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Reskilling facilitates agile IT in the digital era

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.

CIOs are quickly learning that cultivating an agile IT organisation requires out-of-the-box thinking in the age of digital transformation. That, along with the glaring talent shortage, is why many IT leaders are cross-training employees in other disciplines and domains.

Such "reskilling”, as it's increasingly known, is driven by the need for increased velocity to drive competitive advantage. As a result, employees must familiarise themselves not only with new tools but the business processes required to support and drive business strategy.

Reskilling is catching on a variety of businesses, including McKesson, where CIO Kathy McElligott trains veteran employees and new talent on technologies intended to help the business execute better. McElligott, who discussed her work at the Forbes CIO Summit in April, also fostered a "free-agent program" that allows employees to acquire new skills. For example, network engineers rotate to the cybersecurity team to get more experience.

Here CIOs share their reskilling, rotation and cross-skilling strategies with CIO.com.

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 organisation 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.

Borrowing and lending between IT and business

Read more: Innovative CIOs make shift to managing IT as a product

CIO and Chief Security Officer Joel Jacobs doesn’t have a rotation program at Mitre, as the company’s sensitive work providing government agencies technology and other services makes such formalities challenging. Even so, Jacobs says he’s invested a lot in cross-training staff, particularly in areas such as customer service, even for staff who don’t work directly with clients.

Jacobs says his IT department will “borrow” people who have learned new capabilities, and “lend” people out to work with business staff building products for government clients. The result is that technical expertise, including skills around continuous delivery and continuous integration, software defined networking and identity access management, and the ability to serve customers, flow both ways. Jacobs’ technical staff are versed in production, while those who work with sponsors are fluent in consulting. “It’s a really useful cross-fertilization,” Jacobs says.

Lesson learned: As with large enterprises, working with large government agencies requires strong systems engineering and program management capabilities. And having each side understand the context in which the other is working is also valuable.

More on IT leadership

Read more: How to get a seat on the board: 10 tips for CIOs

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