CIOs: Could you be accumulating talent debt?

CIOs: Could you be accumulating talent debt?

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February 15, 2017
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Most large organizations suffer from “talent debt,” according to Mark Settle, CIO of cloud-based identity management company Okta, and author of “Truth from the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of It Management .”

In part two of a two-part interview with The Enterprisers Project, Settle explains what he means by talent debt, and what CIOs must do about it.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): What is talent debt?

Mark Settle: Talent debt can manifest itself as a lack of the technical skills and experience needed to leverage new technologies or maintain old ones, but it’s a much broader concept than just that. Effective project teams need to follow a consistent set of engineering practices, understand business processes, manage their vendor partners, communicate effectively within and outside their team, and manage budgets. You can have all the technical talent in the world, but still fail to achieve results if your organization doesn’t possess a broad spectrum of aptitudes.

TEP: What should CIOs be doing right now to address this problem?
Hiring should be done on a more strategic basis with a specific end state in mind. Leaders of large organizations should explicitly sit down and draw up the organization they would like to be managing two to three years in the future and designate the roles and skills that will be needed to achieve that end state. All too often, hiring is done on a tactical basis to replicate the skills of someone who recently departed, irrespective of whether those skills are strategic in nature.

However, strategic hiring is just one way of addressing the broader talent debt issues I mentioned previously. Formal training or certification in new engineering practices may be needed. Business process knowledge may be developed by immersing a project team in the functional area they are serving, which will ensure that team members obtain firsthand knowledge about the challenges their business partners are facing. You need to carefully diagnose the aptitudes that your team lacks and devise a series of “get well” actions to address specific shortcomings.

TEP: It seems to me that at least in some cases, people stick with hard-to-find skills in order to help their employers keep the lights on with some piece or pieces of legacy technology on which the organization depends on. When the behemoth is replaced, this raises the question of laying those same people off now that their skills are no longer needed. How can a thoughtful IT organization handle situations like these?

Settle: There are a few complexities here I would like to address. The easy answer would be retraining and reskilling, but retraining initiatives typically achieve mixed results. A few people really “get it.” The majority develops an adequate proficiency in the new skills but would never be considered superstars, and a few will reject the idea of retraining altogether. 

Technical people typically fail to realize that their knowledge of a company’s business processes and internal politics are incredibly valuable skills and a big portion of their personal value proposition. If they can get over the conviction that they must use the same technical skills they developed early in their careers, they can find alternative ways to contribute in many instances.

TEP: How do you handle it when someone who has been around for a long time and worked hard for the organization does not want to learn new skills? 

Settle: Inevitably, some individuals will reject all attempts to find alternative uses for their technical and business expertise. They will resist any effort to adapt their skills to alternative activities. You should encourage these individuals to seek employment elsewhere – they will ultimately be happier and more productive by continuing to exercise the skills that have provided them with the greatest sense of personal satisfaction and reward throughout their careers. Then your organization will have the opportunity to cultivate the new skills it needs with another eager individual.

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Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington. Find her at  

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