If I told you this sentence about the future of IT talent and training was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, would you believe me? “Traditional training and talent development approaches won’t be enough, because 2020 and the decade that follows will demand flexibility and adaptability on a scale not seen in most CIOs’ lifetime.”
That line comes from the Harvard Business Review Analytic Service report on IT talent trends published in January 2020, and it’s proven quite prophetic. The first half of this year has required many IT organizations to pivot harder and faster than ever before to accommodate what the media has dubbed “the world’s largest work from home experiment.”
Now that work is stabilizing for many IT departments, CIOs who successfully adjusted to these rapid changes are focused on continuing to adapt and innovate in this new normal. While those who struggled are quickly trying to overcome their vulnerabilities. In both cases, the IT organizations most likely to succeed in this new normal will be the ones that spend time future-proofing their IT workforce strategies, says Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, which develops the human side of technology.
“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,” Roberts said.
“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,” he said. “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.”
[ Which IT positions are misunderstood, seeing rapid change, or on their way to becoming obsolete? Read: 8 IT jobs in flux ]
We reached out to several leaders who are ahead of the curve, proactively creating a more versatile workforce in their organizations before the pandemic changed our world. We asked them to share the skills that are most important now, and how developing them contributes to a more holistic IT workforce strategy.
Understanding the current business is crucial
“When I’m asked about the key skills aspiring technology leaders need to be exceptional leaders, technical skills actually don’t top my list,” said Julie Cullivan, chief technology and people officer for ForeScout Technologies. “The best IT leaders I know are business leaders who have a deep understanding of the current business. They understand strategically where the business is heading. They collaborate well with all levels of stakeholders. They understand and consider risks. They do what they said they were going to do. And, importantly, they have the courage to speak the truth even when it may not be popular.”
Cullivan continued, “As you can see, none of these critical skills require deep technical skills. That said, to be successful at any any level in IT, we as leaders must coach and develop our teams on two dimensions:
- Clearly, we must ensure our talent is getting the technical acumen necessary to be successful in their current role, as well as what we anticipate that role will evolve to in the future. Consistent execution is also part of this – it’s important to get stuff done.
- The other, more important dimension, centers around the softer ‘core’ skills including communication, influence, empathy, accountability, business acumen, adaptability – how you get stuff done,” Cullivan said.
Project and change management skills aren’t so special anymore
"As the pace of change increases, skills that lived at the margin before are becoming increasingly important,” said Rachel Parent, head of enterprise change for T. Rowe Price. “Whereas teams like mine used to be able to focus on project management, Lean Six Sigma, and change management skills, these are no longer sufficient.”
[ What critical skills should your hiring strategy target in the decade ahead? Read IT talent: New tactics for a new era. ]
Parent runs an internal consultancy called the Enterprise Change Office, which focuses on directing strategic work efforts that lead to transformational changes important to T. Rowe Price. Fundamentally, she says, the customers her group serves want two things:
- Help with selecting the transformational change portfolio that contributes best to their strategic goals
- Assurance that her team will execute well with the funding that has been allocated for their change programs
“Like me, many of my team members have spent more than half of our careers in technology functions,” she said.
To ensure upskilling remains a priority, several skills that are rising in importance are incorporated into individual development plans including data analysis and storytelling, as well as consulting skills. Technical skills remain important too, she said.
“Technology is changing rapidly. As a result, some skills that are critical today can be obsolete in 18 months. If my team is well rounded, we can help spot trends, know what to capitalize on (and when to pass), know when to hire a person (and when to contract for the skills), and more,” Parent said.
Measuring success of the greater whole v. individual
“IT has been in a state of disruption and change for several years as architectures change, open source co-exists with proprietary technologies, and tremendous amounts of data are generated at the edge. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional dimension to these challenges,” said Patricia Frost, SVP and chief human resource officer for internal communications and community engagement at Seagate Technology. “We’ve learned that resourcing the best talent doesn’t require a specific location. We need to embrace the virtual networking and positive results that we have achieved during this crisis.
“This new working environment also reflects the need for a more robust and flexible talent base that is constantly learning and adapting to new requirements and challenges. For IT and technology professionals, this goes beyond traditional definitions of learning/development and requires openness to redeploying to new roles, pivoting quickly in support of changes in strategy, reskilling, and upskilling as necessary,” she said.
In the year ahead, Frost says Seagate will “place a priority on manager and leader development and team of teams training, emphasizing the importance of the success of the greater whole and not the individual.”
“The task in front of us first is to see ourselves (360 and 180-degree assessments); build agile broadening opportunities for our employees using artificial intelligence tools to map the right skills to the right person; and focus training on the core leadership skills – communication, collaboration, consulting, coaching, influence, empathy, networking, and problem-solving,” she said.
Appetite for continual learning required
Encouraging growth and building culture is built into Novant Health’s digital products and services team, where team members are encouraged to think of the group as a “talent classroom” where everyone is part of the talent network and can be tapped for knowledge at any time, according to Misti Fragen, vice president of learning for digital products and services at Novant Health.
“This approach allows everyone to grow and become energized as they find new ways to contribute,” she said. “Our culture is a living, breathing entity. We are all responsible for engagement, growth, and learning to remain a top technology destination. Every team member shapes our workday experience and our overall direction.”
[ Want more on today's IT job market? Read: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]
Fragen says this mindset has been formalized with “unconventional pathways to hire from our communities and from various partners in secondary education. We create partnerships with a variety of third parties, including research organizations and start-ups, that allow our team members to explore new technologies and solution sets. We encourage team members to lead introductory sessions around topics of broad interest, and craft rapid boot-camps for key skill sets. Our approach is to target specific learning experiences in a collaborative, multi-platform, and rapid way,” she said.
“We believe that technical skills are table stakes – successful team members must also be situationally aware, communicate well, and have the appetite for continual learning. Tech is not standing still, so expertise in one area is of limited use – it expires over time. We need team members who can move as technology moves.”
A renewed focus on talent development
Roberts says it’s critical that CIOs recognize that their workforce strategy is a continuous process. Given all world and business changes sparked by the pandemic, Roberts says organizations can get a head start by shifting focus from talent acquisition to talent development.
“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,” he said.
While the 2020 HBR IT talent research may not have predicted a global pandemic and all the business fallout that would come from it, its concluding paragraph was prescient: “The year ahead represents an important inflection point for CIOs. The choices they make now will determine their organizations’ fate for the next decade and beyond. Those who make talent a top priority, redefining what it looks like and adopting new approaches to how they attract and cultivate it, will lead their enterprises’ transformation into the digital future.”
Where will your IT talent strategy lead you in the years ahead?
[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]