Get skills in order, consultants warned

Liska Johnson, hired last June as an IBM Corp. consultant, has her eyes on the prize. Armed with an MBA with an emphasis in information systems management from the University of Minnesota, Johnson’s goal is to become a practice leader in IBM’s global IT practice.

To that end, she’s learning everything she can about key acronyms like BI (business intelligence or business integration) and CRM (customer relationship management). These are among the areas that analysts and observers predict will be hot in the next couple of years.

“I’m building a broad repertoire of experience so that I can move into a principal position within IBM,” the Minneapolis-based consultant said.

With year 2000 projects wrapped up and mop-up work begun, information technology consultants like Johnson are now faced with a brave new world of opportunity. Trends toward globalization, mergers and acquisitions, corporate divestitures and joint ventures are driving the need for experienced consultants who can take the 30,000-foot view of corporate information systems.

As companies try to leverage their expensive investments in enterprise resource planning (ERP), consultants who once specialized in SAP implementations shouldn’t expect to sit on their laurels.

“ERP consultants will find their salaries reduced by half” unless they begin to think about leveraging their skills to incorporate broader business integration skills, warned Kevin Campbell, market leader for products and a partner in global operations at Ernst & Young LLP in New York.

Within the overall umbrella of business integration, experts said, the biggest areas of growth in IT consulting are:

Customer Relationship Management. CRM applications – and all their attendant and supporting technologies – will present huge opportunities for consultants.

ERP and On-line Procurement. This area of ERP is Oracle Consulting’s second-fastest growth area. The company has posted a 202 per cent growth in requests for consultants with expertise in procurement during the past year, said Keith Costello, vice-president of Oracle Corp.’s worldwide marketing and strategy. “Our clients see savings in non-production procurement as an area of tremendous opportunity.”.

Increasing interest in CRM and Web-based procurement systems means companies will need the help of experts in the areas of data warehousing, mining and management, network integration, security and Linux.

Experts also point out that narrow-minded consultants who hunker down over their specific knowledge of tools or languages without paying attention to the big picture may find that they go out to nice dinners less often than those who can claim experience with broad architectural issues.

“Consultants have to think of moving from a one-dimensional world where they understand a single technology to a three-dimensional world in which they have to mix together various business options,” Campbell said.

“You have to be part salesman, part technologist and part architect – those aren’t things IT departments have internally. The key outside people will be the ones who can think through various technology options and understand their business effects.”