Recently a friend of mine told me how her teenage son had been put on report by his school for acting like an entrepreneur. He'd been caught selling soda from his locker and undercutting the school's lunch services. For his efforts he not only received detention, but was also forced to write out "I will not profit from the thirst of others" 100 times on the whiteboard. Oh, how the spirit of youth can so easily be dampened!
This sad story got me thinking about the importance of acquiring, nurturing, and retaining talent of the entrepreneurial kind -- especially for CIOs and IT leaders whose new marching orders are to stimulate innovation and grow the business. But it's not so easy.
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We've all read about the severe skills shortage in IT. Enrollment in university computer science degree courses is at an all-time low, while the demand for experienced data analysts, cloud geeks, and web and mobile "rock stars" is growing. And the problem will only get worse, as the pressure increases on CIOs to speed up business innovation without blowing the budget.
Meanwhile, times are not so great for young job seekers. They've inherited the financial hangover of recent economic calamities and face an uncertain employment future. But on the flip side, they have no choice but to rise to the challenge and become much more entrepreneurial as a result. This, of course, will be fueled by access to technology, but also by a stark reality: They might need to create jobs themselves.
But in all the doom and gloom, are there more effective talent strategies CIOs and IT leaders can employ? Yes, but they're non-traditional and require tapping into the eternal entrepreneurial spirit that may never make it onto your "official" enterprise staff list of requirements.
To address talent shortages, some CIOs I know have recruitment partnerships with academic institutions. Some even have graduate intake programs and apprenticeships. This "get them while they're young" approach can be applauded, but in my opinion it doesn't always guarantee success. Why? Well firstly, many graduate programs I've observed should really be called "spirit crushers." Rather than encourage and stimulate innovation, they force graduates to undertake lengthy enterprise assimilation programs. When they're finally ready to contribute we give them boring jobs, the rationale being that everyone starts at the bottom, right?
Secondly, today's talent doesn't only come from grad schools or MBA programs. On the contrary, talent is actually getting younger and more diverse. For example, there are now new incubator type schools (The Incubator School in Los Angeles is one) with the mission of nurturing and launching the entrepreneurial teams of tomorrow. These are places where students as young as grade six are given the support and encouragement to turn ideas into actual business ventures (which hopefully are more sustainable than selling soda in the school yard).
My advice to enterprises, therefore, is not to become entrenched in traditional recruitment practices and rigid company assimilation strategies. More successful approaches involve understanding new talent dynamics, developing relationships with external resource communities, and accepting that in many cases it isn't always necessary to hire, but rather partner with, young, independent, and external development communities.
In most cases, the pace of development requirements can no longer be met with internal talent acquisition. IT is under pressure to accelerate the delivery of innovative apps, but to meet this demand, companies have an internal supply problem. Partnering with a community of talented yet independent developers isn't as crazy as it sounds. They may be coding in ways alien to you, but who cares as long as they're effective? For example, one developer friend of mine has a bad Xbox habit and, as this column's headline suggests, loves Nirvana. But grunge music and video games aside, he makes a very nice living from mobile development and foreign currency trading -- he's a genius, albeit from the comfort of his parents' basement.
So if, for example, an enterprise wants to build a mobile service ecosystem around a product, it makes sound business sense to partner with and compensate external developers. This talent might just deliver something as simple, but compelling, as a new way to visualize information, or an innovative mashup from many data sources.
What's most important is to curb insular thinking and start employing secure yet flexible strategies that connect your enterprise value with an entrepreneurial developer community. This could involve recrafting more agile development platforms or opening up enterprise data via APIs.
But that's only a start. Don't expect everyone to join your team and deliver cool new apps unless you make it easy for external developers to do what they do best: innovate. To get your enterprise to smell like entrepreneurial spirit, you'll need to nurture external communities through open collaboration, incentives, and encouragement.
Peter Waterhouse is a senior technical marketing advisor for CA Technologies' strategic alliance, service providers, cloud, and industry solutions businesses.
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