With the rapid pace of technological change comes the need for upskilling IT workers — especially when talent is hard to come by. For IT leaders, the pandemic’s ongoing disruption of the workplace has only compounded the challenge.
Although many organizations employed some level of remote workers prior to the pandemic, most have traditionally leaned on in-person learning as a key facet of their training strategies. With the hybrid workplace model, which blends remote and in-office work, expected to have staying power, rethinking how upskilling can be achieved continuously in this paradigm has become paramount.
And it’s not just about keeping IT skills up to date. IT leaders need to also be able to create new leaders, according to Craig Stephenson, senior client partner managing director of Korn Ferry’s North American CIO/CTO practice. “In several years, we anticipate that there is likely going to be a gap in strong midlevel management as the virtual work environment is causing friction with more traditional methods historically utilized.”
Consequently, Korn Ferry is seeing significant emphasis on exposing high-performing technology executives into enterprise leadership programs, which can be done virtually, Stephenson says.
Santhosh Keshavan, CIO of Voya Financial, agrees, saying that Voya places a strong emphasis on leadership skills such as communication, influencing, and delivering results, in addition to tech skills. “To be successful, you must focus on enhancing technology and leadership skills simultaneously,” he says.
Here’s how several IT leaders are rising to the challenge.
Self-paced — and self-motivated
Luckily, many IT leaders are finding that upskilling in a mostly virtual model isn’t nearly as difficult as they anticipated. At Intermountain Healthcare, the ability to upskill in a hybrid workforce is viewed almost as a perk, says Ryan Smith, vice president and CIO of the healthcare provider, which operates 25 hospitals and 225 clinics in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada.
“It’s really changing — we used to send people offsite or onsite to week-long or three-day training sessions,” he says.
Learners just don’t have the ability to take that kind of time out of their work week to attend classes, Smith says. Now, thanks to the pandemic, “training and upskilling has moved to bite-sized, self-paced learning when they want and where they want.”
Intermountain now offers virtual and online training from soft skills to leadership to hard-core digital and other tech skills.
“We’ve been working up to that type of model even pre-pandemic, because of the pace of work that only got accelerated during the pandemic,’’ Smith says. But “we’re being pretty cautious to not require training.”
At a broader organizational level, training is required around compliance and security, “but as it relates to IT skills training, we’re trying to focus more on an opt-in model,’’ which generates excitement, he notes. Senior leaders are seeing a lot more success when people seek learning in a self-paced way as opposed to mandatory training, Smith says.
“It’s not that we don’t still have people going to in-person events again, but that’s barely picking up steam,’’ he adds. “It feels like that model is changing very, very quickly.”
To shine a spotlight on the IT skills that are needed, Intermountain has a “value showcase” that highlights an initiative that has produced significant results, which are invariably digital in nature, Smith says.
Internal universities, digital dojos, and Yoda
Learning is also voluntary at SEI, a provider of wealth and investment management software. Ryan Hicke, executive vice president and CIO, says the company developed an internal SEI University prior to the pandemic, but not surprisingly, it grew in popularity during the lockdown.
SEI partners with third parties to deliver virtual courses on cybersecurity, anything related to cloud, data science, and user experience, including design and development, Hicke says. IT just offered a course on two front-office technologies, Angular.js vs. React.js, which drew about 100 to 125 people, he says.
A couple of years ago, Discover Financial Services rolled out Discover Technology Academy, an open source community in which engineers teach other engineers. Interested IT professionals can create a personalized learning path, take courses, and “hang out” with others in the community, says Angel Diaz, vice president of technology capabilities and innovation.
The company has also developed a digital dojo immersive experience that pairs teams for a six-week engagement that enables employees to “continue to improve your craft,’’ with help from experts on various technologies, such as implementing automation CI/CD, Diaz says.
Discover’s product roadmap identifies the skills necessary to carry them out. If an upcoming project requires skills around DevOps, for example, an employee can enter the dojo and take a specific course, he says.
The Kellogg Co. offers a technical competency program called Yoda, which stands for “year of development always.” Senior Vice President and CIO Lesley Salmon says there are several tracks within Yoda for technical training and career strategies. There are tools that ask what type of career an employee wants and offers directed learning, she says.
Salmon’s organization has also been curating virtual programs around data and analytics, an initiative that launched within the past couple of months, she says.
Solving real problems
SEI also publishes a lot of internal open challenges that give employees opportunities to work on teams to solve real problems, such as taking an internal-facing app and refactoring it for the cloud.
“Anyone can partner to work on that and learn hands-on,’’ Hicke says. “That’s been a really fun opportunity to create connections across teams right now. I’ve been surprised by the uptake on that.”
Employees don’t have to have the necessary skills to participate; they can partner with others who do and learn by doing. Team members get exposure to the software development lifecycle, from design and development to deployment, he says.
“If I can’t write code, I might still get educated on design and architecture principles,’’ Hicke says. “On the deployment side, once something goes into production [they can learn] how an app operates differently in the cloud than a data center. You can become conversationally competent. … People can gain a lot of knowledge” this way.
All the open challenges are being conducted virtually, even though a large number of employees are back in office, Hicke says, adding that about three or four open challenges run concurrently with approximately 60 people participating.
Centers of excellence
Because there are a lot of robotic process automation initiatives under way at Intermountain Healthcare, some of which are integrated with artificial intelligence, the organization has opened an AI center of excellence (CoE), Smith says.
“That’s basically a mechanism people across the company can [use to] work on upskilling,” he says. The CoE is open to anyone within the organization interested in taking on automation tasks to automate some of their own workflows, he says.
Cloud management is another critical skill the healthcare system needs, along with agile/DevOps and DevSecOps, Smith says. To upskill IT specifically, the organization has developed formal virtual learning programs through third parties along with CoEs, which incorporate learning opportunities taught by internal leaders, he says.
“We also recognize in this day and age with all the content available for free [online], it feels like you can almost become a master of anything, and a lot of our employees pursue self-directed learning,’’ Smith says. “If they’re interested in learning Python, they can go out and do a course and we work to reimburse the ones that are paid.’’
Prior to the pandemic, only about 3% to 4% of the 1,100 IT staff worked remotely, and Smith believes about 70% will stay remote three or more days. “It’s very much a hybrid workforce for the indefinite foreseeable future.”
A fundamental mind shift
With a global staff of 550,000-plus people, Accenture has moved from in-person training to on-demand for everyone. In IT, CIO Penelope Prett says her focus is on “rotating the workforce from an ownership mentality to a cloud consumption mentality.”
“It’s simple to say, but [it’s about] finding a training zone that helps people understand the bigger concepts between cloud and consumption” and making a cultural shift from developers who traditionally had specific tasks to complete to a more connected world, Prett says. “There’s much more integration in workflows and data sharing and we have make it all work together. Those orchestration skills are very different than straight coding skills.”
An emphasis on low code, SaaS, and integration requires a “fundamental mind shift” and thinking deliberately about how to deliver those skills, Prett says. To achieve this, Accenture has redefined career paths, and employees work with their managers to figure out what their career goals are, assess the skills they have and the skills needed to get there, she says.
“If they don’t have something … we build out those skillsets and put together a plan and help them grow,’’ Prett says, adding that Accenture invests just under $1 billion a year in this type of personal upskilling.
Curriculums are developed both in-house and through third parties. Accenture also offers an apprentice program that can be done by virtually “sitting” with an employee and observing their work.
“Where we are able to work side by side we do that — when it makes sense,’’ Prett says. “When we can’t, the technology helps approximate” the experience. It matters what the employee wants and how we can best help them and we can reach them through any format.”
Low code is also a great approach for upskilling both IT and the general employee population because the platforms are easy to learn, she says. “The power is in the data you put in and how you configure them,” but in as little as four weeks’ time, people can be trained, she says.
“Technology lets us do that and it’s very cool,’’ she says.
At the Kellogg Co., it has become more important than ever for IT to “double down” on its understanding of cybersecurity, Salmon says. A new program is being developed to foster this.
In the meantime, the cybersecurity leadership team is doing a rotation to learn skills in areas such as governance, auditing, and security tools, as well as how to become a cyber leader, Salmon says.
“If you think about what it takes to be a CISO, it’s difficult to internally develop those skills … so we have rotated leadership by taking them out of their specialist area and flipped them” into other areas they are required to learn about — all from their teams, she says.
“Their teams have a deeper technical knowledge and they’re teaching the leaders,’’ she explains. “Having humility and a willingness to learn is a core value of Kellogg’s.”
Virtual upskilling challenges
Of course, not everyone learns best in a remote setting. One big challenge is there isn’t the same level of interaction, says SEI’s Hicke. “A lot of ideation and collaboration lends itself to being in person.” Even visual technologies such as whiteboards are much easier to use in a room with people sitting around a table, he says.
“So the challenge is around trying to leverage … other capabilities and collaboration tools to try to bridge the gap as best as possible to what would happen in person,’’ he says. “We can deliver the content — that’s easy virtually but working through a problem … that’s a lot harder virtually.”
Another challenge to upskilling virtually is that people aren’t comfortable asking questions “because they don’t want to think [their question is seen as] dumb,’’ Hicke says. “Whereas in person, they can pull someone aside at the end of meeting. I don’t know how willing people are to do that in virtual environment,’’ which doesn’t always lend itself to having that quick opportunity to connect afterwards, like the in-person experience does, he says.
“What worries me a little bit is the junior talent just coming out of college or coming into the workplace,’’ observes Kellogg’s Salmon. “They learn by osmosis, and you can still teach them the technical stuff, but learning to be a professional [comes from] sitting next to someone and observing how they deal with a difficult person on the phone. I don’t know how we get that in virtual world.”
Leaders must not be daunted; they must think outside the box and do all they can to support a hybrid workforce, which will be vital to recruiting and retaining talent going forward. “The world has shifted and if our organizations are going to continue to be competitive we have to recognize employees want and crave that hybrid choice — and we have to revamp our work to support that,’’ says Smith.
Working remotely all these months has provided the skills to work anywhere, so there’s no reason upskilling can’t happen in the same context, he says.
“We owe it to employees to offer every opportunity to upskill,’’ Smith says. “We have all these crown jewels within our organization with technical skills that are readily adaptable if we’ll just provide the opportunity to cultivate those skillsets.”
Esther Shein is a journalist with extensive experience writing and editing for both print and the web with a focus on business and technology as well as education and general interest features.