When You Don’t Invest in People You Get a Talent Shortage


On Monday I attended a talk by Mike Rosen about successful Digital Transformation.  As always, Mike’s presentation was very insightful.  One of many points that he made is that most organizations are struggling with the current talent shortage, something that in my experience has been a problem worldwide for several years and will continue to be so.

There are many reasons for why there is a talent shortage:

  1. It takes years to master your craft.  In the distant past, the 1980s, I had to go to university for four years to become a junior programmer.  Then I had to work for years to gain the experience and skills to become a developer. And things are certainly more complex now than it was back then. My point is that it takes years, not days or weeks, to gain the skills and experience that organizations are looking for.
  2. Organization’s planning horizons are too short. Demand has outstripped supply for many years within IT, and we’re clearly seeing this within the agile space. Having said that, the growth of IT has followed a steady and predictable curve for years that organizations could have planned for, and more importantly executed on, had they chosen to. But, the multi-year time frame to grow talent doesn’t mesh well with the quarterly-results focus of most organizations.
  3. Organizations have cut back on training. In the 1980s and most of the 1990s it was common for IT people to be given two or more weeks of training every year.  This was slowly whittled away down now many people are lucky to be given the funding to attend a single workshop or one-day conference each year.  Yes, there are some great resources online that can provide a substitute for training, so that’s bit of help. Unfortunately most organizations expect people to learn on their own time.  Some people do in fact do that, but many do not. I regularly meet people at conferences who have taken a vacation day and spent their own money to attend the event – it’s laudable that they’re doing this, but incredibly frustrating that they’ve had to resort to doing so. My point is that if your organization has not been investing in its people it seems disingenuous for it to complain about the lack of skilled people available to it.
  4. Apprenticing is virtually non-existent in IT. Many other professions have a culture of apprenticing to help bring new people in and help them to gain the skills and experience required. Although I have seen several organizations attempt to institute a mentorship program, and have seen limited successes at doing so, I have never run into an organization with active apprenticing. Non-solo work practices such as pair programming, mob programming, and modeling with others are arguably the start at apprenticing practices within the agile space so perhaps this is how it begins in IT.  Time will tell.

Here are a few things that your organization can do to start addressing its talent shortage:

  1. Become an attractive place to workIt’s important to note that attractive organizations, the ones that are known for doing interesting work and for providing their people with autonomy to learn and to choose their way of working (WoW), don’t seem to have problems attracting and retaining good people.  Granted, this doesn’t grow the pool of talented people but it does help to address your challenge.
  2. Start investing in your people long term. If you want talented people in your organization you need to grow and nurture them yourself.  You can do so by providing coaching, mentoring, training, and education opportunities.  You can support the creation of communities of practice (CoPs), also called guilds, and create centres of excellence (CoEs).  Motivating teams to experiment with non-solo work practices such as pairing and mobbing will enable them to learn from each other.  And of course all of these strategies require investment of time and money.
  3. Become a learning organization. If you want people to grow their skills you have to allow them to do so.  Allow them to experiment with new ways of working (WoW), recognizing that some of those experiments will “fail” and you’ll discover what doesn’t work for you in your context. Also recognize that individuals and teams have to be allowed to choose their WoW, and to evolve it as they learn, so that they can improve.

The primary reason why there is a shortage of talented people is because organizations are underinvesting in the learning paths of their staff.  If you want talented people you’re going to have to help create them.


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