Technology is foundational to every business transformation, across virtually every sector. It doesn’t matter if you are in retail, technology, energy, or another industry, technology is changing our world — and fast. So, what do I discuss with my peers from other companies when we get together — Cloud, AI, blockchain, or the latest and greatest technology? Most of the time. But what comes up every time is talent and culture.
How business and IT leaders see the talent gap
I was interested to see these same issues bubble to the top in a recent Cisco report, Next-Generation IT Talent Strategies: How CIOs Can Close the Skills Gap and Drive True Business Transformation. In a survey of 600 IT and business decision-makers around the world, 93% said that an IT talent gap is keeping them from transforming the business fast enough.
One survey finding that really jumped out at me was the need for IT professionals to get better at connecting IT value to business outcomes. The survey clearly called out skills like stronger business acumen, critical thinking, and deep problem-solving. Specific technical skills such as automation, cloud, and security were next in line, followed closely by the skills needed to put it all together and apply technology to drive business results.
The trick is how you take this knowledge and put it into a framework that takes our teams to the next level. In Cisco IT, we’ve started using a frame called the “Cycle of Talent,” which begins with a people-development strategy and focuses on how we attract, retain, and then help our people continually adapt to the needs of the future.
Attracting new talent
A critical part of filling the talent gap is attracting great people. We continue to look for talent with specific technical skills like software development, automation, cloud, and security — similar to the executives surveyed in our study. But as IT gets asked to drive innovation, versus just keep the lights on, we need people who are comfortable in a very dynamic environment and willing to push the envelope on traditional IT roles.
We also realize that finding good talent doesn’t happen by accident. Programs like our IT University and the Cisco International Internship Program (CIIP) have shown themselves to be great ways for us to identify the next generation of IT professionals. We hire approximately 200 IT professionals from our university pipeline each year, and the CIIP program helps us build a diverse workforce that includes hires from outside the United States. We also partner with Employee Resource Organizations, such as the Cisco Veterans Program, which helps us train and employ veterans interested in technology careers.
Retaining top talent
Once you have created a strong and diverse pipeline, keeping people engaged and continuously evolving is a big challenge. For me, it always comes down to creating an environment where employees can increase their knowledge of the business, take risks, and find their purpose.
As our executive survey pointed out, IT has to up its game around business acumen. One way we do this at Cisco is through our IT advisor program, which aligns IT professionals with important customer accounts. This gives our IT teams a chance to learn about the products and services we provide to our customers, understand their business challenges, and share our own IT best practices to help customers connect the dots. It’s a true peer-to-peer type of engagement. I find that when our teams can connect their day jobs to customer business needs, they are able to simultaneously help our customers and gain valuable knowledge of our business and technologies.
Taking it one step further, we create a culture of giving back to the community. When people feel empowered to share what they know — maybe with a group like Girls in Tech or our work-study program with Cristo Rey High Schools — it helps create a sense of purpose. Our teams play a role in educating and lifting up the next generation of talent, becoming part of something bigger than ourselves. Giving back reminds us that it’s not just about the job.
Transforming ourselves, regularly
Finally, we have to get used to the fact that our world is ever changing— and technology is evolving faster than ever. We all struggle (at least a little) with change. In fact, 65% of the leaders surveyed said that their IT organizations had to get faster about adapting to change.
How we attract and retain people is important, but it’s also essential that we provide new ways for our people to re-skill and transform. In our survey, 61% of executives preferred to retrain existing IT staff rather than hire new talent or outsource to a partner. That means constantly evolving the education, experience, and exposure opportunities available to your teams.
At Cisco, we have developed several digital learning pathways around topics like security, data science, cloud-native, and leadership. We have also created ways for our IT professionals to get involved with a product or service at its inception point — something we call “Customer Zero.” Influencing a product at the development stage is very exciting, and it’s also a chance to work on skills like critical thinking and deep problem solving, which were highlighted as skill gaps in our survey. This culture of continuous learning both encourages us to adapt and transform and helps our business remain competitive.
Since technology is foundational to every business, IT is positioned to drive real business transformation—but only when you invest in the one thread that connects it all together: people. The goal is driving innovation across the entire organization and aligning with the board, the business, and our customers in exciting new ways. It’s about embracing energized and diverse talent, viewpoints, and backgrounds, ensuring that every decision reflects the widest experiences possible — even if (or perhaps especially if) that means challenging your own perspective.
What strategies do you think are critical to cultivate IT talent?