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Continuous innovation and constant learning

(Image credit: Image Credit: Fancycrave1 / Pixabay)

Your goal is to create a culture and mindset of continuous innovation, constant learning, and an attractive workplace. So how do you get there?

Over the last several years the CEO has tasked the CIO and IT leaders with delivering transformation. The true challenge lies in the fact that this is not a one-time trick. The expectation for IT is to become a transformational business enabler. This requires leaving behind the old mind set of a simple IT business services delivery model. It also eventually goes beyond all the new technology trends that IT is struggling to find time to deliver today. Quite simply it is not possible to foresee all the skills and knowledge that will be necessary for this journey. One thing is clear though: there will need to be a culture of continuous innovation in the companies that will exist in 5 years.

When we are presented with requirements to define strategy for things like how the organisation is going to use edge, public cloud, deliver IoT, or scale business intelligence and analytics we should not think about these as a one-off either. Hiring each time some hot new trend comes along is like trying to catch a taxi in the rain. Everyone wants one, and this sudden demand creates scarcity. Talent in many of the emerging technologies is scarce for a good reason, not many people actually have experience. It’s new. This happens every time something new comes along and we should not be surprised by it, but many projects never get off the starting block because of this mentality. Even if you live in a hip metropolitan area (which not everyone reading this does) the total number of people that have any real experience in an emerging or nascent technology is going to be low. The chances that those people are looking for a job is lower. The chances that they are going to accept what you can afford even lower. That Venn diagram will show an increasingly, pessimistically small overlap of circles. If it is a hot topic, you can bet it is going to be difficult if not impossible to find someone. This should be enough to make you realise the team is the team.

Given the frustrating situation above, how do you deal with it? 

Continuous learning

If your IT team is like many, there is not a discrete difference between operations and projects staff.  Compounded with this lack of a dedicated “Centre of Excellence and Innovation Team” or some sort of staffing fantasy land, a hard look at what training has looked like in the past will likely turn up the all too common result:  there is little real investment in training.  We can wring our hands and justify this as not enough budget, time, or whatever, but the root cause is also perhaps a subconscious fear of training the staff and then losing them once they are trained. The counterpoint of this is, what if you don’t train them and they stay?

Stop thinking in terms of training courses.  For the “out there” technologies, getting some classroom time is likely going to be of dubious value anyway, so instead get in a project mindset that fosters downtime to learn and try new things out. The start small and fail fast method works well since experience is gained, and limitations and gaps in knowledge become evident but not costly. The incremental and constant learning will teach the team how to approach new challenges and should be combined with a recognition program to increase incentive and retention.

Hiring for the future

The team may be the team, but when backfilling a departure or the rare additional FTE head is allocated it creates an opportunity to hire to reflect the new IT cultural objectives. Unless a specific specialist is needed like an Oracle dba, look for versatility. Position the organisation during recruiting as a place where employees are exposed to new technologies that will constantly further their career. Look for candidates that are interested in this proposition. Hire for aptitude rather than existing skills - look for a pattern of learning new things for more experienced prospects, and exposure to ancillary new skills for less experienced ones.  As mentioned earlier it is impossible to anticipate what skill sets are going to be required in 5 years, but chances are they will be very different.

Prioritising modernisation

You will not be able to hire specialists every time the CEO hears about a new technology, but you can free up time for the existing staff to work on higher value activities.  Modernisation has multiple benefits.  The first is it usually increases autonomous operation and provides higher ease of use over older technologies.  Anything that is easier to use or autonomous reduces risk to predictable operations introduced by vacation or unplanned sick days. This then leads to less reliance on specialists by down-levelling the overall operations requirements. An organisation that is not full of legacy technology makes the workplace more attractive to prospects and existing staff alike.  Ambitious prospects don’t want to work on old technology.  It can be tediously siloed and less exciting.  It also limits their career progression in the event they are willingly or unwillingly looking for a job in the future. For these reasons the clever CIO or IT leader will actually increase investment in the data centre to tactically lose legacy debt.

Robert Rhame is Director of Market Intelligence, Rubrik