CIOs must overcome talent blockages - data review

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 10, 2013
IT skills issues don't get enough attention when it comes to delivering on innovation. A recent CIO survey by Harvey Nash sheds light.

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One of the gongs I clang is so-called 'IT skills shortages.' In the last two decades, there is no area where experts have embarrassed themselves more than in breathless proclamations of IT skills shortages that never materialized.

On the other hand, IT skills issues don't get enough attention when it comes to delivering on (ahem) 'innovation.' The tech/biz crossover skills needed to realize the potential of cloud, mobile, and analytics projects are not easily found or cultivated.

Harvey Nash CIO survey 2013 - talent is an issue

So where do we stand now? A recent CIO survey by Harvey Nash sheds light due to its unusually large scope. Published in June 2013, the Harvey Nash CIO Survey 2013 is one of the deepest CIO surveys that doesn't live behind a paywall. More than 2,000 senior IT professionals globally participated in the survey results, which span 56 pages.

The combined IT spend of the participants was $103 billion, so we can give these results some weight. A job title breakdown of the respondents is not presented in the survey, something Harvey Nash should share in future surveys. (Typical 'CIO' surveys have plenty of 'consultant' respondents, which dilutes the results).

However, Harvey Nash provided me with a more precise job title breakdown. Of the 2029 total respondents,  the top 3 most represented job groups were: CIO – 33%, CTO – 9%, VP/Director/Senior Manager IT – 38%. The remaining 20% rest were a mixture of ‘next level down’ IT people as well as senior people (e.g. CEOs). That's a solid high-level IT sampling; the survey's global respondent base provides some broader clues as well as regional nuances.

As expected, given Harvey Nash”s recruitment focus, the survey has good talent management data is relevant to my line of questioning here (see link to Slideshare with 30 pages from the survey). But before we dig into skills, how do the Nash findings balance the cost cutting pressures versus the need to innovate? And are CIOs becoming more relevant to business or more isolated?

Well… it’s complicated. One the one hand, the CIOs polled believe they are becoming more strategic. 36 percent now report to the CEO directly, compared to 21 percent in 2010. Fifty percent are involved in business-enabling projects. But on the other hand, the squeeze is on: 69 percent of CIOs surveyed said they are spending too little time and too few resources on ‘innovation projects.’

Talent to drive innovation remains a struggle

Only three percent of the CIOs surveyed believe their organization's innovation potential has been fully realized, down even further from five percent in 2012. As for the CIO’s biggest investment areas? Nash found cloud leading the way (63 percent), followed by mobility (62 percent) and collaboration (46 percent). Given the desire to innovate, what about the talent?

Key Harvey Nash talent findings:

  • 45 percent of the CIOs surveyed say they are affected by a skills shortage. This number has not changed much in the last three years, but is significantly below a high of 71 percent in 2008.
  • 93 percent of CIOs surveyed say retention of talent is a concern.

Some specifics:

  • Mobile skills have seen the biggest jump in demand, up 14 percent over the last two year (25 percent of CIOs are struggling to find mobile talent).
  • 34 percent of CIOs cite skills shortages in big data, a category not even on the radar in 2011 and only emergent in 2012. That said, core roles such as enterprise architects, business analysts and project management are still getting cited the most for skills CIOs struggle to find.

Here's a chart that shows how these skills shortages have changed over time:

Reprinted by diginomica with express permission of Harvey Nash

To my eyes, there are some surprises here.  'Big data' coming in out of nowhere is not one, however - given the emphasis on actionable data and the ongoing big data hype festival. The increased security number doesn't surprise either, when you take into account the concerns about security tied to cloud and mobile that I have explored in a prior survey analysis on cloud adoption.

What does surprise me? The high numbers for the core IT skills of architecture, analyst work and project management. I would surmise that the high talent retention concern cited previously would help to explain why retaining core skills has proven so vexing. I was also surprised to see the social media skills shortage number fairly high, mostly because I remain skeptical that social media provides the same business potential as cloud or mobile investments.

The respondents agreed:

Reprinted by diginomica with express permission of Harvey Nash


Cloud and mobile clearly have the edge when it comes to desired innovations that don't bring a sizable backlash. Social media has a much higher 'disadvantage' number. I am also not surprised to see that big data is at arm's length also.

That jives with anecdotal views I get: big data is interesting, sometimes even compelling - but the business cases are not obvious yet. To be completely fair, the 'disadvantage' numbers above likely speaks not only to ROI skepticism but to perceived hassle. CIOs clearly consider consumer IT and shadow IT wildly inconvenient, perhaps even threatening, which does not necessarily translate to 'irrelevant to business.' But cloud and mobile bring not-small headaches of their own, security in particular, which CIOs surely took into account when taking this survey, making the strong showing of cloud and mobile particularly notable.

Bottom line? CIOs are clearly prioritizing 'next generation' projects rather than accepting 'innovation' at face value. Whatever the project, skills needs continue to pose an obstacle:

Reprinted by diginomica with express permission of Harvey Nash

Lack of internal skills only narrowly lags 'availability of budget' and 'changing business priorities' as barriers to technology vision.

With the struggle to find the right talent, are CIOs considering flexible and temporary labor options? Yes:

  • 42 percent of CIOs are planning on increasing their use of flexible labor
  • 14 percent of CIOs now have more than half their staff on flexible contracts, compared to 9 percent in 2012

I expect that number to continue to rise as companies get used to a growing dependence on temporary IT workers. The talent needs are shifting too fast; the best talent is proving too difficult to retain. Virtual technologies are ready; 'consulting as a service' should have taken off a long time ago.

Concluding thoughts

The pressure on CIOs is intense; talent development and retention is hardly the only problem. The Nash survey found that a full two thirds of CEOs would rather see their CIOs involved in revenue generation than in the traditional focus on operational efficiency.

That means greater cooperation with sales and marketing. Problem: when asked to compare relationships between IT and other departments, sales and marketing was the area cited as in need of most improvement (75 percent of respondents)

Such cooperation is mandatory given that the budgets earmarked for IT are being pulled into lines of business. The amount of companies in the Nash survey with more than ten percent of its tech spend outside of IT has almost doubled to forty percent in the last three years.

If CIOs are going to overcome talent blocks to forward-thinking projects, they must:

  • become more adept at contracting just-in-time talent and virtual workers
  • reject the tech hype and take on next-gen projects with the clearest wins
  • only take on 'innovation' projects where proven talent is available
  • collaborate with business on a talent acquisition/retention plan for new skill areas

We can add: Quit viewing business priorities as an obstacle or interruption to your technical vision. Instead, transform the technical vision with the business until the vision is endorsed across departments. Consumer/shadow IT uprisings should not be seen as distractions, but as sign posts along the road of overdue course corrections.

Until those uprisings are perceived as an opportunity to define a broader approach to skills development and go-to-market, we can expect future surveys to raise flags about where CIOs and their budgets are headed.

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