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News: an update of IT people and organization

The best way to keep up with what's happening on the IT people and organization scene is to take our e-newsletter. The stories below are taken from this e-newsletter which is published around 8 times a year. If you would like to be added to the circulation list, fill in the form at the bottom of the page.

In the meantime, here are two general themes arising in 2018:

Tech companies’ faded gloss … Opportunity knocks for CIOs

The last year or so has seen changes in the struggle for new talent, and specifically the competition between tech companies and large user IT functions. For some time now banks, retailers, telecom, pharma companies and more have envied the allure held by tech companies. How can a job offer in (say) retail IT compete with an offer from an exciting start-up, or from an established tech player like Amazon? Unsurprisingly, some IT functions have sought to update their employee proposition to be more attractive to young talent.

But more recently the tech sector’s image has been tarnished by the reality of its male monoculture and discriminatory practices. This represents an opportunity for CIOs and their HR partners to position themselves positively. How should IT functions react? The starting point is to understand how people management in the tech sector works, and why.

HR in tech: the start-up legacy

The key factor driving HR in the tech sector is that many prominent tech companies are, or were until recently, start-ups. Often, start-up practices and habits linger on and will often be seen as underpinning their success: “the company DNA”. But they can hamper future success, and that is especially true in the people management area.

In high-growth start-ups, “HR” more or less means “recruitment” so many recruiters are appointed as HR managers despite quite narrow experience. That can mean that all aspects of HR are viewed through a recruitment filter. Reward is determined not by frameworks aligned with career paths, or by internal fairness, but by whatever it took to hire the individual, or by whatever it takes to keep them. Skill shortages are tackled not by training but by recruitment. Resignations or threatened resignations will elicit attempts to “rehire” the individual by making them an offer they can’t refuse. The result is often messy, with performance management, talent management and the like patchy or absent.

HR in tech: the competence gap

In expanding companies, people often find themselves managing bigger and bigger teams and never have time to acquire true competence at one level before being promoted to the next level. Many have to manage situations that fall well outside their experience: not just in terms of project or service management but in terms of people management.

In HR, this is especially true. Even when experienced HR generalists – not just recruiters – are brought in from outside they may find things are scaling too fast for them to operate confidently. Recent events suggest that many HR leaders lack the self confidence to challenge tech business leaders, even on issues where the law is on their side.

Some innovative HR practices in tech companies have also revealed this inexperience. Though novel, these can have flaws that other HR professionals know to avoid. For example, an undue reliance on data from co-workers for performance management purposes simply makes employees “game” the system. In HR the law of unintended consequences is never far away, and experienced HR people know this.

But more immediately, the situation in tech companies today represents an opportunity for CIOs. How can you exploit that opportunity?

Recruiting? Focus on second jobbers

Don’t focus too heavily on new graduates or trainees when recruiting. Unlike second-jobbers inside tech companies, they may not yet understand the realities of tech sector life. So despite your best efforts and the slightly tarnished image of the tech companies, you may still find it hard to compete.

In contrast, you might be well placed to pick up disaffected tech workers if your proposition stresses its formal training and development programmes, the benefits of being part of an IT-business team, your career structures and career management tools, and the scope for movement across your company. Often, IT workers who have seen the realities of the tech world are aching for an employer with structured processes and clarity – the “big company” approach.

Offer great professional learning and development

Prospective employers often make much of the learning opportunities they offer. Tech companies put structures in place, Spotify-style, to help learning. But what they seldom do is actually train people, or put them through formal programmes. And those are what many people in IT really crave, especially if they have worked in start-ups. So if you have one of those, don’t just say so. Give the details: show, don’t tell. Describe the career structure as well as the learning and development opportunities.

Stress the business relationship

Many IT people say that one of the great things about their job is the teamwork with business colleagues. Working with those colleagues to clarify what’s needed and provide ongoing support to the business community while delivering what they need can be immensely satisfying. And the prospect of doing this will appeal to many who have been locked inside a purely technical “box”, or for whom “clients” are millions of nameless people that they will never meet.

Get your story out there

Finally: tell potential applicants all this in some detail. Don’t just say you are doing good things: be very specific. Start by updating your site and any literature you have. And get your job ads under editorial control. Many a glossy recruitment proposition is spoiled by featuring terribly written and misleading job profiles.

It is harder to get PR, but one way is to enter your workplace for some competitions, such as for the best IT function, best employer, best CIO. Do NOT assume these are flooded with applications: they may be easier to win than you think!

IT learning and development: is 70-20-10 failing?

For some time now we’ve been told that 70% of learning comes from doing challenging work, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework and training. And this makes sense to anyone who has had to learn IT skills. But there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that people starting out in IT people today are often struggling to learn. Why? What, exactly, is going on?

Listening to a range of people talk about their experiences, it is clear that too many companies are forgetting that for all segments – the 70, the 20, and the 10 – learners are highly reliant on colleagues. The 70-20-10 may sound like shorthand for “it’s mostly just letting them get on with it”, but it really is not. Employers have to work hard to get the whole organization to ensure all three learning segments are effective. Let’s look at those segments in turn.

The 70% seems least likely to need input from others. There is no question that struggling to solve a problem, whether it’s an infrastructure diagnostic problem, a coding challenge, or finding a software bug can be hugely educational. But learners need people nearby who are willing to answer quick questions. In a small team there will often be someone who is willing to take time out to do that, but sometimes there isn’t. And it’s getting harder. Many colleagues now wear headphones as a signal that they don’t want to be disturbed. Others may frequently work at home. Hot desking may mean that for newbies there is less continuity in nearby colleagues. But the biggest need is for colleagues to understand that it’s part of their job to help junior colleagues – not an optional extra or an act of outstanding kindness. That means being willing to help once or twice a day by clearing up a misconception, removing a mental block, or by adding that little piece of background that makes a whole topic clearer.

In many IT functions the 20% is provided by allocated coaches and mentors. IT functions are mostly quite good at this, but even so I do hear comments about the lack of coaching skills. It is quite important to check if coaching is effective or helpful to the individual: this takes sensitivity and discretion as new entrants may be reluctant to complain. How sure are you that your coaches and mentors are truly helping those they are being asked to help?

The 10% is made up from coursework and training, but how many IT functions today provide much in the way of face-to-face training? In many, such learning is confined to non-technical skills. For hard skills, there may be an undue reliance on online training and education tools, when many people want someone who can convey the basics and answer questions that don’t just pop out of an online search. Are different learning styles catered for?

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