IT talent retention power tool: A learning culture

IT talent retention power tool: A learning culture

This CIO stresses constant learning to ward off talent problems

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Hiring and retaining IT talent tops the list of headaches for many CIOs. Creating a learning culture in IT and throughout your organization means you can grow more of the talent you need in house, rather than trying to recruit it from outside, usually at a premium. This culture also helps you improve retention, says Michael Spears, CIO and chief data officer at the National Council on Compensation Insurance.

In part one of our two-part interview, Spears explained how he encourages NCCI’s IT and data teams to never stop learning. In part two, he tells us how having teams that are always learning can help solve some of today’s toughest talent problems.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): There's a lot of concern about the tight labor market, particularly in the data science area. Can a culture of learning help alleviate that problem by allowing people from different backgrounds to specialize in needed areas such as data science or cyber security?

Spears: Absolutely! It would be hard to get a large program or whole department off the ground without bringing in some outside talent. On the flip side, our culture is more of a bottom-up approach and encourages growth through learning and experience.

We have people who have accomplished great things, learning as they move up the ranks. Security and data science are both areas where that has been successful. Our current corporate information security executive started at the company as a customer service representative. I started nearly 25 years ago as an entry level programmer. I didn’t take the path straight up to the top of the IT organization; in fact, I spent more of my career working in various business units, managing functions like customer service, operations, and product management.

As you can see, we encourage people to move around, not just up. Occasionally, we’ll target individuals for a job swap so both employees can experience a new dimension of work. For example, we swapped an operational director with a large staff with the director of our PMO with a smaller staff, but more corporate in scope. These can be successful moves, but it’s sometimes hard to find the right two people.

TEP: That’s a big commitment to having technology people learn about the business.

Spears: The more IT people know about the company’s business and the specific areas that they support, the better. We have some areas where there is almost a blur between the IT person and the business analyst as their skill set gets so intertwined. Developers supporting our actuarial division have been known to take a few actuarial exams just to get more familiar with the business. Nothing makes me happier than seeing this kind of initiative and curiosity in an employee.

Developing soft skills is important as well. Our company has taken on a multi-year initiative putting all employees through the same program to understand how we lead with certain energies and some we don’t. This has given us a viable language for talking about soft skill issues or maybe why certain conflict may be occurring.  This was led by our corporate HR division and has been reinforced with follow-on programs at the divisional level.

TEP: What about outreach to the rest of the organization? Is it IT's role to help other areas learn about technology?

Spears: Yes and no. When it comes to something like desktop technology applications, sure. We’ll want to work with our corporate talent development team to be a part of our roll out. We like to make sure the formal aspect is just enough, but not too much. Spoon feeding doesn’t inspire curiosity.

I say no when it comes to IT being the only place other employees can learn about technology. We have great subject matter experts throughout the company who take some load off our help desk and can be the source of great ideas to make our applications better.

In some areas we’ll even invest in growing IT skills right within the business unit. We are doing that now with our actuarial team as we develop our analytic talent. We’ve given them their own environment to learn and practice in. We help with some coding when it gets too technical, but this group has developed some fantastic applications for our business. It’s great to have the challenge of figuring out how to deploy an end user developed system.

Don’t confuse this with shadow IT. This is all fully supported and part of a strategy to grow talent in data analytics.

TEP: What advice would you offer other CIOs about creating a culture of learning in their own organizations?

Spears: Inspire and reward curiosity. Cultivate those employees who lead the way on new things and mentor others. And if you are still thinking of courses and traditional training as your primary modes of learning, it’s probably time for a fresh look at your approach.

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.

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