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Find the talent gap: How CIOs can be change leaders when tackling the skills shortage

CIOs no longer need to be told to mind the talent gap – 94 percent know their teams lack the right skill set to support transformation. Top of the agenda is finding the gaps and filling them. That means identifying the specific roles in your IT department where talent is needed and using the right mix of hiring, training and outsourcing to reshape the team in a way that stimulates growth from the inside out.

The talent gaps have moved as CIOs realise a greater need for employees who can collaborate on a wider range of tasks within and beyond the IT department. In the past, IT workers could spend an entire career focused on one specialist area of expertise. Today, modern IT departments need “generalists”, who have a broader understanding of all operations as well as more business skills, as digital technology increasingly drives business transformation.

This greater need for flexibility and an awareness of business outcomes is why 84 percent of CIOs in 2018 are saying their biggest gaps in IT are business acumen, problem-solving and critical thinking. So how do you build a team of problem-solving critical thinkers without neglecting the technological skills that keep the organisational train on its tracks?

Complement technical expertise with invaluable soft skills

The rising tech skills required to work in close collaboration with business leaders aren’t service orientation or systems thinking; they’re creativity, cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence.

Creative workers who can implement design thinking will help build products and services that solve business issues, while workers who can think flexibly are invaluable for seeing situations from other perspectives. As IT operations become crucial to more links in the value chain, you’ll need IT staff who can collaborate with employees that have different expertise, putting emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills at the top of the wishlist for CIOs who want to build a more flexible workforce.

IT departments that aim to provide value to the rest of the business should make soft skills a top priority, turning a 'NO' mindset to a 'YES' mindset.

‘CIOs should look for collaboration and problem-solving skills in new hires. A knowledge of how businesses run can also be really useful, such as understanding profit and loss and revenue – it helps those in IT to talk to the business in a language they understand’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco


Use data to identify your specific talent gaps

There is a shortage of soft skills in most IT departments as many CIOs continue to overlook their value – particularly the CIOs who aren’t yet leading business transformation. But you might have other talent gaps that are unique to your circumstances.

Your business KPIs, employee assessments and 360-degree reviews are perfect opportunities to collect the data you need. If review programmes are rolled out with talent gaps in mind, you can tailor survey questions and performance indicators to measure competencies in all your key desired skill sets. If you’re using skills management software to allocate staff to the right tasks, put this resource to good use by comparing the distribution of skills in your workforce with your business priorities and KPIs. This is where your talent gaps will emerge. You might find trends in the types of skillsets your company naturally attracts, which can help you reshape how and where you look for new talent.

Once you’ve identified the gaps, you have several options for how to fill them, including reskilling and upskilling the current workforce, hiring new staff, sourcing external help, or restructuring your existing team.


Should you train or hire to fill the skills gap?

A key decision when closing talent gaps is whether to train existing staff, hire new candidates or use a mix of the two strategies. The right decision depends on the skills required and the skillsets of the existing team, but the majority of CIOs see training current staff as the right solution for most talent gaps. The only shortfalls for which surveyed CIOs are more likely to seek new hires are artificial intelligence as well as augmented reality and virtual reality.

‘There are certain new skills where you want to go outside the organisation and bring in experts. Something we’ve had success with at Cisco is tailoring our university hiring to attract talent at the grassroots level. We look at specific courses such as security and big data to find fresh niche talent. We’re also bringing in people we didn’t have in IT in the past. For example, looking at arts graduates for UX design, instead of relying on regular computer science.'

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco

Using a variety of training strategies can help instil a culture of learning in your workforce. For example, you could make training programs and resources that are accessible at any time, which could include video libraries and online how-tos. It’s also a great idea to pair experienced staff with graduates.  A buddy program has benefits for both participants. For example, in Cisco a newly qualified network engineer learns a lot about network design and implementation from someone who has been doing that for years. Meanwhile the experienced network engineer learns about software programming from the new graduate.


Team dynamics and development

Bridging talent gaps can sometimes be about restructuring your workforce rather than bringing in new staff or training. Sometimes the right skills are there, just not in the right place. Now more than ever, CIOs are choosing to break down the narrow-focused, subject-specific teams of the past and create flatter networks of teams in their place, each with multidisciplinary skill sets and an awareness of the entire workflow.

As part of such a restructuring strategy, consider setting up initiatives that build enterprise-wide tech fluency. This will help bring your IT staff closer to members of other departments by creating a common language with shared business goals. Almost all CIOs recognise a need to educate teams to be tech-fluent but only two-thirds of CIOs have developed initiatives to build enterprise-wide tech know-how.


Sourcing external talent

Sometimes operating training programmes can be too costly and time-consuming. Equally, sometimes it’s not the right moment to hire for a role. Using a mix of external service providers alongside your training and hiring strategies helps to balance competing needs.

Fifty-eight percent of CIOs say they are using external sources of talent such as service providers and freelancers. Service vendors can help fill talent gaps while the business workforce is transformed over time. The IT generalists, who take a broader view of the business, can identify which skills are available in-house and which will have to be externally sourced.

‘It’s worth thinking about how much depth of expertise you need in-house. For example, if you have a core system, like your procurement or HR platform, for which you’ve developed a specialised team and you change to a different vendor, does that mean you’ll have to completely replace those skills? You’ll need to decide which skills you want the vendor to bring and which skills are most advantageous long-term if developed in-house.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco

Bear in mind that setting up processes for using vendors can create its own talent gaps. IT teams that have little experience with managing vendors will have to develop policies, review contracts and assess KPIs.

One advantage, however, of interacting with specialist vendors is that it gives in-house employees an opportunity to learn new methods, helping to bring specialist skills into the workforce long-term. The time that outsourcing frees up in the short-term can also be put into planning how to onboard those specialist skills full-time. Outsourcing first and hiring second might help identify which skills will bring in real business value before making a long-term investment.


Understanding the root cause of your talent gap

Whatever skills are lacking in your workforce, and whatever strategy you use to fill those gaps, taking the time to understand why those gaps exist will pay dividends for the business in the long-term. There will be a root cause for every talent gap and it won’t always be down to a short supply of talented people. If the source of your skill gap is chronic, then the gap may re-emerge.

One major cause of talent gaps many CIOs face is an inability to retain talented staff long-term. It can help to provide for needs that workers value, such aschild care, rideshare programs and digital collaboration tools. Forward-thinking CIOs are finding it easier to attract and retain talent by leading workforce transformation towards the positive culture and flexible working environment that many workers desire.