Now or never: Why CIOs must future-proof IT workforce strategy

Now or never: Why CIOs must future-proof IT workforce strategy

For too long, CIOs have talked about the importance of workforce and talent strategy while giving these issues more lip service than energy. The last 90 days have changed that

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I’ve heard 2020 dubbed “the year of the big pivot.” Businesses, priorities, and entire industries have been forced to shift. In fact, you could also call this the year of the workforce strategy, because in the face of so many huge changes, strategic workforce planning is finally getting long overdue attention and action. 

For too long, CIOs in particular have talked about the importance of workforce and talent strategy while giving these issues more lip service than energy. Now, CIOs agree: Having an effective, holistic workforce strategy is a business imperative. And this pivot has been pretty dramatic over the past 90 days. 

“The word that comes to mind is ‘seismic,’” says Will Markow who leads Burning Glass Technologies’ research into emerging job market trends, skill gaps, and workforce development opportunities. 

[ For more by Dan Roberts, read: 3 types of IT leaders emerge from the pandemic. ]

One of the reasons this is hitting home for CIOs can be found in a recent KPMG survey, which revealed that 67 percent of workers in the tech sector are concerned about their future roles, careers, and jobs. Only 44 percent of the workforce at large shared that concern. 

The companies and people who invest in the new skillsets driving this disruption will be best positioned to embrace this never-ending cycle of change and innovation.

IT workers have a greater line of sight to disruptive market trends because they are on the front lines of developments in automation, cybersecurity, cloud computing, and related areas. Because of their unique vantage point, the IT workforce is one of the leading indicators for the kinds of rapid change and disruption that could eventually become more widespread.

But the introduction of new technology and rapid-fire change, even when it’s disruptive, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t get too hung up on what’s going away, Markow says. While new technology will disrupt some jobs, there are always downstream benefits as well. The companies and people who invest in the new skillsets driving this disruption will be best positioned to embrace this never-ending cycle of change and innovation. 

How workforce strategy is changing

Part of the challenge facing many organizations today is that they've taken a piecemeal approach to developing their plan. Workforce strategies have traditionally been shaped around jobs and not a more holistic strategy. But jobs are defined by the skills they require, and now, those skills are constantly changing. In the past, many companies have taken a reactive approach, hiring talent to replace jobs due to churn. Overall, the focus has been role-based, time-based and all about head count.

Instead of looking at how to replace jobs that suffer churn, we need to look at how to enhance those jobs.

Today, with the advent of artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and other technologies, plus COVID-19, organizations are realizing this point-in-time approach to planning doesn’t cut it. We need something more future-focused and adaptive. Instead of looking at how to replace jobs that suffer churn, we need to look at how to enhance those jobs. 

One of the most important trends that Markow says Burning Glass has identified is that jobs are mutating. These hybrid jobs pull from disparate skillsets and are creating a need for a more versatile workforce, people who can be redeployed quickly across functions, drive productivity gains, and create more innovation by using their knowledge of disparate domains to make novel connections. But this means it’s going to be harder to find the workforce you need. As a result, you’ll have to shift the emphasis of your strategic workforce plan from talent acquisition to talent development.

You’ll also need a clear view into the skillsets that your workforce has. This requires a more data-based approach to workforce planning — not just looking at what you need today, but also at what you’ll need in the future.

Ultimately, the question your strategy has to answer is: How will I build a workforce that’s adaptive to meet today’s needs but also the changing needs going forward?

How to build a future-ready, holistic IT workforce strategy 

Most organizations know all of this is important, but there hasn’t been an effective template for how to do it in the new reality of a digital, post-COVID-19 economy, at least not in a holistic way. 

With the rate of change and disruption, there’s always going to be a new set of skills you need to invest in.

Here’s what a comprehensive, future-focused workforce strategy needs to include:

  • A yardstick. If you’re trying to build a future-ready workforce, how do you know what the future looks like? Data can help build out that picture of the future state. At Burning Glass, for example, Markow is using big data to view the labor market through a more granular lens. As Markow puts it, they’re tracking the workforce one skill at a time, which leads to real-time insights into the types of skills that driving the most disruption across roles and industries.
  • A baseline. It’s critical to understand what jobs and skills exist in your current workforce. Do you have an effective and efficient way of assessing current competencies across the IT organization? People used to look at disruption as a headcount issue, but it’s really about skills, especially since the individual requirements of a role can change in a few months or years. Skills are now a leading indicator of success.
  • A gap analysis. This will help pinpoint your current-state shortcomings.
  • A clearly defined path to where you want to be. This involves reviewing the gap analysis and then strategically identifying what you need to: 
    • Buy: Talent you’ll source from the market.
    • Build: Who, what, and how you’ll reskill and upskill your workforce.
    • Borrow: What work you’ll outsource.
    • Bot: Understanding how much of the workforce will be affected by technological innovation.

Importantly, you need to recognize this is a continuous process. With the rate of change and disruption, there’s always going to be a new set of skills you need to invest in. The future is always a moving target. But once you understand the skills your team has, it’s easier to transition them into future-ready, hard-to-fill roles. The process itself brings with it many additional benefits, including increased engagement, retention, innovation, and a more dynamic workforce.

The digital future will create winners and losers

Success in the digital future isn’t just about technical proficiency. Burning Glass data pinpoints three sets of interlocking skills that will be important to invest in going forward: 

  • Human skills (so-called “soft” or core/foundational skills)
  • Digital building blocks (digital literacy, foundational understanding of digital tools)
  • Business enablement (the ability to connect what you’re doing with why you’re doing it and communicate value across a broad array of stakeholders)

Many of the trends that the pandemic has catalyzed were not unknown to plenty of organizations. COVID-19 has shined a harsh light on who was further along the digital adoption curve than others. The firms best positioned to respond were those that had already started to invest in these skills. Too many others were caught flat footed. 

As the last few months have made clear, disruption occurs at the skill level, and you have to plan before the disruption occurs. If you’re on the leading edge and continually investing in those skills, you’re more likely to be a market leader. You’ll have a more mobile, adaptable workforce with more advancement opportunities. You’ll be able to redeploy people faster and find people who have similar skills and build on them. Your organization will be more productive, innovative, and adaptive – able to shift in any environment. 

And if you’re not, you’re going to be much more vulnerable to being disrupted.

[ Want more on today's IT job market? Read: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, which develops the human side of technology. He is the author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."

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