely matching previous experience with the requirements of the job. A successful contractor depends on strong and relevant experience in a particular niche that is in demand at the moment. In other words, specialism is the key to success.
The Internet also improves efficiency of the market for information. Powerful search engines such as Google are very successful at finding information if it is published. Librarians and information searchers used to buy subscriptions to information publishers and consolidators such as Dialog and Factiva. Now they can achieve much the same result by searching the Internet at no cost. The quality and provenance of the information that they access may not be as good but accessing many different sources can compensate to some degree.
At present there are two counterbalancing forces affecting the information market. Popular publishers of information are steadily placing the good stuff on a subscription basis. This diminishes the pool of high-quality information available free on the Internet. On the other hand the increasing capabilities of search engines mean that they can compensate for this effect by searching more effectively and providing better context to evaluate their results. We don't now how this battle will turn out eventually but at the moment it looks like Google is winning and has captured a lot of the value in the publishing value chain.
For a publisher the efficient operation of this information market carries the same message as for IT contractors. The path to success is to publish unique in depth and specialist information that is unobtainable elsewhere. The efficiency of the Internet will enable such information to find a ready market while more generally-focussed information becomes a less valuable commodity.
In both cases that we have described above the market efficiency of the Internet leads to a rising specialisation. This aggravates the common problem in the IT industry that few of its practitioners can distinguish the wood from the trees. While many understand individual new technology components, fewer can orchestrate a range of technologies to support a business function. Many a CIO has complained about the shortage of IT people who understand the big picture. The question is how will IT professionals acquire an understanding of the broad range technology and if these skills lapse who will be able to create new strategies to deliver business value in the future?