IT talent: The perfect people may be hiding inside your organization

If you don't have IT teams capable of continuously adapting to new tools and technologies, you won't be able to move fast enough to keep up
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To extract business value from technology these days, you must have one essential ingredient: The ability to assemble highly adaptive teams.

If you don’t have IT teams capable of continuously adapting to new tools and technologies, you won’t be able to move fast enough to keep up. When Facebook reached one billion users in 2012, a little red book was left on each employee’s desk containing this advice: ”The quick shall inherit the Earth ... Fast doesn’t just win the race. It gets a head start for the next one.”

That game-changing statement is more timely than ever and has major implications for your talent development and talent acquisition strategies. For example, if we cannot develop teams capable of turning big data into actionable business insights, then big data becomes a distraction, rather than a business advantage.

[ What kinds of talent are in demand this year? Read also: IT career goals 2020: Most-wanted technology and core skills. ]

IT leaders who want to be on the winning side of the talent equation must consider new strategies. I recently asked leaders at Flux, a software company developing an AI platform focused on employee mobility and development, about the talent challenges and opportunities they’re witnessing amid all this business change. Flux CEO Nick Ionita explained the dearth of technology talent and the critical role training will play in the years to come. 

The winners will be the companies that can deliver on the business needs of today while developing the workforce they need tomorrow.

“The reality is that most companies have become software companies whether software really is their end business or service or not. Therefore, companies are increasingly competing for the same roles and same talent, even if their core businesses aren’t in direct competition,” Ionita said. “The winners will be the companies that can deliver on the business needs of today while developing the workforce they need tomorrow.” 

The importance of ongoing training

From a talent execution perspective, Ionita said the winners and losers will be separated by their ability to keep their talent engaged with ongoing training and new, internal growth opportunities.

“We think of there being an employee hierarchy of needs. Once you get beyond a certain level of pay and benefits, it's the work itself that keeps people engaged day-to-day and staying at their company long-term,” Ionita explained. 

These employee needs are not necessarily at odds with your business objectives – you can have both – so long as employees are engaged by an authentic and compelling company mission. This allows their passion and purpose to drive their everyday work.

However, it takes more than an compelling company mission to keep your best talent engaged. The organizations that will win the battles for the best talent will be those that can provide dynamic work environments where their employees have the opportunity to apply the skills they’re developing in new contexts, Ionita said. Another tactic is to help your existing talent build the skills needed for advancement even if they’re not getting those opportunities in their current roles. 

“This type of environment requires visibility of talent and opportunities across the entire organization, with the ability to constantly connect employees to new full-time roles as well as part-time engagements such as projects/gigs, rotations, mentoring, etc. The companies that can operate this way provide meaningful (and accessible) opportunities to their employees and deliver against their business mandates faster and more consistently.”  

Recent research on the future of IT talent strategies underscores the advantage that will belong to organizations that prioritize training.

Recent research on the future of IT talent strategies underscores the advantage that will belong to organizations that prioritize training. “CIOs who can create an environment of self-driven learning and innovation will have an edge,” according to the report, “IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era”, by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. “Winning today’s talent battle with a focus on current skill needs won’t be enough; CIOs must take a more expansive approach and think about how skill requirements will evolve if they want to thrive in and beyond the next decade.

Don't be so quick to hire outside for new skills 

When it comes to evolving skills, Ionita says organizations are often quick to hire for a new skill set instead of scouting for talent that may already exist internally. Meanwhile, employees who are eager to take on new challenges may start searching for roles at other companies because they’re unaware opportunities may exist in their current organization. This can lead to organizations unnecessarily losing talent or spending more money on new headcounts.

“In large enough organizations these opportunities are generally there for people, but they may not even know it or feel comfortable raising their hand if they do. Employees are told to take charge of their careers but what does that mean? Going to the job board if you’re not happy?  You’d never treat a customer that way. Job boards are completely ineffective if someone doesn’t know what they want to be,” Ionita said. 

This can lead to organizations unnecessarily losing talent or spending more money on new headcounts.

“Companies need to provide tools that begin with the idea of development: What are you interested in? What have you done and in what context? How do you like to work? For many that’s a better starting point that can then connect them to roles they didn’t know exist (or what they were called). Or it can provide the steps to get there (e.g. learn this skill through a project) if they’re not ready to make the leap.”

Ionita went on to explain that “employee development is about providing a set of experiences that, over time, drive employees to take larger steps forward. It’s not always about promotion – that’s a form of progress, but we’ve trained people to believe that is really the only way to advance,” he said. “There are so many horizontal opportunities that can lead people to take larger (and happier) steps later that aren’t clearly visible. Many skills and experiences are transferable across jobs; employees just need to understand how to fill in the small skill gaps that may prevent them from making the transition.”

For example, Ionita says organizations can help employees build new skills by giving them opportunities during spare cycles to work on a project with a different team or line of business. This allows you to fulfill the duties of your current role while helping you grow in other areas. “Employees will self-direct if they know where to go and what the result will be,” Ionita said. 

Five talent strategies that can help

Here are some talent strategies that can improve your recipe for success. 

1. Embrace slack time

To develop teams capable of rapidly adapting to change, embrace a working environment where slack is built into employee time expectations. High utilization may be good to maximize incremental efficiencies, but it is a terrible way to build adaptive teams prepared to tackle high-paced changes with many unknowns. Employees who are given time and space to learn, train, experiment, and imagine can be happier and more productive, and they are also better able to adapt to change, and foresee consequences.

2. Don't get caught up on specific skills

When developing talent, emphasize the value of employee principles and behaviors over employee skills and outcomes. The skills used to get us where we are today are not necessarily what will be needed for future success. Instead, a sound set of principles and behaviors are a better indicator of team members who are prepared to maintain focus and integrity in the face of constant adaptation.

3. Make talent quantifiable and visible

Use tools to measure talent across multiple dimensions, and mine this information to provide actionable insights around talent development and employee opportunities. This is essential to helping your current staff maximize their potential, and can be far more effective than shopping externally for what can be developed within.

4. Put people first

Make employee satisfaction your No. 1 key performance indicator, and create a talent strategy that is tied to employee satisfaction. Without employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, a business is like a house of cards – nothing will stand for long. 

5. Maintain a compelling, distinct, and meaningful mission and vision 

Avoid the market temptation of short-term gain when it may lead teams away from the mission. Team engagement relies on a passion for the mission, and trust that executives will truly defend that mission above short-term profits. 

The pace of business and technology is daunting, and looking externally for new skills is a natural temptation. However, it can be far more expedient and effective to develop the talent from within, but only when you start with teams that espouse sound principles and behaviors, when those teams are engaged by a shared purpose and passion, and when you provide the trust and time in that team to apply those principles to learn new things.

[ How does your talent strategy measure up? Download the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Mike Walker is the Senior Director and Global Lead for Red Hat’s Open Innovation Labs, whose mission is to accelerate innovative business solutions and team transformations, the open source way.

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