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How innovative is your IT department?

Expectations placed on technology teams have grown significantly in recent years. With digital capability becoming one of the most important differentiators in modern business, the pressure is on for IT departments to deliver innovative strategies that drive tech transformation. Traditionally, IT departments have been seen as enablers, rather than major strategic players. Their role has been to help businesses achieve their objectives in a very practical sense, through device supply, troubleshooting, or acquiring and installing systems that allow modern working practices to function.

However, for many organisations, this is no longer the case. Nowadays, IT teams are also expected to be a key proactive driver in developing innovative business strategies and helping firms gain a competitive edge by embracing the latest digital technologies.

Our recent Tomorrow’s Tech Teams research examined the structure and purpose of IT departments today, speaking to both IT leaders and workers. It found that both groups face enormous challenges in delivering technologies like cloud services, mobile apps and turning data into actionable insights. It revealed that IT leaders of UK businesses think their teams are not currently fit for purpose. Stating, on average, they are four years behind their most innovative competitors, while almost one in three IT leaders believes their teams need to be completely overhauled in order to drive digital transformation in their organisation.

The skills gap

Two-thirds of IT leaders told us they feel their teams lack the expertise to push the company forward, and that they could increase overall productivity by 31 per cent if their teams had the right mix of IT skills, knowledge and experience. The effects don’t stop there; a recent report from The Science and Technology Committee suggests that the IT skills gap is predicted to cost the UK economy around £63bn a year in lost income. This supports our previous findings that one in four businesses are looking overseas to source talent in order to manage the well-documented skills imbalance within the UK IT industry.

What is clear from the research is our current IT departments do not have the right composition and skills to quickly switch from being a largely reactive service to being at the heart of business strategy and innovation.

So how can organisations engage existing employees, overcome their skills shortage and drive digital transformation?

Start redefining the tech team

Central to creating an innovative IT department is piecing together a tech team that’s equipped to meet all challenges and become an active contributor to high-level business aims. Businesses must analyse and restructure their IT teams in order to enable innovation. A thorough review should not only look at how existing capabilities meet current business requirements but also explore the ideal future skill set for the business. This can be done through performance reviews and more informal weekly catch-ups discussing employees’ existing skills, challenges and focus areas.

By engaging employees and asking for their opinions on where they think the department needs to change to meet business demands, individuals will feel involved and responsible for their development. These conversations need to align with wider company vision and strategy. Employees not only need to be aware of the organisation’s direction, but also be in full support of it. This will provide businesses with the required insights to assess what areas they need to improve in order to achieve their goals.

The wider business structure, and how IT fits within it, may also need to be revised. Digital transformation means that IT professionals need to work far more closely with Marketing, Sales and Operations to help deliver more efficient, cost-effective processes for these departments. Many areas of businesses are beginning to implement new tools and systems themselves, such as cloud technology to allow employees to access files anywhere. It is therefore, important that IT departments are in control of new technologies being integrated into the business. This means that IT professionals must fully understand the needs and demands of other parts of the business in order to add value beyond traditional technical support.

Offer bespoke training

Employee development can’t be built around a rigid structure, businesses need to continually rethink their training programmes to encourage innovation and strategic thinking. Training programmes need to be tailored, not only in their content but also in how they are delivered. Broadly, different employees will respond to different training stimuli and environments, so you need to ensure you are meeting their needs by providing a wide range of training. For example, offering interactive sessions, online forums for discussing challenges and ideas, short videos or mentoring, instead of traditional, classroom-style training, can better support a culture of creativity and knowledge sharing. In addition, providing an employee the opportunity to work on a project within a different area of the business will allow them to gain exposure to wider operations and enhance their skills at the same time.

Creativity is key

Employees should be encouraged to question existing systems, think creatively about projects and proactively share their thoughts about how the business can improve. The Tomorrow’s Tech Teams research found that the majority (71 per cent) of IT workers feel that their skills and knowledge are not being fully utilised by their organisations. This illustrates that more needs to be done to recognise existing employees’ eagerness to learn and think creatively about how technology can be used to maximise their potential. Whether it’s designing and implementing the latest mobile app or delivering cloud services, it is imperative that employees feel able and confident in presenting a business case to the business outlining how investment in a new service can boost turnover or help reduce costs.

The tech teams of the future need to be fundamentally different from those which companies are accustomed to today. The best tech teams don’t come ready-made. They are discovered, nurtured and encouraged to become strategic advisers to the business with innovation at their heart.

Geoff Smith, Managing Director of Experis Europe