First Monday

What's the matter with the information technology workforce? by Manimegalai M Subramaniam and Kathleen Burnett

Information technology and the information technology workforce are essential to Internet innovation, infrastructure, development, and maintenance. A comprehensive and dynamic definition of information technology will help develop and coordinate interventions to ensure that a viable, diverse, and talented workforce is available to support information technology innovation, development, implementation, maintenance and application. A viable, diverse, and talented workforce is essential if the United States is to remain competitive in the economy. It is therefore necessary to establish consensus among information technology stakeholders on a definition of information technology prior to proceeding with classification of the workforce and development of educational programs. Wiki and ontology (Topic Maps) are two recent information technology innovations that provide the technological infrastructure necessary to achieve these goals.


Current definitions of IT
The importance of defining IT
Recommendations for establishing an IT definition and an ITWF classification




Information technology (IT) and the information technology workforce (ITWF) are essential to Internet innovation, infrastructure, development, and maintenance. A simple Google search reveals that the definition of IT depends on who is asked, the context in which the author or institution presents the definition, the type of industry, or the granularity of work involved.

A review of the literature confirms that there is no common agreement as to what constitutes either IT or the ITWF (Freeman and Aspray, 1999; Moncarz, 2002; Morath, et al., 1999; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997). Identification and classification of IT workers varies from one organization to the next, and even within an organization, position titles and classifications change over time (Freeman and Aspray, 1999; Moncarz, 2002; Morath, et al., 1999; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997). Without agreed upon operational definitions, common language, or well–defined parameters, the research findings in one study cannot be sufficiently compared to those in the next. Such findings are therefore practically inadequate in promoting understanding of the changing nature of the composition of the ITWF.

As Castells (1997, 2000a, 2000b) convincingly demonstrates in his important study of economy, society and culture in the information age, the United States will endanger its position in the global economy if it takes a complacent stance toward the development of the IT sector. While the United States initially dominated this sector, other nations, especially in East Asia, had begun to demonstrate rates of growth that far outstripped those of the United States by the turn of the century.

Some leading engineering societies believe that there are still untapped reservoirs of IT talent (Pincus, 1997; Rivers, n.d), and the issue of workforce shortages needs to be thoroughly investigated (Capelli, 2001; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997). When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) introduced the new Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system in 2003, the employment data produced by BLS showed a large increase in the number of people in IT occupations. However, changes in category assignments were responsible for increased estimations of numbers of IT workers; there were no real gains in employment (Ellis and Lowell, 2003). It is impossible to establish whether the current efforts to count IT workers or educate the future workforce are sufficient without first establishing the parameters of need for that workforce. It is necessary to establish an agreed upon definition of IT in order to establish these parameters of need. Obviously, any definition of IT must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the dynamism of rapid change that continues to characterize its development. At the same time, it must sufficiently delineate the scope and parameters of IT to be operational.

In this article, the definitions in current use in research and policy studies are examined both for their shortcomings and for their potential contributions to a common understanding of IT and application to ITWF research and projections.

We draw attention to the implications of using incomplete and inaccurate definitions of IT in conducting research regarding ITWF shortages, immigration policy, pipeline issues, and IT education. Some preliminary suggestions are made as to possible approaches to the development of a consensus–based definition of IT and a dynamic and global classification system for the ITWF.



Current definitions of IT

To understand why a comprehensive definition of IT is important, it is necessary to examine the existing definitions, particularly those that have been used in research about the ITWF, to identify associated problems, and to investigate the difficulties that emerge in reconciling current ITWF practices with these definitions.

The lack of agreement about what constitutes “IT”

The need to conduct this research became apparent when, as part of another project, the authors attempted to identify reasons for the decline of women’s participation in IT education and the ITWF over the past two decades. In the process of that exploration, profound difficulties were uncovered in the interpretation of the statistical evidence of this decline. As the investigation proceeded, it became clear that the whole literature on IT and the ITWF is hampered by and subject to misinterpretation because of the lack of agreement as to what constitutes an IT worker. Kaarst–Brown and Guzman (2005) reported a similar motive for their interest in this problem, but took a quite different approach to its resolution. Among other recommendations, they urged the adoption of a broad definition of IT, to include the integration of IT skills from a variety of formal and informal sources.

According to Abbott (1998), the classic definition of a profession is an organized body of experts who apply esoteric knowledge to particular cases. Full professions are said to have systems of instruction and training together with entry by examination. Obviously, the models for such a conception are law and medicine. However, Abbott (1998) also mentions that all the licensing and examinations in the world will not protect a profession in which the nature of the work changes when new knowledge enters the scene. This is precisely the situation the IT field is facing — new knowledge is constantly entering the domain and redefining its parameters. While there are certifications that some types of IT workers often acquire, there are no specific examinations or licenses mandated for IT work. In fact, IT workers’ vocational and academic training backgrounds vary enormously (Ellis and Lowell, 1999a; Kuh, 1999; Meares and Sargent, 1999; Moncarz, 2002; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2003). “There is no single path to prepare a worker for a professional IT job.” [1] IT workers’ educational backgrounds range from bachelor's degrees in computer science, computer engineering, management information systems, and information studies to associate’s two–year degrees in specific areas such as network administration or Web development. Workers are actively trained on the job (Brownstein, 1998; Meares and Sargent, 1999), and IT companies still actively recruit individuals with degrees in the hard sciences and engineering.

...all the licensing and examinations in the world will not protect a profession in which the nature of the work changes when new knowledge enters the scene.

Hence, it is not surprising that identifying what constitutes IT work is challenging. Most IT occupations do not have firm boundaries or inflexible job descriptions; the lists of tasks and specifications are subject to significant change over time as societal needs change. A decade ago, when the notion of a Web developer was still emerging, programming skills received greater emphasis in job descriptions than today, despite the fact that Web developers were likely to be responsible for all aspects of a company’s digital image, from maintenance of the server to graphic design. Today, a Web developer is more likely to work with established software applications to develop a site, and therefore, traditional programming skills are not emphasized. The tasks once performed by the developer have become highly differentiated. Usually, a developer is required neither to maintain the server nor to have the expertise required to do so.

In part because IT jobs have been moving targets, reaching agreement on an operational definition of what constitutes IT work has been difficult. The lack of a common operational definition in previous workforce or survey studies, together with an inappropriate reliance on overly–simplified two or three word labels (i.e., data analysts, database administrator, support specialists) used to describe jobs without first agreeing on what these labels or job titles mean, has limited the utility of the findings of ITWF studies (Morath, et. al., 1999).

There are several U.S. government data sources that provide quantitative characterization of the ITWF, such as the Current Population Survey (CPS), Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey, and Scientists and Engineers Statistical (SESTAT) Data System. The U.S. Department of Commerce (2003) acknowledged that each of these data sources collected information and classified IT occupations in different ways. “As a result, each source has strengths and weaknesses and analysis of their different data leads to significantly different size estimates of the professional–level IT workforce” [2].

Currently used definitions of IT

Among the most used definitions or classifications of IT workers in the ITWF literature are those published by the BLS, an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor; the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), and the National Research Council (NRC).

The BLS uses the following terms for people with IT jobs: computer and information scientists, research; computer programmers; computer software engineers — applications; computer software engineers — systems software; computer support specialists; computer system analysts; database administrators; network and computer systems administrators; network systems and data communication analysts; and “all other computer specialists”. The “all other computer scientists” is considered a catchall IT occupation category (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000).

The Government Accounting Office and U.S. Department of Commerce research into the IT industry labor issue reveals that it is necessary to make a distinction between the IT industry as a whole and the various occupations within the industry. This distinction is often overlooked or is not clear in the data; there is often difficulty in identifying people who are working in IT occupations if they are not working for an IT business. [3]

The IT occupations listed by the BLS may represent the IT–specific industry sector, however, they do not encapsulate the extensiveness of the ITWF as a whole. As indicated by Joyner (1998) in the above statement, many individuals who do IT work may be employed outside the IT–specific industries.

The final category in the BLS classification — “all other computer specialists” — is not a category at all, but a residual catchall phrase with little meaning. Various jobs such as computer security specialist, information architect, and project engineer, just to mention a few, do not fit neatly into the BLS categorization of IT workers, and therefore will need to be placed in the catchall “all other computer specialists” category. However, clearly the individuals who are categorized here do “IT work.” Why not create categories that match the specific job titles or reflect the job descriptions of the work found in this catchall? Is it because the BLS does not see them as fitting its definition of “core” IT workers, because their work does not involve IT at the level of intensity of a “core” IT occupation? Or is it because job titles often lag behind the changing technological environment, thus making it difficult to establish categories that effectively reflect past, present and current trends?

For example, at some major universities, information architects, Web designers, help desk support specialists, and computer lab technicians are all lumped together under the job title “computer applications specialists”, despite the wide range of responsibilities and backgrounds these positions entail. A definition based solely on job titles is problematic because it may not fully capture all IT workers of interest and those it does capture may be performing work that is only tangentially related to the job title itself (NRC, 2001). In addition, job titles may change without a significant corresponding change in tasks performed, complicating longitudinal comparability. Conversely, the tasks performed by individuals with the same job title may vary over time and space, thus making classification problematic.

The ITAA uses the National Workforce for Emerging Technologies (NWCET) classification of career clusters to discuss workforce issues and conduct ITWF surveys (ITAA, 2002). NWCET’s career clusters include database development and administration, digital media, enterprise systems analysis and integration, network design and administration, programming/software engineering, technical support, technical writing and Web development and administration (NWCET, 2003). Each career cluster has a set of skills that reflects the range of work represented by the cluster.

NRC (2001) defines the ITWF based on what IT workers do, rather than their job titles:

... IT workers are those persons engaged primarily in the conception, design, development, adaptation, implementation, deployment, training, support, documentation, and management of IT systems, components, or applications. In addition to “computer occupations” described by the (mostly software) job categories of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (i.e., computer programmers, computer scientists, and system analysts), this definition includes:

... Excluded are persons who work primarily with ‘front office’ or end–user applications that are necessary to job functions not included in the above definition. For example, most office workers use word processors and spreadsheets, but they would not be considered IT workers in this definition. Help–desk personnel and technicians who install the PCs, networks, and software applications would be included. [4]

Although the identification of IT workers by job description is likely to be more comprehensive than identification by job titles, some questions remain unanswered, such as: should people who teach or train IT workers be labeled as IT workers (Kaarst–Brown, 2005)? Should individuals who are involved in research and development related to users needs and preferences of IT products be considered IT workers? What about people who do research and scholarly work examining the social and economic aspects of computing? Do we consider an individual an IT worker if his or her work includes only one IT function, or is it necessary that it incorporate several? How intensely must an individual be engaged in IT work for her position to be classified as IT work? Neither of the types of definitions discussed to this point provides satisfactory answers to these questions.

How intensely must an individual be engaged in IT work for her position to be classified as IT work?

Other definitions of IT developed by various individuals and organizations are restricted to industry of employment or educational background. NRC (2001) has succinctly indicated the shortcomings of such definitions. A definition based solely on industry of employment is limited because of the extent to which IT has become pervasive across a wide–range of industries. IT workers are found in all sectors of the economy, enabling technology that requires expertise to implement or to apply to specific business problems (NRC, 2001). One argument in favor of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s shortage projections is precisely this pervasiveness.

An alternative would be to base the classification on educational background, but this approach too has limitations. Not all IT work requires formal education or training in computer science or computer engineering, in fact many job descriptions do not mention this type of training as a requirement at all (NRC, 2001). Yet, many of these classifications are grounded in the assumption of such a requirement and are therefore inappropriate. Such definitions under–represent both the scope and the size of the ITWF, and therefore, undervalue its significance to the economy and the society as a whole.



The importance of defining IT

Apart from accuracy of representation, there are many very practical reasons for investing time, labor and money to develop a dynamic and global definition of IT and IT work. According to the Taskforce on the Future of American Innovation (2005) U.S. high–tech output — including aerospace, computers and office machinery; communications equipment; pharmaceuticals; and, medical, precision and optical instruments — doubled between 1989 and 2001, from US$423 billion to US$940 billion. IT growth during this period was a substantial contributor to national economic health; however, during this same period China’s high–tech output grew more than eight–fold, from US$30 billion to US$257 billion. According to the Economic Policy Institute (2004), offshoring was a key issue in the software industry by 2004. In addition to China, India, Japan and Mexico have become major suppliers of the labor force developing US IT products. Enrollments in four–year degree programs in computer science, computer engineering, and related areas have been declining since the mid–eighties in the U.S. (Economic Policy Institute, 2004). At the same time, enrollments in similar programs in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere continued to increase. By 2005, Mexico was educating as many engineers each year as the U.S. (Spiegel, 2005). While post–9/11 immigration policies have made it difficult for foreign students to pursue degrees in the U.S., high–tech industries have been successful in obtaining exceptions to address short–term shortages in some areas (IEEE, 2004; Ribeiro, 2006). At the same time, government support for education, research and development has declined dramatically under the Bush administration (Cohen and Noll, 2001; Kane and Orszag, 2004). Clearly, the lack of consensus about IT and IT work is crippling efforts to educate the government to the significance of what it itself has stated is an emerging national crisis. Some of these related issues are discussed in the following sections.

The importance of a definition of IT in addressing the ITWF shortage

Groups such as the ITAA and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Technology Policy have identified what they consider to be substantial evidence that the U.S. is having trouble keeping up with the demand for IT workers. This evidence is based on the data collected by these groups, and therefore, with data associated with the ITWF classifications discussed above (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997; 1999; 2000). Each of these data sources counts IT workers differently, thus comparison is not viable. CPS and OES data provide insight into changes in labor market conditions for specific occupations such as IT. Used alone, however, these data are not adequate to definitively identify the existence of labor market shortages for a specific occupation in IT (Veneri, 1999).

So, the question is: with what level of confidence can we employ the data collected through these various surveys to estimate the needs and design possible interventions? The research on the ITWF to date is limited in its applicability, because it has neither adopted a standard and consistent definition of IT, nor a dependable classification system of the IT workforce. The development of standardized classification systems ensures greater consistency and comparability across data systems. Without an accurate, dynamic, agreed–upon definition of IT, we cannot even begin to accurately count IT workers, much less design appropriate interventions to resolve workforce shortage issues.

The importance of a definition of IT in developing or amending immigration policy

In 2000, many experts forecasted a major shortfall of workers in the IT area due to the sharp decreases in enrollment in computing degree programs (American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2005).

Several studies warned of impending shortages and identified two possible sources of additional IT/CS [computer science] workers. The first source was from outside the country and involved raising visa quotas for foreign, high–skilled workers ... . [5]

In late 1998, The U.S. Congress passed new legislation that further increased the number of temporary specialty workers permitted to work in the U.S. Employers lobbied successfully to raise the number of skilled admissions, arguing that they needed access to the best and the brightest in the global economy (Ellis and Powell, 1999b). The H–1B visa program allows foreign workers to enter the country for the specific purpose of temporarily filling skilled jobs (a large share of which are IT jobs). In 2001, Congress passed legislation that raised the cap on H–1B visas from 65,000 to 195,000 during FY2001, FY2002, and FY2003, after which the cap reverted to 65,000 (Cooke, 2002). In 2005, an additional 20,000 H–1B visas were granted to foreign students who graduated with a master’s degree or higher from an American educational institution.

Some professional engineering societies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer (IEEE) believe that reports of the shortage of IT workers are exaggerated, questioning the IT industry’s motives in importing foreign workers (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997). It is not at all certain that the supply of high tech talent in the U.S. is inadequate (Ellis and Lowell, 2003). The shortage of IT workers must be clearly substantiated to justify changing immigration regulations such as increases in H–1B visa caps. The question here is not whether increased hiring of foreign nationals is right or wrong, but whether the statistics that are being used to justify such hiring accurately represent the situation.

Without a comprehensive definition of IT, it is impossible to accurately establish the extent of the shortage, and therefore, the existence of the need to import foreign workers.

Without a comprehensive definition of IT, it is impossible to accurately establish the extent of the shortage, and therefore, the existence of the need to import foreign workers. Without an accurate classification of the ITWF, it is impossible to accurately assess where shortages exist, and therefore, to which types of workers immigration exceptions should be granted. Can we rely on the BLS IT workers classification to decide the extent to which we need to import IT workers from foreign countries? Or should we use some other classification or definition? It is vital to determine the areas or occupations where the shortages actually occur. If this is not done with a high level of accuracy, U.S. citizens may find themselves in unfair competition for employment with foreign nationals who are willing to work for lower wages (Ellis and Lowell, 1999b; Ruber, 2000). Due to the dynamic and evolving nature of the field, an occupation that appears to have a labor shortage one year may experience a surplus the following year. The introduction of a new technology may result in a need for new or different occupational skills. Therefore, developing a comprehensive and dynamic ITWF classification based on an agreed–upon definition of IT is necessary for informed immigration policy decision–making.

The importance of a definition of IT to broaden the participation of under–represented groups

AAAS (2005) also indicated that untapped human resources existed within the U.S. that could be employed to prevent future shortages:

The second source required the engagement of populations within the U.S. who had traditionally been under–represented in IT/CS, including women, minorities, and people with disabilities. Initiatives under this second recommendation would include efforts to expand educational and employment opportunities for these groups and encourage them to seek an IT/CS career. [6]

African–Americans, Hispanic–Americans, Native–Americans, and women are currently represented in the ITWF in proportions far below their percentages in the population at large (Tapia and Kvasny, 2004). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (Peter and Horn, 2005), women presently earn more post–secondary degrees than men. Between 1980 and 2001, the number of women enrolled in degree granting institutions increased by 41 percent (Peter and Horn, 2005). In 2001–02, 60 percent of associate degrees and 57 percent of bachelor degrees went to women (Peter and Horn, 2005). In fields that prepare directly for IT employment, however, the situation is reversed. With the assumption that the fields of computer and information sciences and engineering directly prepare IT workers, it is reported that men are more likely than women to earn degrees from these fields (Peter and Horn, 2005). Cukier, et al. (2002) argued that equating IT and IT professionals with CS and engineering marginalizes women and their multidisciplinary contributions to the IT field. Despite increasing awareness that IT is multidisciplinary and the educational backgrounds of its workforce diverse, a narrow definition of IT dominates the discourse of IT professionals (Cukier, et al., 2002).

The reasons for under–representation of women and minorities in the workforce are discussed in the literature (Abrahamson and Sigelman, 1987; Cohoon, 2001; Cuny and Aspray, 2002; Klawe and Leveson, 1995; Margolis and Fisher, 2002; Trauth, 2002). Some factors include: less encouragement and fewer role models and mentors; suffering from disproportionate impact from poor schools at the K–12 level; inadequate exposure to technology; and, fewer and less developed networks in both school and business communities, as well as fewer relationships with influential colleagues, mentors, and sponsors (Meares and Sargent, 1999). Once again, however, the measurement of these factors is hampered because researchers have not been consistent in their definitions or classifications and the results are therefore not comparable. Without standard definitions, the results of studies that aim to identify the factors that contribute to the under–representation of women and minorities are of limited use. It is possible that a fundamental factor discouraging women and minority participation may be lack of definition and consequent misapprehension regarding skills, training, and educational requirements.

A systematic, comprehensive and dynamic definition of IT and IT work may contribute to the determination of specific areas or occupations in IT where women and minorities are particularly under–represented. The development of a dynamic and comprehensive definition of IT and the ITWF may help women and minorities to better assess which areas and occupations may be of interest or worth pursuit. A comprehensive and dynamic definition of IT will help guide employers to implement strategies to alter the working environment in order to attract women and minorities. Workplaces issues are often cited as primary factors that discourage women from participating in IT work (Tapia and Kvasny, 2004; von Hellens, et al. 2001). Overall, an accurate definition of IT will provide a foundation for understanding the many complex issues with implications for policy making, further research, education strategies, and recruitment and retention of women and minorities in the IT labor market (Cukier, 2003).

The importance of a definition of IT to enhance the infrastructure for research and education

Without agreed upon operational definitions, common language, or well–defined parameters to map the scope of the workforce, research findings on the ITWF are practically inadequate in supporting appropriate curricular design. In an area that is experiencing rapid change, expansion, and redefinition, it is also necessary to ensure that any IT classification system and definition be flexible, dynamic, responsive to change over time, and capable of representing variation across cultures. There is some awareness that there is a need to define what is meant by IT prior to the development of curricula, as indicated by the initiatives pursued by Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The newly formed ACM Special Interest Group in IT Education (SIGITE) has identified defining IT as one of the major challenges of the new society (Gorgone, 2002).

There were two major initiatives to develop IT curricula or skill standards for degree programs, one by the Joint Task Force of ACM/Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer Computer Society and the other by National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies (Subramaniam, 2005). Each initiative has used a different definition to develop IT curricula or skill standards. Which is more successful in producing employable graduates? Is one curriculum better than the other because its definition of IT more closely reflects the realities of the workforce? Although it is perhaps too early to expect that these questions can be answered, it is reasonable to predict a correspondence between accuracy of definition and success of curriculum.



Recommendations for establishing an IT definition and an ITWF classification

In this paper, we have articulated our concerns regarding the actual and potential impacts of the current definitional situation. Consensus is lacking among the various IT stakeholders as to the parameters of IT and IT work, and without consensus, it is impossible to even begin to address the issues we have discussed. The challenge, therefore, is to establish a definition of IT that is dynamic and flexible, yet operational, to which all the various IT stakeholders can agree.

A number of strategies might be employed to promote the development of a consensual definition of IT, including bringing stakeholders together for a meeting at a physical location. Given the size, geographic dispersion, and nature of the stakeholder group, however, we propose a solution that puts recent IT innovation to its best use to overcome the barriers of distance and time, ensuring a retraceable record of the process of consensus–building.

We propose the use of two recent IT innovations to support this work: wiki and ontology. Wiki will provide the technical infrastructure for the consensus–building and information distribution processes, while ontology (as implemented through Topic Maps) will support content consistency, clarity, dynamism, and flexibility.

Wiki is at heart a relational database software that supports collaborative writing and consensus building.

“Wiki software” could be interpreted as comprising all of the software required to run a wiki, which might include a Web server such as Apache, in addition to the “Wiki engine” itself, which implements the wiki technology. In some cases, such as ProjectForum, or some WikiServers, the Web server and wiki engine are bundled together as one self–contained system, which can often make them easier to install.

The majority of engines are open source, often available under the GNU General Public License (GPL); large projects such as TWiki and the Wikipedia engine, MediaWiki, are developed collaboratively. Many wikis are highly modular, providing APIs which allow programmers to develop new features without requiring them to be familiar with the entire codebase. [7]

Wiki has been employed for nearly a decade to facilitate communication and information distribution on the Internet, most prominently in the project known as Wikipedia. Some wiki projects have had educational, government, or corporate sponsorship, while others are powered by interest communities. Many wiki software programs can be easily configured to support recursive consensus–building and allow for the storage and recovery of earlier forms of text as it changes over time. Finally, wiki can be used as a medium for information distribution on the World Wide Web.

The most significant usability challenge in implementing wiki software as proposed for consensus–building is embedded in the software’s origins. While many of the early implementers were security–adverse, most wiki software can take advantage of standard UNIX security protocols and need not be subject to the vandalism that has been the subject of recent news reports.

Wiki vandalism is generally defined as editing a wiki in a way that is intentionally disruptive or destructive. There are four generally acknowledged types of vandalism: deletion of legitimate information, insertion of nonsense or irrelevant content, addition of unwanted commercial links (spam), and policy violations specific to that wiki. [8]

Access control lists can be used to limit access to invited participants only, and authentication protocols can further refine type of access granted (read, write, administrative). For example, based on authentication participants may be granted different levels of write privileges: to create new pages, edit existing pages, delete pages, and/or adding comments to pages (Wikipedia, 2006).

It is difficult to find or create general statistics on the prevalence of wiki vandalism. Controversial or high–traffic topics seem to attract the most vandalism. Small wikis rarely have unmanageable vandalism problems, since they are protected by their relative obscurity. Even very politically charged ones such as, dkosopedia, or sourcewatch usually receive only a few attempts at vandalism from those opposed to their ideology. [9]

We recommend that government agencies invested in better understanding current and future IT workforce needs (such as the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation) sponsor recursive consensus–building among IT stakeholders to establish an agreed–upon definition of IT. If implemented with appropriate security consciousness, wiki provides an excellent tool to meet a pressing need.

In addition to wiki, ontology should be employed to ensure that the definition is both logically consistent and operational, but remains flexible and dynamic so that it can reflect change over time.

An ontology defines the terms used to describe and represent an area of knowledge. Ontologies are used by people, databases, and applications that need to share domain information (a domain is just a specific subject area or area of knowledge, like medicine, tool manufacturing, real estate, automobile repair, financial management, etc.). Ontologies include computer–usable definitions of basic concepts in the domain and the relationships among them ... . They encode knowledge in a domain and also knowledge that spans domains. In this way, they make that knowledge reusable. [10]

There are two implementations of ontology currently in use: the ontology web language (OWL) coupled with the resource description framework (RDF), and the International Standard Organization (ISO) compliant Topic Maps. We recommend the adoption of Topic Maps for its greater flexibility and usability. Topic Maps may be used to:

Initially, we propose to use ontology to express the relationships between terms used to define IT, and to manage the associations between these terms. Topic Maps will support the definition of each term used, and may be used to describe and manage the relationships of these terms to other associated terms outside the definition. Thus, as the language associated with IT evolves, the definition itself can evolve. Topic Maps has the potential to support a consistent yet dynamic and flexible ontological classification of the ITWF as well.




A comprehensive and dynamic definition of IT will help develop and coordinate interventions to ensure that a viable, diverse and talented workforce is available to support IT innovation, development, implementation, maintenance and application. The U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation offer funding for such interventions to encourage and prepare young people, women, and minorities to participate in the ITWF (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997; Wardle and Button, 2002). Moreover, issues such as addressing shortages in specific areas, employing outsourcing and offshoring as strategies to address shortages, and increasing or lowering the caps for visa issuance, can be better addressed if a comprehensive, agreed–upon definition of IT is established (Veneri, 1999). It is therefore necessary to establish consensus among IT stakeholders on a comprehensive and dynamic definition of IT prior to proceeding with classification of the workforce and development of educational programs. Wiki and ontology (Topic Maps), two recent IT innovations, provide the technological infrastructure necessary to achieve these goals. End of article


About the authors

Manimegalai M Subramaniam is a doctoral candidate at the Florida State University College of Information. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation entitled Investigation on the Emergence of Computing Degree Programs in the United States. She teaches information science and her research concerns IT education and ITWFclassification. She will be graduating in December 2006.

Please direct comments or questions to Manimegalai M Subramaniam at mm02n [at] fsu [dot] edu

Kathleen Burnett is an associate professor at the Florida State University College of Information where she teaches theory development, intellectual access to information, and multimedia development. Her research concerns gender and IT. She is currently on sabbatical in Mexico conducting background research for field studies to be conducted in Mexico and along the U.S.–Mexican border.
E–mail: burnett [at] ci[dot] fsu [dot] edu



We would like to thank Dr. Paul T. Jaeger and Dr. Myongho Lee from the College of Information, Florida State University for their constructive comments in ensuring the quality of this paper.

The title of this paper was inspired in part by Mark Poster’s wonderful book What’s the matter with the Internet? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).



1. U.S. Department of Commerce, 2003, p. ii.

2. U.S. Department of Commerce, 2003, p. 23.

3. Joyner, 1998, p. 4.

4. NRC, 2001, pp. 44–45.

5. AAAS, 2005, p. 3.

6. Op.cit.

7. Wikipedia, 2006.

8. Op.cit.

9. Op.cit.

10. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 2004.



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Editorial history

Paper received 29 March 2006; accepted 20 April 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Manimegalai M Subramaniam and Kathleen Burnett.

What’s the matter with the information technology workforce? by Manimegalai M Subramaniam and Kathleen Burnett
First Monday, volume 11, number 5 (May 2006),