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3 Tips For Minding The IT Skills Gap

In the digital enterprise, CIOs must help existing IT staffers expand their abilities and value soft skills as much as tech acumen.

It's an exciting yet challenging time to be an enterprise CIO. Technology is evolving at breakneck pace, and with each change comes new possibilities for how IT can deliver value to the broader organization.

But amid the Internet of things, big data, cloud computing, and so on, many CIOs are quietly worried that they aren’t prepared to maintain an IT workforce with all the skills necessary to transition to a fully "digital enterprise."

I know many of my CIO counterparts believe this so-called IT skills gap is approaching critical mass. But is the situation really that dire? And is there anything CIOs can do to make sure they find and keep employees with the skills that the company needs most?

While I do believe the modern IT workforce is approaching a critical stage, there are plenty of steps that savvy CIOs can take to make sure their workers are poised for success in the rapidly changing enterprise -- it just requires a subtly different approach to finding and maintaining talent.

[Like any good sports team, your data team needs a common goal and group chemistry. Read How To Build A Data-Driven Dream Team.]

Overall, a shift needs to take place in which soft skills become just as important as nuts-and-bolts technical know-how. Here are my top three considerations for IT leaders hoping to bridge the IT skills gap at their companies:

1. Start early. Become actively involved in building the industry workforce you wish to hire from. Businesses are increasingly partnering with educational institutions to help develop and execute curriculum that's aimed at preparing students for the real world. For the CIO, this could be as simple as STEM education to make sure the future workforce has a strong foundation.

At GE Capital, we have programs that work with students as early as middle school to begin preparing them for bright careers. Not all of them will work at GE Capital, but it's the right thing to do and will help develop a talent pool that we can draw from for years to come.

2. Develop the talent you have. While new talent acquisition is an important part of maintaining a strong workforce, your best ROI will almost always be to develop the talent you already have.

Instead of hiring experts on cloud or big data, for example, CIOs will need to hire and retain people with general tech backgrounds and provide them with the tools they need to become experts in the latest enterprise technology. IT shops should set aside an annual budget for employee training that balances the financial realities of the department with the need to keep employees’ skills up to date. Large organizations may benefit from a formal internal training program, while IT departments with tighter budgets may look to creative options, such as peer trainings in which employees share their knowledge with one another. Whatever your training budget, make sure every dollar spent on professional development addresses skills your organization needs now or will likely need in the future.

It's also important to create career paths that make sense for both the employee and the organization. There are business benefits from internal promotion by reducing the time and cost of external hiring, and internal promotion also helps keep valuable intellectual property in-house. Meanwhile, employees with clear roads toward advancement are more likely to remain at a company and stay motivated to perform at a high level.

3.  Look for the multi-dimensional candidate. When you do seek out external talent, think carefully about what you really need -- not just now, but in the future. Just as technology is changing, the role of the IT employee is also changing and will continue to do so. Instead of hiring candidates with specific tech skills or knowledge, it will instead be important to look for talented people who have general technical knowledge but who also have soft skills such as communication, leadership, and ambition. For example, if there are two candidates, one with more ambition and another with deeper experience in cloud computing, I’ll hire the ambitious candidate every time. The thinking is that the candidate with the right attitude will be able to learn cloud, and will also stand ready to learn whatever new disciplines the future holds.

In the long run, having an IT staff with diverse skills will be critical for IT taking a larger role in the business. The specifics of new technologies will change, but skills like leadership and ambition will only grow in importance.

In short, the sky is not falling: CIOs can find ways to prepare their workforces for the challenges of the digital enterprise. However, CIOs and other IT leaders must understand that now is the time to think critically about where IT is headed, and the kind of workforce they'll need to realize that vision. By focusing on finding the right kind of people, with a foundation of technical knowledge and the right soft skills, CIOs can ensure they have workers who can shift gears and adapt to changing technology.

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