ssyp - a view from the field

Category: Education

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The subject of nontechnical “soft” skills is well recognized as being an important concern of today’s organizations and a critical issue to the success of Information Systems (IS) professionals. This paper aims to improve our knowledge about how the subject is perceived and managed by the industry and which are the most relevant “soft” skills in order to assure that new IS professionals can smoothly integrate into ”real world” organizations. Moreover, the present study is part of a wider project – the Weknow Project - that deals with methodologies and tools that could support the process of knowledge transfer between experienced and new professionals. For that reason, this study also intends to identify which “soft” skills can be more efficiently transferred by knowledge exchange between professionals of distinct generations.


Presentation Transcript

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Nascimento J. C. Pimenta P. Schroeder S. et al: “Soft ” skills for young is- professionals: a view from the field. In: Proceedings of the International Conference for Information Systems 2008 in Algarve-Portugal April 9th-11th. Hrsg. v. Nunes M.B. et al: Institute for the Management of Information Systems 2008: 175-184. “SOFT” SKILLS FOR YOUNG IS PROFESSIONALS: A VIEW FROM THE FIELD José Carlos Nascimento University of Minho Guimaraes Portugal Pedro Pimenta University of Minho Guimaraes Portugal Sanaz Schroeder RWTH Aachen University Aachen Germany Ellen Sjoer Delft University of Technology Delft Netherlands Eamonn McQuade University of Limerick Limerick Ireland Peter Fabian University of Zilina Zilina Slovakia ABSTRACT The subject of nontechnical “soft” skills is well recognized as being an important concern of today’s organizations and a critical issue to the success of Information Systems IS professionals. This paper aims to improve our knowledge about how the subject is perceived and managed by the industry and which are the most relevant “soft” skills in order to assure that new IS professionals can smoothly integrate into ”real world” organizations. Moreover the present study is part of a wider project – the Weknow Project - that deals with methodologies and tools that could support the process of knowledge transfer between experienced and new professionals. For that reason this study also intends to identify which “soft” skills can be more efficiently transferred by knowledge exchange between professionals of distinct generations.

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To accomplish these goals a questionnaire was completed by senior professionals of both IS and non-IS companies and several semi-structured interviews were conducted with a selected panel of senior managers in order to identify the most relevant “soft” skills as perceived by the field but also to understand the rational that supported the choices. Our findings show that organizations and senior managers have a significant awareness about the subject and that structured and consistent opinions are reasonably disseminated. Both IS and non-IS respondents agreed on the primacy of structural “soft” skills such as responsibility ethical mind-set self motivation and learning attitude that appear as the foundation for any professional development in all the domains. In contrast different opinions where expressed in terms of IS and non-IS professional needs with a more conservative approach from the global panel while senior IS professionals stressed the importance of skills linked with change management risk taking and network collaboration. The findings also stressed that work experience and real world exposure are fundamental and irreplaceable tools in developing nontechnical “soft” skills. Therefore higher education institutions need to pool resources with industry in order to build a “growth medium” where IS students may well develop the skills they need as future IS professionals. KEYWORDS Human resources Nontechnical Skills IS professionals Knowledge transfer. 1. INTRODUCTION Nontechnical “soft” skills is not a new subject to the IS field and have long been described as critical to IS professional activity. In fact there is a growing awareness that few activities and professions have seen such a rapid change over the past years as the activities and professions related to the field of Information Systems IS Lee et al. 1995 and in essence there is a general agreement between industry and academia that “soft” skills are becoming more and more important as these transformations occur. Nevertheless due to the subjective nature of the topic and to the complexity of the “learning process” it is normally accepted that few attempts have been made to study systematically the concept of “soft” skills Joseph et al. 1999 and therefore significant research should be conducted addressing the topic Muzio et al. 2007. Therefore the present study aims to improve our knowledge about the subject and to provide some objective contributions to a debate where subjective and non-systematic approaches are dominant. 2. THE WEKNOW PROJECT As previously stated this study is part of the Web Knowledge Map WeKnow project. WeKnow is an EU funded project in the European educational program Socrates in the field of Information and Communication Technology and Open and Distance Learning in education. The project is coordinated by the Centre for Learning and Knowledge Management and Department of Computer Science in Mechanical Engineering of RWTH Aachen University GER. The further participating partners are the Centre for Education and Technology of the Delft University of Technology NL the Department Electronic and Computer Engineering of the University of Limerick IE the Faculty of Management Science and Informatics of the University of Zilina SK and the Department of Information Systems of the University of Minho PT. WeKnow aims at developing an integrated methodology by which knowledge will be transferred between experts from industry and new generation professionals. The outcome of WeKnow will be an innovative web-based learning support system the Web Knowledge Map that suits the "net generation" best and will integrate vital information and knowledge of experienced employees as well as innovative scientific knowledge. The project achieves its results by designing the Web Knowledge Map jointly with university teachers students and retiring experts of industry the main target groups of WeKnow in order to improve how current or emerging information and communication technologies ICT can mutually enhance the learning capability and learning effectiveness of individuals and organizations. The strength of this project is a thorough analysis of the needs and content contributions of all the target groups in order to overcome the classic barriers between general academic educational and vocational education. According to the principles and goals of the global WeKnow project a specific implementation concerning nontechnical “soft” skills was designed. Under the scope of this project and to assist its implementation the

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present study aims to identified which “soft” skills are relevant to the industry which are seen as more suitable to be transferred between senior experts and students and how the relationship between industry and educational institutions should evolve in order to satisfy identified needs. 3. THE NEED FOR NONTECHNICAL “SOFT” SKILLS Research and general management literature has a long “track record” pointing out the relevance of nontechnical “soft” skills to modern organizations. References to a multitude of personal skills and relational skills like leadership communication teamwork innovative behavior or negotiation can be found in everyday business literature and normally even if not so often in academic journals. In the last two decades as a result of significant transformation that occurred in the use of Information Technologies IT and in the role of Information Systems IS in organizations Turner 1998Winter et al. 1997 the topic of IS professionals skills and development attained more attention from researchers. In effect several IS studies tend to reflect upon transformations in IS functional roles Feeny et al. 1999Niederman et al. 1991Brancheau et al. 1996 Rockart et al. 1996 and ways of organizing the function Boynton et al. 1992 Malone 1997 Cross et al. 1997 Heckman 1998 Sambamurthy et al. 1999. As a result IS professionals are referred to as deeply affected by this path of change and the research literature addressing the “soft skills subject is increasing. Nevertheless not much has been done beyond recognizing the importance of the subject. Strong theoretical frameworks are missing Joseph et al. 1999 in order to prepare and organize these professionals for the variety of tasks that are expected of them. Some significant studies were conducted envisaging a complete scenario covering IS professional skills from the viewpoint of organizational global needs Heckman 1998 Lee et al. 1995 but most of existing literature is mainly focused in some particular skills or groups of skills. For instance developing leadership skills has been addressed by several authors Klenke 1998 Applegate et al. 1992 Farren et al. 1996 as a response to a more “challenging” role that has been identified for the IS function Cross et al. 1997 Khalil 1997 Winter et al. 1997 Wilcocks et al. 2000. Similarly as a response to the growing importance of topics like IS services DiRomualdo et al. 1998Hirschheim et al. 1993 IS and business alignment Reimus 1997 Thompson et al. 1999 Brown et al. 1994 and the multi-disciplinary nature of IS projects some partial studies covered a diversity of related skills such as teamwork proficiency and network development Thomsett 1999 Swan et al. 1996 communication skills Janczewski 2001 or managerial skills Mathiassen et al. 1999 Jurison 2002. Complementing these specific approaches other authors used different perspectives such as analyzing the evolution of the IS job marketMaier et al. 1998 and the demanded IS skills Todd et al. 1995. From another viewpoint important studies were focused on the model curriculum in the IS field. Work on model curriculum has been done since the 80’s by professional and academic organizations such as ACM AIS or the AITP formely DPMA. The “IS’97 Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems” Davis et al. 1997 and its 2002 Update Davis et al. 2001 are the most significant results of these efforts. Again if some concerns with “soft” skills can be found within these relevant works the topic doesn’t have not the same amount of attention as technical skills and most of the references in the preambles don’t have proportional attention in curricula’ models. Similar position towards the topic can be found near professional organizations. For instance in the report of the “Annual Workforce Development Survey” presented by the Information Technology Association of America ITAA in 2004 despite the recognition of “soft” skills as “a sharper competitive advantage” for technical workers and the identification of “relational skills” as an important issue to “those actually hiring IT workers” only a page is dedicated to the subject confronting the much larger attention devoted to technical skills. In fact albeit research dealing with a holistic view of “soft” skills is nowadays frequent conducted in areas that are adjacent to IS like the one that deals with the global needs of project managers Muzio et al. 2007 we can still say that “soft” skills in the IS domain is an area that still demands significant research especially when a correlation between industry needs and new professionals capabilities is looked for. Lined up with the lack of theoretical frameworks and despite the recognition of the importance of this topic the approach to the problem taken by higher education institutions is still founded on subjective rationales and wishful thinking. As an attest of the concept it’s easily verifiable that technical skills are

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normally hardly-coupled to specific learning units in almost every IS undergraduate course while only a few references are made concerning which and how nontechnical “soft” skills can be developed. 4. RESEARCH APPROACH AND DESIGN Some particular concerns about the research approach were raised due to the researchers’ belief that a study that deals both with IS professionals and “soft” skills needs contributions both from technological and social science areas. Actually the particular nature of IS professional activities claims an adequate comprehension of the context concerning mutually technological organizational and social transformations. Simultaneously research skills that relate with personal relational and social characteristics of the individual demanded approaches and techniques that are more common in social sciences. Additionally the uncertainty that applies to the future of IS activities and professions the lack of accepted frameworks to anticipate IS function evolution and the nature of the research problem recommended that the research approach should be based on complementary research methods and techniques in line with the acceptance of diversity in research approaches Markus 1997. Based on the same principles it was also assumed that a more valuable contribution could be made if theory were derived from data obtained from fieldwork with minimum preconceptions about the problem being researched. Under these assumptions the ontological and epistemological principles of interpretative research Klein et al. 1999 Orlikowski et al. 1991 were found more suitable to the achievement of the research goals and accordingly propositions were expected to derive openly from a continuous interplay between researchers and data Strauss et al. 1998. 4.1 Research problem and questions In the main this study seeks to understand how organizations and managers feel and deal with the topic of non-technical “soft” skills and what are their thoughts and rationales about the most relevant “soft” skills for new generations particularly to the new IS professionals. According to the above several research questions were raised:  What’s the awareness of the industry concerning “soft” skills particularly regarding young IS professionals  Which nontechnical capabilities skills and attitudes of young IS professionals are most demanded and valued by today’s organizations  What are the main differences between “soft” skills expectations regarding IS and non-IS graduated students  Which of the relevant “soft” skills are more suitable to be transmitted from senior experts using a web-based learning support system like the web Knowledge Map 4.2 Research design The research process was divided in two major stages. Due the lack of theoretical references and solid research in these areas a first stage was implemented in order to gain a better insight about the problem under research. During this preliminary research a debate was raised using different approaches such as open interviews an exploratory questionnaire and the creation of a group of discussion that was and supported by an online forum. At the end of this stage the research problem was better defined allowing the research team to conduct the second stage using more reliable tools and trustworthy principles. For the second stage a mixed research approach was used combining both quantitative and qualitative tools in order to fulfill two different goals: first in a very objective approach to discover which “soft” skills were mostly appreciated in new IS professionals by the industry and secondly to understand also “why” it was occurring as an addition to knowing “what” was happening in order to sustain qualified interventions in these domains. 4.2.1 A questionnaire to find “which Skills”

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To attain the first goal a closed questionnaire was chosen due to the fact that precise answers were envisaged. An Internet version of the questionnaire was implemented as the major tool to collect data. The questionnaire was divided in two major sections: A first section where 40 soft skills were showed grouped in four clusters: personal skills relational skills leadership and management skills and business orientation skills. For each skill a short definition and a longer explanation were presented. From each cluster the respondent should select 3 “most important skills” and 3 “other important skills”. A second section where the respondent was expected to fulfill two complementary tasks: to narrow the selection of the “most important” soft skills by choosing only 5 skills from the 12 previously selected and to point out which of these top 5 skills are more apt to “be transferable” using a multimedia platform. Finally same optional information was asked from the respondent - personal professional data and any additional contributions - and an “e-mail” with a synthesis of the answers was send to the respondent. 4.2.2 Interviews to understand “why” To fulfill the second goals semi-structured interviewing was selected as research tool to collect information from experts and senior managers who contributed with their experience interpretations and views. The interviews were conducted in a short time after the filling of the questionnaire in order to gather the fundamentals and the rational that enlighten why these “soft” skills were chosen as the most relevant and/or transferable by the interviewee. These interviews were supported by a script that acted as “hidden agenda” to the interviewee allowing the researchers to conduct the interview as a result of the interview process itself rearranging the order and the deepness of the subjects without losing control Oppenheim 1992. 4.2.3 A partnership with the field Having in mind the importance of gaining access to relevant players in the industry and the level of partnership that was expected in future stages it was decided to conduct the research in straight cooperation with expert people in the field. Thus this research was conducted with Share a “non profit” Portuguese organization whose members are mainly retired senior professionals from multiple professions that have as their primary goal to share their knowledge and experience with new generations of professionals. 5. A VIEW FROM THE FIELD As stated before an Internet version of the questionnaire was the main tool to collect data which was consolidated in a MS-Access Database to permit better data manipulation. A total of 121 contributions from the field were accepted as valid and 34 of these were classified as from the IS field 28 either because of the professional activity of the respondent or because of the focus activity of the company. It’s important to highlight that the questionnaire was answered almost by managers and senior professionals and that only a small part of the responses were anonymous which allowed a better qualification of respondent’s characteristics. Complementing the questionnaire information has been collected from a group of 15 IS leading experts through semi-structured interviews Oppenheim 1992 that were most of the times taped for later audition. One of the major concerns for these interviews was to assure the diversity of original fields of the contributors senior managers IS managers senior consultants and IS industry managers in order to assure a trans-disciplinary approach. Another concern was to assure an equilibrium between IS and non-IS activities to make possible an understanding of how IS professional needs diverge from those of other young professionals. 5.1 Field awareness and perceptions One of the main research goals was to perceive how seriously and deeply the subject was imbedded in daily activity of Portuguese organization and managers. Based on the data gathered from the field it possible to say that there is a great level of awareness about the subject. Nevertheless almost all the interviewees stated

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that this level of awareness had no major impacts in the way the subject is being managed both by higher education institution and by the companies. In an attempt to explain the lack of actions and promotion of solutions a triangle was virtually drawn by the experts that contributed to the process:  Traditional teaching approaches that proved to be efficient to support graduate students in the technical skills acquisition process will have a minor impact when used to support the development of “soft” skills. As stated by many interviewees the only effective way to support the “soft” skills’ development process it to “immerse” future IT professionals in a “growth medium” or “cultural medium” that can act as a helpful environment for “soft” skills acquisition. In fact according to the people from the field most of the significant personal and professional “growth” that now takes place in the first years of professional activity which provided the “growth medium” that can be found in the professional world after a long stay in the “aseptic” environment that was provided by higher education institutions.  As the second vertex of the drawn triangle it was stated that without significant collaboration from industry higher education institutions could experience great difficulties to create and provide a wealthy “growth medium” to IT/IS students. Higher education institutions can by themselves and with significant efforts recreate a “laboratorial representation” of everyday’s life but without all the richness of “nutrients” and “relations” that are naturally present in the field. Beyond doubt it was accepted that the contact with practiced professionals the experience from factual projects the connection with actual organizations and problems are fundamental growth factors and nutrients that can be better or even only gained from an effective collaboration between academia companies and IT/IS professionals.  Thirdly it was acknowledged that the platform of collaboration between academia and practitioners are stills very fragile mainly supported by individual and detached initiatives rather than by institutional and widespread ones. Nevertheless the weakness of the relation is not due to fundamental disagreement about the subject but to the small number of time-honored ties and to the scarcity of commonly built tradition which compromise the quality of the relationship. In fact during the research it was possible to identify the unsuitability between truthful intentions and perceived needs for cooperation and the shortage of knowledge of how to effectively promote it. As result of the above it’s important to stress the relation between these three vertices and that any changes in any of them will impact and change the two others. As a consequence any effort to strength any of these dimensions will have positive impact on others. 5.2 Soft Skills for Young IS professionals 5.2.1 Personal skills As a result of data analysis regarding personal skills clusters an important finding emerged as a pattern showing how relevant “structural skills” are perceived by the field. Despite previous expectations on some “day-by-day” skills that could immediately support operational tasks it was clear that the field honored fundamentals skills which could assure a reliable growth path to young professionals’ career. In fact “To be responsible/ to assume responsibility” and “To have a positive attitude towards learning and self-improvement” were elected as the most relevant skills both by IS and global respondents to the questionnaires. Additionally in line with this concern about personal and professional robustness IS participants selected “To show an ethical behavior and social concern” as the third skill postponing to fourth place “to seek quality organization and rigor” led to better acceptance in the global group. As a reinforcement of the relevance of “structural” skills it should be mentioned that the 3 personal skills chosen by IS participants ethical behavior responsibility and positive attitude towards learning were among the 5 most referred skills in the global “five most important skills” question respectively 2 nd 3 rd and 5 th. . 5.2.2 Relational Skills Relational Skills are frequently presented as equivalent to non-technical “soft” skills. The relevance of behaving naturally in a networked world was emphasized by many of the interviewees as a consequence of changing patterns in today’s organizations. According to the field three major drivers support these changes especially in IS professional context:

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 The first and obvious one deals with the growing importance of teamwork by-and-large accomplished by teams that include professionals from different organizations and multiple areas of expertise.  The second one originated in the principle that “today more important than doing is to assure that it’s done” as stated by one of the interviewees stressing the importance of services in today’s organizations. Despite the simplicity of this statement is important to emphasize how remarkably this paradigm change shapes today’s IS professional’s skills.  Finally “time dimension” emerged as the third driver based in statements which highlighted that “shorter sooner and faster” are customary requisites for today’s tasks projects and products. And to accomplish this “need for speed” we depend more and more in dynamic and short lived teams supported by a continuous process of reconfiguration whose effectiveness depends on the “strength” of the relational skills of their members. In line with these ideas that emphasizing the significance of relational skills data gathered from the questionnaire showed “To feel attracted by teamwork” and “To adjust easily to new contexts” were key choices both from IS and global arenas. As third choice “To share and to transfer knowledge” was selected by IS professionals while globally the selected skill was “To communicate efficiently and to be persuasive”. Remarkably this small nuance was the first sign of an important finding which strengthened with deeper analysis of the data within this and other clusters and that was corroborated by the beliefs expressed by experts: respondents from the IS field who tend to attach more importance to aspects related with networking and collaborative work while global respondents showed them to be more attached to hierarchical models of organization and communication. 5.2.3 Leadership and Management Skills The analysis of data from this cluster reinforced the significance of “structural” skills in the field. In fact “To have charisma to inspire confidence and credibility” was elected as one of the most important skills in this cluster in almost 50 of the questionnaires both from IS and global participants and was the fourth referred skill in the global “five most important skills” question. The “soft” nature of this skill was stressed by a senior manager that characterized “charisma” as “something that is very difficult to define but that is easily detected when we are confronted with it”. It’s important to highlight that the relevance that was awarded to “charisma” in the questionnaires is consistent with the apprehension due to the lack of leadership in different organizational levels that was expressed in most of the interviews. Additionally “leadership” was defined as the critical issue by threes of the interviewees. Concerning other expressions from the field regarding these skills two major lines were identified:  First as a corroboration of the thoughts expressed above two other selections where “To have a vision and to attract people to projects” and “To promote innovation and change”. The choice of these skills that received the mutual agreement of IS and global respondents show the general concern about the need to prepare young professionals in promoting and driving change in a networked environment.  Second showing some specificity in the IS field IS respondent elected as an important skill “To have a holistic view of the business” while the other respondents’ choice was “to motivate and evaluate individual and team work”. These different choices can be accepted as a reinforcement of the propositions that were drawn at the end of the previous section. 5.2.4 Business Orientation Skills In this cluster the most important skill was “To be ‘customer’ oriented” as was expected from the preparatory work. It’s important to mention that albeit the use of quotation marks around the word ‘customer’ in order to express the lato sensus use of the word many experts reinforced the idea that ‘customer’ should be taken as any person any organization internal or external to whom services are provided. These facts show that services’ concepts have deep roots in organizations namely in the IS field and also that the early preparation of future professionals for this environment is a critical issue. Emphasizing the relevance of this skill it’s important to state that it was the most referred as one of the “5 most important skills” collecting the preference of more than one third 36 of the respondents. Concerning other choices this cluster of skills showed the largest divergence between IS field and global opinions. Data gained from the IS field showed a major concern with “risk” and “risking” supported by the selection of “To evaluate and manage risk” and “To have a innovative attitude and to be ‘different’ non conformism” as second and third most important skills. From global field the others most important skills

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were “to manage by objectives/results” and “To be effective in finding answers and problem solving". When confronting these choices with those from the IS field - and having also in mind the results from other clusters - we must agree with one of the experts which stressed that “IS professionals must adopt a ‘challenger’ attitude even when only a ‘responsive’ attitude in expected by the organization”. 5.2.5 Knowledge Transferability The importance of knowledge transfer between generations has shown to be a very spontaneous subject among the interviewees. Two of the most repeated ideas were that “’soft’ skills cannot be taught but can be learned by contact” as stated by one participant and in a complementary way that most of the nontechnical skills – if not all - can be developed by continuous working out. Under these principles it seems always possible to develop a “soft” skill if an adequate environment is provided combining experienced counseling and committed practice. Nevertheless as a recognition that some skills are more easily transferred than others when asked to ponder both relevance and “transferability” the field adopted three different attitudes: some important skills were kept such as “to be ‘customer’ oriented” and “to show ethical behavior” others were dropped such as “to have charisma” possible because they are seen as more difficult to transfer and finally some get an higher position such as “to communicate efficiently” “to seek quality organization and rigor” and “to manage by objectives and results” as they appear simultaneously important and easier to be transferred. 6. CONCLUSIONS AND FUTHER DEVELOPMENT As stated before the present research is part of a larger project – the WeKnow Project – and accordingly most of the results findings will be used to support a specific implementation concerning “soft” skills development. The present study was an important contribution to reaffirm the underlying principles that supported the WeKnow Project proposal. In fact the work that was conducted in the field gives emphasis to the real importance that industry and particularly senior management attributes to the amount of “soft” knowledge that support organizations’ success. Furthermore the research process shows a deep concern about losing a significant part of the implicit knowledge that was collected by present-day professionals during their careers. Expressions of this concern stressed that “soft” skills and implicit knowledge are fundamental factors in terms of business continuity and that despite the intangible nature of these assets they are recognized as being of critical importance. In line with these findings the field clear expressed that the “maturity” of new generations of professionals namely in terms of “soft” skills will be a critical factor in terms of implicit knowledge preservation and in minimizing all the disruption that the replacement of experienced professionals can cause. Therefore the level of “seniority” of young professionals when joining the “real word” was presented has the most significant element to support the knowledge transfer process mutually by shrinking the integration period and by providing “ready to learn” professionals to the field. Another contribution from this study is that despite the lack of structured collaboration between the industry and higher education institutions there’s no replacement for this collaboration viz: i. The academic community must continually monitor industry in order to better understand how to adapt the educational process to “real-world” needs providing the professional skills that are called for ii. In a changing environment to monitor and to understand is sometimes not enough and contributions should be made in order to suggest and to assist transformation iii. Important contributions to the educational process can be better made by industry experts particularly concerning non-technical “soft” skills and real case evidences. Auspiciously an important insight from the study is that organizations and senior professionals showed a truthful availability to cooperate with higher education institutions and to involve themselves in IS students learning processes mainly by sharing real-life situation and gained experience. In order to benefit from this momentum it’s important to gain and assure real commitment from higher education institutions. As such and having in mind the nature of the change and the lack of tradition in these domains involvement and

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leadership should occur at the highest level in order to assure that “soft” skills development and the correlated industry-academia collaboration are integrated in the vision and in the strategies of the institutions. Finally this research process provided the research team the stimulus the tools and the partnership that will support further research. First of all by emphasizing the relevance of the topic to the industry universities and students secondly by providing the tools and know-how to develop new approaches and projects and finally by showing that a good relationship with the field it’s not only desirable but possible.

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