Reskilling facilitates agile IT in the digital era

CIOs cross-train employees in a variety of ways to round out their staffs’ skills for the digital age. CIOs share their reskilling strategies and lessons learned.

Reskilling facilitates agile IT in the digital era
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The heightened urgency over driving competitive advantage in the digital era has IT leaders scrambling to reskill employees, who must familiarize themselves not only with new tools but the business processes required to support and drive business strategy. Add in the talent shortage in critical domains such as cloud, machine learning, data science, software engineering and cybersecurity, and you can see why CIOs are increasingly cross-training employees in new and emerging disciplines.

“The technology landscape of coding, language and skills is evolving rapidly, creating a need for IT departments to make sure employees are up to date on the latest skills,” says Forrester Research analyst Andrew Bartels. Employees want to learn new skills, such as web and mobile development, and data science, says Bartels.

Those that don’t risk being left behind, a concern that some employees are already voicing. Seventy percent of workers surveyed say they haven’t yet mastered the skills required for their future jobs, according a 2018 Gartner survey of 7,100 people.

“This leads to a loss of engagement, decline in motivation and increase in workforce attrition,” wrote Gartner analysts Kaustav Dey and John Santoro in the report. “Hence, reskilling strategy needs to evolve.”

The following is a look at how several IT leaders are approaching this issue to create more productive, agile IT workforces.

Refreshing IT skills through SaaS

As the CIO of payments provider TSYS, Patty Watson is leading a digital transformation that includes migrating workloads from mainframes to public clouds, using RESTful APIs to make it easier to work with partners and customers, and adopting agile and product development models to roll out new products faster.

But Columbus, Georgia, isn’t exactly a hotbed for IT talent and Watson isn’t about to let rivals lap TSYS — or let her 4,700 IT workers leave out of skillset stagnation. TSYS regularly runs digital bootcamps and hosts weekly “pocket protector sessions,” in which engineers hear from industry professionals or watch technical videos on trending topics. 

Watson is also using curricula from PluralSight, a SaaS provider of technology skills training and content designed for IT staffs. Through PluralSight’s online portal, TSYS IT staffers are learning how to work with cloud, cybersecurity, containers, and other technologies, says Watson.

“The expectation is that you’re constantly learning,” Watson says. “A big part of our digital transformation involves continuous learning because technology is not static.”

One of the benefits of PluralSight over traditional internal training methods is that its course content is regularly refreshed, affording employees access to the latest information, Watson says. And it has strong trainers who will walk employees through the content. To date, more than 2,000 TSYS IT staffers have been reskilled through PluralSight and other learning programs.

Lesson learned: Make the learning optional rather than forcing it on employees. Many TSYS employees appreciate that the company is investing in their continuous learning, Watson says.

Swapping leaders to groom high potentials

"Do you want to be me in five to 10 years?" Kodak Alaris CIO John Milazzo asked his application and infrastructure heads shortly after becoming CIO of the company in 2012. Milazzo then offered them the opportunity to fill each other's shoes, which he said would bolster their managerial experience.

"When you consume services, you gain an incredible amount of knowledge and you bring that back, and it makes you a better service provider," says Milazzo, who took on various IT roles in mergers and acquisitions, sales and marketing and other functions over several years at the former Eastman Kodak company.

His intuition that these two high-potentials would be eager to test their mettle in a strange, new world proved correct. However, his infrastructure head left the company, with the application head filling his shoes. So far, it's working out well, says Milazzo. "It's really stretched her," Milazzo says, adding that she has brought some much needed application discipline to the company's infrastructure. "She is bringing a different perspective to the role." Such cross-pollination, Milazzo says, makes the organization stronger.

Lesson learned: Milazzo says he's pitched others on similar reskilling, only to be told "I don’t want your job." CIOs have to learn to be okay with that, and continue to challenge hard-working lieutenants in ways that help their career growth without grooming them as successors.

Cross-training to bridge the gap

IT workers at HMHost International switch from building and running ERP systems to maintaining point-of-sale applications and vice versa. Sometimes, even some of the infrastructure staff crosses over to the application department — or vice versa. In short, any cross-training opportunity is on the table.

But it's rarely an easy sell, says Sarah Naqvi, the restaurant operator's CIO. "They come in kicking and screaming and they are very uncomfortable," says Naqvi. However, they quickly learn that such cross-training can help them in their career. Naqvi tries to switch up her modest staff of 92 every 15 to 18 months, which she says helps them generate new ideas. "I wish I had this chance before I became CIO," she adds.

More recently, in response to the rise in digital technologies that employees and customers consume, Naqvi invited an HMHost business developer/operations specialist to join her team to understand the opportunities for applying digital technologies across the company's retail business. It's as much an acknowledgment that it's sometimes hard for IT to communicate the value of digital to business staff. "Having a business partner with us helps us bridge that gap," Navqi says. "It's completely changed the culture of IT."

In addition to the station rotations, Navqi sponsors both mentoring and reverse mentoring programs, where senior staff take junior staff under their wings, and vice versa. Navqi also augments her team with experts from Avenade and Accenture to facilitate HMHost's digital transformation.

Lesson learned: Cross-training only works when your "level 2" employees are strong, Navqi says. "You can't do it if you have a weak department."

An ‘agile’ playground for cross-training

Reskilling happens organically around agile software development at John Hancock, says Derek Plunkett, who runs application development for the financial services firm's retirement plan services. There, application developers, engineers, quality assurance analysts, cybersecurity talent and other IT staffers work with an array of business workers in small, nimble teams to build various digital products and services, including the company's websites and retirement calculators, says Plunkett.

Key to this endeavor is ensuring that IT's culture is aligned around building the best business outcomes for the company's plan participants. "We want to be strategic partners and in order to do that, we need to understand the goals of the business,” Plunkett says, adding that he doesn’t employ a formal rotational program.

John Hancock’s IT is moving toward a more engineering-focused, startup culture, which includes pair programming, where two developers code from one keyboard and computer. Such a fluid model helps Plunkett lure talent. That’s crucial at a time when 65 percent of nearly 4,000 CIOs surveyed for the KPMG/Harvey Nash CIO survey 2018 say a lack of talent is holding them back.

Lesson learned: The key is to get teams, including various IT staff and members of the business, working together and sharing knowledge, ideas and best practices around how to build specific digital products.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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