Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCat & host of the Network Disrupted podcast for IT leaders.
The IT industry is full of deep technical experts — people who have spent the last 20 years learning the ins and outs of DNS, load balancing or network routing. And, to the extent one can be an expert in SD-WAN or the cloud, some people have put in the sweat to become experts in these technologies as well.
The challenge is that all these traditionally individual technologies are colliding. Digital transformation — or rather, survival — now hinges on an organization’s ability to find the right blend of each and integrate effectively. If the DNS expert has no understanding of what the cloud team does, or vice versa, an organization will not be able to drive change fast enough.
Sparking the sort of multiple-domain-savviness, thinking and collaboration needed to enable fast change is incredibly difficult. For one, it’s hard to redistribute knowledge, skills and workloads.
But then, it’s also a matter of more than just logistics. After all, we’re talking about shifting the mindsets of individual people, many of whom have sacrificed decades to learn what they know, and who likely have a significant chunk of their self-worth rooted in their domain expertise.
It’s one thing to talk about a need for increased collaboration, breaking down silos and the like. It’s another to take the sort of action that makes these possible. Below are a few actionable, tactical ways that prominent technology leaders are approaching the problem. Remember, each of these actions must be approached with empathy for not just the business, but for what it means on a personal level to your employees to transform themselves.
Get More Serious About Upskilling
At GM Financial, VP in IT Solutions Thomas Sweet took additional training into his own hands. When I spoke with him on my podcast, I learned that he obtained CIO approval for his team to spend an entire hour a day on upskilling. This is in addition to providing access to resources such as Linux Academy (now A Cloud Guru), internally built certifications programs and more. Similarly, at Unisys, CTO Vishal Gupta’s team developed a set of digestible learning tracks about emerging technology topics, guided by employees’ appetite to learn and their interests.
It’s not enough to point at a training perk your organization offers and say “It’s there for those who really want it.” Every leader wants their people to be so hungry that they spend evenings and weekends enriching their skills, but the reality is, employees’ personal lives are packed as it is.
It may seem too costly to lean deeply into an initiative like providing time for learning and development, but the cost of not doing so is also high. The latter just takes a while to show.
Create Structured Opportunities For Collision
Not all team leaders have the courage — or even authority — to pull other teams or members into cross-functional projects. It’s up to senior technology leaders to create projects that provide opportunities for experts from different teams to step outside their comfort zones in ways that feel purposeful and valuable to the business.
For example, you can signal the importance of collaboration between the cloud and network teams by asking that a reliable system for sharing information about IP space be built, with the goal of avoiding outages. This small shared goal will require these teams to confront a problem at the intersection of one another’s reality, giving each the opportunity to spend time with and learn from the other, and build trust and empathy, all while moving the dial on a real problem and gaining confidence working in the in-between.
Facilitate Informal Interactions
There’s something special about the low pressure of informal interaction and its ability to spark valuable connections and relationships across departments. Execution on this naturally depends on your organization’s culture and norms, as well as on what is safe to do given today’s health climate, so adjust accordingly.
You can schedule a (virtual) social or group activity, where all the teams that are relevant to one another are present. Or, as we contemplate how our office spaces will be used moving forward, keep an eye on creating opportunities for members of separate teams to interact, in a safe way, of course. You can also insert experiences into your onboarding program that equip new team members from day one with the right cross-departmental connections to encourage knowledge sharing and conversations between teams.
We’re in the middle of a reorganization in the world of IT and technology at the moment. Not to mention the world at large. As new technologies have thrown the equilibrium of how organizations function up into the air, it’s up to IT leaders to decide how the dust settles. Whether or not you manage to integrate previously segmented knowledge sets, skills, ideas and people will without a doubt impact the broader business.