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Leadership’s leading edge

Conventional wisdom has always held that managers must learn by making real-life mistakes. Technology to the rescue: Some managers are skipping everyday problems and learning their lessons through simulations.

Sailing is not as easy as it looks from shore. Once you have a tiller and a mainsheet in your hands, you know it’s far from easy. You have to learn to read the wind and navigate through wind gusts without getting surprised by wind shifts that could capsize the boat. Skillful sailors use the wind shifts to their advantage to get to their destination over the shortest distance possible.

Before I became a manager, I always thought leadership was easy. Come in late, open your Wall Street Journal, put your feet up on the desk, and wait for problems to find you. Otherwise, managers don’t really produce anything, they just sit on their tails and pore over the numbers. Boy, was I wrong. Management takes far more time and attention than production-level employees ever appreciate. A skillful manager has to navigate through complex situations involving sometimes uncooperative employees and keep the company sailing to its destination in the shortest distance possible.

I’m living proof that anyone can learn to manage, but it can take a long time–and a lot of capsizes–before the lessons finally sink in. The trouble is, management mistakes are orders of magnitude more damaging to a company than production-level mistakes. A management mistake, such as a decision to coddle an unproductive employee when a more assertive approach would serve the company better, can result in allowing the employee to make the same mistake a hundred times. Once you let it slip the first time, putting your foot down can make the employee belligerent as well as unproductive.

Conventional wisdom has it that leadership can’t be taught, that it must be learned the hard way. Sure, there are countless books on leadership. But putting the lessons from these books into practice is not as easy as the books’ authors lead you to believe. Most leadership books deal with abstract principles. If they include case studies or other practical advice, the situations described are a small fraction of what a manager will go through day to day.

Combine conventional wisdom with the high cost of management mistakes and we have a huge problem for many businesses and the economy in general. Everybody knows this, but until recently, no one has done anything about it. Now several companies are releasing simulations of difficult scenarios that let aspiring managers apply abstract leadership principles to concrete circumstances. Using these new materials, managers can learn from their mistakes before they do damage to their companies.

Simulations are expensive to produce, so their use has been mostly relegated to high-risk situations, such as flying airplanes. But as the technology used to create simulations has improved and been reduced in price, more and more leadership and other soft-skills training materials have been converted to simulations. And as companies learn to appreciate the cost of high-risk management situations, demand continues to grow for simulations on CD-ROM or delivered over the Web to a young manager’s PCs. As our cover story this month shows, the simulation training industry is hot. Gartner Research calls simulation the new killer app in e-learning. Gartner predicts that by 2006, 70 percent of all e-learning will include simulation.

In these times of increasing pools of out-of-work people with IT skills, it’s our job to continually update our readers on changing career trends in the industry, and on the training they can take to get there. Hence the topic of this issue. Elizabeth Millard’s feature in this issue describes the need for IT people willing to learn new skills in medical and scientific fields, where need is relatively great right now. Pay particular attention to the sidebar for the story, which describes eight certifications that IT workers can train for to diversify their skill sets and give them a better chance at long-term career success.

One of my more interesting insights this year on the IT careers issue came from Mark Forman, CIO of the federal government and my Q&A candidate in our May issue. When I met with him in Washington, he noted that in the next 10 years, the U.S. government will hire thousands of project managers to replace its retiring work force. I wrote about this in detail in my March 17 ReleVents column on the Web site but it bears mentioning here.

My Q&A in this issue with John Venator, CEO of CompTIA, shows that project management is not only hot in government contexts, but in all of industry as well. CompTIA doesn’t even consider adding a new certification unless it receives an outpouring of requests from member companies for core skills in a certain area. So a good way of gauging hot career trends in the industry is by reviewing new CompTIA certifications. In my Q&A, Venator went out of his way to emphasize CompTIA’s new IT Project+ certification as particularly popular among member companies. IT workers with Project+ certifications are proven to have the core skills needed to manage complex IT projects. Our Training Advisor column mentions several other project-management training and certification vendors.

Simulation may be the key to training for project management certification. Even if it doesn’t lead to certification, aspiring project managers can gain valuable instruction from a variety of simulation vendors mentioned in our cover story. While it may seem like a natural progression to go from programming or Web development to leading IT projects, it may be the most challenging career change you’ll ever make. Sure, you can learn the necessary skills to become certified in project management without it, but simulation is a fun way to ease the transition from production-level work to management.

One thing I’ve learned about leadership: Sweat the details. Every nuanced conversation or e-mail can be either productive or nonproductive. One false move can turn a happy, productive employee into someone who will criticize your every decision. Leadership is all about navigating these subtle interchanges in a way that will produce the best outcome every time. This only seems easy when viewed from the employee’s perspective because good managers make it look easy. While I have learned enough to navigate my way though the squalls without capsizing, I’ve had to dump the ship a few times to learn these lessons. In retrospect, I wish I had simulation software, allowing me to tip over in software and learn how avoid getting wet in real life.

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