Consulting's Next Big Thing

With Y2K finally come, what can IT consultants expect to be the next big areas of opportunity? Actually there are lots of them, but only big thinkers need apply

Liska Johnson, hired last June as an IBM 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 says.

With pre-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.

Others agree. Computerworld interviewed a variety of recruiting firms, IT hiring managers, industry analysts and consultants to discover the areas of significant opportunity for consultants. Interviewees identified several broad areas of expertise that they believe will be in significant demand for the next few years.

CRM, Procurement Hot

No longer is a deep computer-science background, experience with specific programming languages or even experience with broad application areas such as SAP enough to guarantee success as a consultant, observers agree.

"You still need strong analytical skills, but there's a shortage of people who are good thinkers who have good relationship skills," notes Kevin Campbell, market leader for products and a partner in the global operations practice at Ernst & Young LLP in New York.

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, warns Campbell.

Within the overall umbrella of business integration, experts agree, 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.

Case in point: Keith Costello, vice president of worldwide marketing and strategy at Oracle Consulting, says his organization has seen a 238% increase in demand for consultants with a background in CRM systems in the past year, and that demand shows no sign of stopping.

ERP/Online Procurement. This area of ERP is Oracle Consulting's second-fastest growth area. The company has posted a 202% growth in requests for consultants with expertise in procurement during the past year, Costello says. Companies believe procurement systems will help them shave huge expenditures from their bottom lines. "Our clients see savings in nonproduction procurement as an area of tremendous opportunity," he notes.

Campbell observes that consultants who specialize in "blending the ERP world of the past with the Web world of the future," so that their clients can procure and process nonproduction goods and services online, face a tremendous growth opportunity.

Caring for Data

Increasing interest in CRM and Web-based procurement systems means companies will need the help of experts in the following areas:

Data warehousing, mining and management. Database administrators -- particularly those with a detailed knowledge of indexing, tuning and operating systems -- will be in high demand, says Edward Taylor, president of Collective Technologies, a national IT consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. "Massive data-storage requirements brought about by universal access to company resources are producing a need for people with (database administrator) and related skills," Taylor says.

Network Integration. As more and more business is conducted via the Internet, intranets or extranets, knowledge of network integration will be key, predicts Alex Salehi, a vice president at Novell Inc. Consultants who are adept at simplifying and streamlining networks will have plenty of work to do. "Our clients are saddled with increasing costs, due to the administration requirements of the network," Salehi notes. Thus, he says, consultants who can integrate cross-platform directories or help clients simplify their network management will have ample opportunity going forward.

Security. Consultants with experience in security issues will be awash in work in the new year. "Companies are very interested in having services and technology related to understanding their risks and minimizing their vulnerabilities," Salehi says. Companies are keen on hiring people with experience in preserving data integrity and with knowledge of backup and recovery tools and strategies, particularly for large databases.

LINUX. Yes, Linux, too, is coming of age. It's no longer considered an operating system "just for print and file services of firewalls," says Taylor. "Linux is becoming a serious contender for the corporate marketplace. Several large companies that hire Collective Technologies' consultants "are considering massive Linux conversions," he adds.

Know What You Know

Interviewees agreed 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," insists Campbell. "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."

Project Management. Likewise, experienced project managers will be in high demand, says Irene Dec, vice president of operations and systems and chief Y2K overseer at Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Insurance Corporation of America. Like Campbell, Dec says that the most successful IT consultants are those who are able to grapple with the big picture and ensure that the projects stay on target and within budgetary guidelines.

"Many IT professionals have studied the technologies, new languages, products and so on," she says. "But without project managers to drive and implement the technology, businesses will not succeed."

Knowledge Management. This is another nascent but fast-growing area of opportunity for IT consultants. Why? "When a key individual receives 250 e-mail messages every morning," there's a knowledge overload, says Rich Azzarello, a principal at IBM's Knowledge Management Consulting and Solutions Group in Jericho, N.Y. And e-mail overload, he says, is symptomatic of a firm with a need to manage information coming in.

Enter IBM's army of consultants. "Demand for systems and processes supporting the collection, sharing and management of knowledge has dramatically increased over the last few years and continues to increase," says Azzarello. "Clients are telling us, 'I need a repository so anyone can know what they know when they need to know it.' "

Thus, consultants who can help construct systems that cut through the noise and build Web-based "knowledge portals" that funnel and push the right information to the right people at the right time and allow them to collaborate with one another will be key.

Business Intelligence. Business intelligence -- which IBM defines as the "gathering, management and analysis of large amounts of raw data on a company's customers, products and services and all the transactions in-between" -- is another category of opportunity for those with specific knowledge of individual industries such as finance, communications or health care, says Azzarello.

Observers say the next few years will prove to be salad days for consultants who can see beyond the particular to the horizon. "The shortage of these resources is endemic throughout the industry," says Salehi. "We intend to meet our customer needs by growing the pool of resources with needed skills."

Fryer is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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