Conundrums in the IT capability

Many readers will be aware that the demands on a business's IT capability have changed. It's no longer enough to ensure that the applications and infrastructure keep working and stay secure; now it's necessary to spot its potential for technology to disrupt the business and take action to make it work for rather than against you.

It needs people with an eye on the future, who can learn quickly and work differently, and the challenge for a business is to ensure it has such people at all levels within its talent pool. But conversations between the BCS and its members suggest that individual organisations and UK plc are not doing it well, and need to deal with a number of shortcomings.

One is that the quality of graduates coming through IT recruiters is not always up to scratch, with too many failing to combine the technology know-how with a grasp of what's needed by the business.

This is compounded by some of the best graduates finding start-ups more sexy than the corporate world. They're attracted by the excitement of working on something new, a relaxed atmosphere in the workplace, the possibility of getting rich, and a sense that if it fails they are well equipped to start again.

A big company might offer a decent salary, but not the scope for achievement that they often see in a small business with big ambitions. And sometimes they might have ethical reservations about the activities of a large employer.

Another issue is that the ability to foresee disruption, and spot the opportunities, depends as much on an understanding of human behaviour as the intricacies of computing. Business leaders often complain that a lot of IT specialists are not the type to observe and learn lessons from how other people work, play and spend their money, let alone think about its implications for the business.

Then comes the need to identify and support the people inside the business who can take on new skills and change the way they work. Organisations struggle because of problems on both sides. A lot of employees, in IT and other areas, concentrate on developing deep and narrow skills, sometimes because they believe that increases their own value, often because they find it more comfortable day-to-day.

But businesses often compound the problem by not enabling people to break out of their personal silos. They need to provide the resources for employees to develop new skills, dealing with specialisms that bring value to the individual and the organisation.

So what are the solutions? Some business leaders say there is plenty to be learned from the better big contractors. They have to be versatile and respond to changing markets, and by necessity keep a close eye on the business potential for new technology and continually reskill their workforce. They have been quick to adopt approaches such as Agile and DevOps, and can make organisations aware of issues that had gone unnoticed. It is the culture of constantly responding to change that sets them apart from most of their customers.

There is also scope for more diversity in the internal capability. Some leaders believe that if there are people with different education and work histories, different professional interests and maybe more women, you get a wider range of those insights into human behaviour. In turn this can produce a wider range of ideas for meeting the challenges facing IT teams. Experience is important but not enough by itself. The crucial issue to bring a perspective that can add value to the IT capability.

Another idea is to increase the intake of apprentices. Its advocates say that people coming in through apprenticeships can often be more valuable in the long term than those entering with degrees, because from an early stage they combine real world experience with formal learning. This makes them more open to new ideas rather than being stuck in theory.

Giving apprentices the chance to find their feet, grasp the demands of the workplace or even take a degree could produce the employees who will lead the way in ten years' time.

It could also help to rotate employees in different roles, and bring teams together for specific projects then disband them, rather than allowing people to settle into long term responsibilities that narrow their sites. It can cause unrest and needs careful people management, but it can also broaden the perspectives of IT teams.

Then there is the familiar requirement to support employees in reskilling, sharing in the costs and giving them time to raise their capabilities. It can be expensive and time consuming, but it can also bring out the best in people and the organisation.

Underlying all this is the need to respond to how technology can change a business before it sets in. 'Keeping the lights on' is always going to be a crucial element of the IT capability, but by itself it is not enough. Businesses have to develop strategies to upgrade their skills base and ensure their people are focused on the potential for change as well as the day-to-day.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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