by Esther Shein

5 keys to reskilling IT for digital transformation

Nov 05, 2018
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipIT Skills

To truly transform, legacy staff must learn new skills in support of new technologies and business objectives. Here’s how to motivate and train for digital success.

As a seasoned CIO Scott Laverty has learned a thing or two about assessing IT’s limitations and needs. So when Laverty signed on as executive vice president and CIO of Shane Co. three years ago to launch a digital overhaul of the jewelry chain, “We made sure we were not only thinking about what skillsets we needed in-house, but also what we needed to add,” he says.

Too often, “I have seen people try to screw in software and try to use the people they have without thinking about, ‘What do I need to do to use the tool I put in?’” says Laverty, who previously held CIO positions at JCPenny and Borders.

First up was transforming a homegrown .NET website to one that was mobile responsive and would have an “omni-channel view for millennials,’’ he says. That meant deploying a new ecommerce platform and a set of tools and improving Shane’s data by building a data lake in Hadoop. Laverty’s IT department includes 42 people in the U.S. and another 20 overseas to manage 21 stores around the U.S. and an e-store.

“That’s a lot for a small company to take on,’’ he says of the $330 million company, a division of Western Stone and Metal.

Laverty opted to train some internal staff to get the skills needed to use the new platform and build out a Hadoop database. But he also decided to hire an outside consultant. Otherwise, he says, his team wouldn’t have been able to fully optimize what they bought.

“I would have had this Maserati I put in, but I would have only been able to put it in second gear,’’ he explains. “There were some [project] examples where I needed a role but only for maybe two years and that’s not fair to people, so I turned to contractors or consultants.”

As organizations get deeper into their digital transformations, as Laverty has found, they require new skillsets to deploy mobile, blockchain, AI and IoT projects, to name a few. Although hiring consultants is an option, with a well-documented shortage of data scientists and systems engineers, re-skilling staff is becoming a necessary strategy.  

A recent study by IT consultancy West Monroe Partners found that 71 percent of “very digitally mature companies” recognize the need to invest in employees’ digital skills if they are to stay competitive.

The most highly sought skills that companies need for digital initiatives are product management and agile delivery; data science; change management and organizational design; and human centered design and UX, according to Kyle Hutchins, senior director and national lead on the digital team at West Monroe Partners.

Here’s how companies are addressing these needs though re-skilling programs, and how they are tapping outside talent to help fill in gaps and re-tool the organization for digital success.

Engage staff early

People are a company’s most important assets, stresses Marty Boos, CIO of StubHub. They understand your business and how things work, and he says most engineers he’s met want to learn new things. So it behooves an organization to feel out IT staff and see what new skills they are interested in learning, he says.

“Most people don’t say, ‘I’m just happy doing what I do.’ I do not have to do a lot of selling’’ to convince them to train on new skills, he says. “I have more people saying, ‘When can I do this?’ than I have people saying, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

Many IT staffers look forward to the prospect of modernizing and working on a modern stack like the startups, Boos observes. In any type of change, the way to get your legacy staff to buy in to learning new skills is to have them participate in the transformation, he says.

“Get them involved early, and get them the training they need early, and they’re the ones who will make sure you’re successful,” he advises.

His other philosophy is to bring in contractors and/or vendors, and in some cases, new employees, merge them with internal tech business experts and then have them put a plan together and an execution roadmap of how to get from platform A to platform B. That way, they can jointly infuse it into business, building value to the company, he says.

“The key thing is if you do this in a vacuum with people who understand technology but not the business need, they’ll build what the tool was meant to do — not what the business needs,” Boos says.

If the business opts to bring in a brand-new team to transform something, the organization will end up with a “fairly generic implementation,” he says.

In some cases, consultants end up staying with the company, he adds. “Some will stay after the digital transformation is complete and in some cases they’re contractors who will help and then leave.”

Scale soft skills, too

IT leaders should not think of re-skilling their staff strictly from a technical viewpoint. It’s human nature to worry about your future when you don’t have the skills a company is looking for. Conversely, there can also be mindset challenges if legacy staff is resistant to learning new technologies.

“The real issue with the digital agenda is not the technology, but rather, creating the capability to use the technology,” says Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School and director of the school’s Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies program.

Often, scaling soft skills involves reshaping work and redesigning workflows, Gratton adds. “As technologies are able to perform more of the routine manual and cognitive tasks … the role of humans is to either move their skill set to work that technology cannot perform” such as insight, empathy, collaboration, innovation, “or to learn how to work with machines to augment their work.”

Skills like insight and empathy are complex human skills that are learned over time, often in a social learning environment — so scaling them has been a challenge, Gratton believes. Utilizing some of the newer, more interesting ways to approach training, such as virtual reality to simulate working with a difficult customer, for example, can make a difference, she says.

Companies need to work across disciplines to improve soft skills, adds Hutchins. “As long as siloes persist with technology leaders and other business decision-makers, enterprises won’t be able to have a business model that successfully integrates technologists,’’ he says. “And breaking down these siloes means establishing accountability on both sides.”

Just as technology leaders need soft skills to collaborate with business units more effectively, non-technical enterprise leaders should also have a good understanding of the work technology teams do, he observes. “To that end, companies should look to create multidisciplinary collaborative leadership teams, with technology leaders working alongside other business decision-makers.”

Let IT drive digital training

When it comes to obtaining new skills, Laverty doesn’t believe in being pennywise and pound foolish. “I think a business analyst can only do so much and there may be areas where we need to pay for training,’’ he says. “My guys are really good at finding stuff they want to take. I make it their challenge. They need to tell me what they need so I can provide it.”

Testing and training are the two things that get killed on a project, he says. When he worked as a consultant, Laverty says he saw plenty of companies kill both. “You can’t do that. It’s a part of your budget and you have to spend it.”

During the website revamp, Laverty discovered that one of his IT staff members was “extraordinarily interested in DevOps as well as automating testing,” and was on board with training so he could shift from a .NET to DevOps world. “He’s also helping drive our automated testing effort, which is nascent,’’ Laverty says. “When we talked about what he wanted to do, it worked out that it was where I wanted to take IT.”

So Laverty put his money where his mouth was. “I asked him, ‘What do you need?’” Then Laverty told the employee the company would commit to training him in whatever manner he decided worked best for him.

“Now I have a guy who’s a really good employee and we were able to retool him and keep him on board, which is really exciting,” he says.

But there were several roles where Laverty had to bring on new staff, including a back-end developer, a front-end developer who knew Java and SAP Hybris Commerce and a business analyst. Those were skills pointed out by his consultant from Deloitte Digital, who Laverty brought in after purchasing the new ecommerce platform.

Laverty also provided “some very basic training” internally for Shane’s QA group on how to use Hybris so they could do testing. That’s when he found mindset challenges.

“Staff was scared to death at first, I’ll be honest,’’ he recalls. “Change is a bear, and everyone thought we were going to outsource everything to Deloitte and we would automate and make them go away, so there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.”

He says he quashed those fears by being very clear on his intentions and assuring staff that there would not be layoffs as a result of the new platform. Ultimately, one staffer who did all of Shane’s HTML programming moved out of IT.

“He did front-end .NET work and I didn’t need that, so we shifted him to marketing,’’ Laverty says. “I was quite lucky; I didn’t have to change too many folks; I added folks.”

Make staff feel like rock stars

Re-skilling IT is a long process, people can get discouraged and there’s going to be bumps in road, observers say. Sometimes training will work, and sometimes it won’t.

“Unlike being at a startup and building from scratch, we still have a business to run and … we can’t stop working while we’re doing modernization,’’ says Boos.

StubHub is about nine months into the process of transforming how its systems are built, where they are built, and how testing and deployment are done. Boos hired a consultant to help put together a plan to build out a tech stack that the company can run in its private cloud or deploy in a public cloud while using the same processes and code base on a continuous integration continuous deployment (CICD) platform.

Every week the platform team does a “ceremony” for business executives to highlight and provide visibility into their work. “We want to make sure these guys understand we really care about this and want to publicize the work they’re doing,” Boos explains.

Because the first six months was about “laying a foundation,” not a lot of people could look at what the team was doing, he says, so it was important to build a sense of momentum for them.

At the same time, there was a lot of IT staff not working on the platform, and leadership needed to keep them engaged, too, he adds. StubHub put together small, autonomous teams or “dojos,” to build and deploy the platform and first set of apps. “We’re adding additional teams and more dojos to modernize other pieces of the app,’’ he says. “Keeping people engaged and saying, ‘Hey, you’ll be included in this and you will also be part of the next generation as more pieces get modernized,’” helps everyone stay motivated to learn, he says.

Talk the talk

Gratton says the first step in re-skilling staff is to make them understand how their jobs are changing — and communicate that as clearly as possible. “Then, provide a suite of learning opportunities for people and make use of learning platforms, gamification, interesting content,’’ she recommends. “Make sure that the senior IT people are role modelling learning themselves and are actively involved.”

Companies can also build in ways of accrediting people, Gratton adds.

Hutchins advises IT leaders to be bold with their organizational design and structure. “Organizing around product, customer journeys or capabilities will allow you to drive speed to market, have federated accountability, and drive a culture of business-oriented technologists,” he says. 

Training should be timed to the digital initiative, says Laverty. If staff doesn’t start using new skills right away, they lose them quickly, he adds. Then in six months, leaders should follow up to see what needs to be refined.

Most importantly, he says, “Training has to be tailored to the individual and the role. Taking a cookie-cutter approach is a bad thing.”