Winning the War for Talent

Shifting from Specialized to Full-stack skills

This is Srini's third article in his series on Exponential IT. Click here to view the second article on Exponential IT - The 8 shifts in thinking for IT organizations and its leadership.

Exponential Organizations (ExOs) deliver disproportionately (10x) greater outcomes than their traditional competitors through the use of highly scalable business models, innovative organizational techniques and cloud based technologies. These ExOs have IT teams that are geared to deliver innovation, flexibility, and quality at speed. Exponential IT teams are built differently from the ground up and are designed to deliver significantly better results than industrial IT departments. In my first two articles I talked about ExO’s and the building blocks of the ExO IT model. In this the third article in my series, I want to talk about the people that make up an ExO IT department.

"A good system with good talent can deliver extraordinary results. This is the objective of any ExO IT organization."

An organization’s ability to flex its workforce to meet and stay ahead of the changing marketplace is probably the single most determinant of its ability to become an ExO. Today’s technology leaders such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook pay a lot of attention to attracting, retaining and building a loyal and highly motivated base of employees who are driven to achieve a Massive Transformative Purpose and are highly adaptive and resilient to change. These employees are willing to put in extraordinary efforts to be part of projects that have a positive impact on the communities they serve and the world in general. So how do traditional businesses in other industries build a similar workforce and performance culture in their organizations?

The process of building a sustainable workforce with evergreen skills requires that we have a good learning system that is powered by good talent. Good talent in a bad system will not be able to deliver good results. Conversely, a good system with bad talent will also fail to deliver good results. However, a good system with good talent can deliver extraordinary results. This is the objective of any ExO IT organization.

While each organization will chart its own course towards building the Workforce of the Future, this article describes six key constructs that will help build and sustain learning ExO IT organizations.

Leadership Qualities

Many IT departments are influenced by an industrial mindset where IT operated as a factory focused on delivering stability, scale, predictability at progressively lower costs. This mindset has created leaders, organizational structures and a workforce that struggle to thrive in today’s fast moving and rapidly changing digital marketplace. Successful ExO IT organizations require leaders who think and act different from the past. We have found that there are three factors that help select the right leaders:

  1. DRIVE: What Makes Them Tick? – They are driven by the need to do the right thing. They are technical, hands-on and use insights derived from data to make timely decisions. They focus on Being Good before Looking Good.
  2. LEAD: How They Lead – They are Servant leaders who are able to adapt to and operate in many modes dictated by the situation. They are visible leaders who are in front of their workforce in good times and bad and genuinely care about the organization and the people they lead.
  3. LEARN: How Do They Learn? – These leaders thrive by being constant and continuous learners. They stay current with the latest developments in the industry and businesses they are in. These leaders are constantly scanning technology trends and also stay current in technology trends and their potential impact on the Business of IT.

Find or recruit your core of Smart Creatives

The term Smart Creative was coined and used by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg in their book “How Google Works.” This term refers to employees who do not neatly fit into traditional buckets such as generation (Millennial, Gen X etc.), capabilities (technical, creative etc.) or any other demographic or ethnographic category. However, we believe there are three characteristics that help us identify employees and leaders who fit this definition:

  1. APTITUDE: Desire to Perform – They have a desire to be part of something bigger (MTP or driving disruption etc.) and seek out roles that can make a difference within their companies. 
  2. ATTITUDE: The Ability to Learn – They are continuous and self-motivated learners who do not chase compensation (which is an outcome), perks or other traditional measures of success (# of people managed, size of budget etc.). They are outspoken and do not hold back when they have an idea and are the ones to find solutions to workplace problems.
  3. ADAPTIVE: Willingness to Change – They are very resilient to change and are in many cases change agents who are not afraid to fail and use all of the tools at their disposal to make sure they do not fail. They set high standards for themselves and raise the performance of everyone around them. They are leaders who know when to lead and how to follow.

Building an ExO IT organizations requires us to locate these individuals in our workforce and recruit them to be part of the transformation. Once they are re-recruited, we need to put them in a system and organization (described later in this article) where they can thrive. I believe that in order to be at a tipping point to drive true change we need 10-20% of our workforce to be made up of Smart Creatives. At that point, this core team can lift the performance of the overall IT organization and make the change self-sustaining within the company.

Focus on building T-shaped skills in the roles that matter

Over the past two decades, the Industrial IT model developed specialized skills in specific domains. This focus for specialization was driven by two primary factors:

  • The limited availability of the technology – cost, access etc. and
  • The lack of maturity of the technology – ease of use, capabilities etc.

These two factors when combined with longer technology life cycles that characterized the 80s, 90s and the early 2000s helped organizations build specialized skills, drive scale through outsourcing and reduce costs through the use of labor arbitrage across the globe. As we fast-forward to today, project timelines and technology life cycles have been shortened dramatically which has reduced the effectiveness of Industrial IT techniques of specialization and outsourcing. At the same time, we have seen a dramatic increase in both the availability and maturity of technologies. This allows IT leaders to dramatically rethink the skills needed within their workforce and how to source them.

ExO IT organizations should start by identifying key roles within their organizations. For instance, we at Magellan have focused on Software Developers, Systems Engineers, Data Scientists, Product Managers and IT Leaders. These roles are start with definitions that are common in the marketplace and are tailored to meet our specific needs.

Once these key roles are established then the organization should focus on identifying T-shaped skills maps for these roles. These skills maps emphasize thin but broadknowledge across multiple domains and deep expertise in a handful of domains for each role. These T-shaped skills maps resemble a college curriculum and have four levels of skills and expertise. They include:

  • 101 Level Skills – these are the core skills that everyone in the IT organizations should have awareness of. These skills include knowledge of the industry and business, Cloud Computing, Security and other current domains.
  • 201 Level Skills – these are foundational skills that an individual needs to be proficient in to be productive in a given role.
  • 301 Level Skills – these skills focus on building expertise in two of more of the 201 skills through hands on experience on real life projects and
  • 401 Level Skills – these skills focus on developing mastery within a role or expertise in other domains and roles.

Identifying the roles and T-shaped skill maps help us define the characteristics of the workforce of the future. The next step is to put in place a system that starts with the Smart Creatives we have recruited and gives them the skills and expertise needed to lead our company into the future.

Setup a learning system that builds the workforce of the future

ExO IT leaders go beyond the catch phrases of “war for talent” and “full stack skills” to focus on implementing a comprehensive learning system to develop their workforce. Since 1997, I have used a learning system for developing talent that combines the 70-20-10 framework for adult learning with the proven mentor-apprentice model enabled by coach practitioners to develop talent at scale in 3 different organizations. 

At the core of this learning system are a set of roles and comprehensive T-shaped skill maps and training curriculum for each role. The training is reinforced when individuals get hands-on learning on real projects with help from expert practitioner coaches in each domain. This is similar to how elite athletes are trained today by multiple specialized coaches in areas such as fitness, mental focus, strength etc. This system recognizes that developing expertise requires:

  • 10% of learning to come from current and updated reading and training materials
  • 20% of learning to come from hands-on work as an apprentice under a practitioner coach on a real life project and
  • 70% of learning to come from repeated on-the-job training under the supervision of coach practitioners who know how to guide the learning process.

Finally, the explosion of information sources and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has made it possible to develop talent and skills at a fraction of the cost of just a few years ago.

Organize into teams to drive throughput, agility and outcomes

Horizontal IT Teams (HIT teams) are one of the basic building blocks of Exponential IT. These teams can be dynamically configured to drive innovation and increase the throughput of the overall team. HIT teams are:

  • Small, dynamic standing teams - They are built on the Two-pizza team (2PT) concept popularized by Jeff Bezos and Amazon. These teams derive their name from the heuristic that the teams need to be small enough (6 to 10 people) so that you can feed them with two large pizzas. HIT teams extend the core 2PT concept to include a set of standing team roles that stay together across projects to minimize the learning curve associated with assembling a new team every single time.
  • Made up with cross-functional roles with T-shaped skills. For instance a typical HIT team will include application developers, systems engineers, product managers and other domain specific skills.
  • Made sustainable through the use asymmetric hiring techniques that extend hiring models beyond STEM skills into areas that value diversity of thought and domains such as industrial design, anthropology, visual arts and other non-technical areas.

HIT Teams are highly effective for both repeatable tasks within an IT organization or exploratory first-of-a-kind projects. They cause us to rethink organizational design and explore networked and federated management models. We will cover this in a future article in this series.

Scale workforce on demand using the Cloud and the Crowd

When compared with Industrial IT organizations, ExO IT use a smaller workforce of developers and engineers with T-shaped skills. The focus of the workforce is to architect, design, assemble and integrate solutions instead of building them from scratch. This workforce is dynamic, elastic and fungible with the ability to rapidly scale and adapt to the changing demand for skills in the marketplace.

ExO IT organizations do not use traditional Industrial IT approaches such as outsourcing and staff augmentation to achieve scale. Instead they build an ecosystem of skills and use selective partnerships to crowdsource emerging and niche capabilities to scale them on an on demand basis. Cloud Computing and Crowdsourcing are used to:

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  • jump start ideas through specialized platforms such as the Data Science platform - Kaggle
  • acquire temporary on niche skills through crowdsourcing platforms such as 99Designs or GigWalk and
  • provide scale in specific tasks in the applications development and management lifecycle through platforms such as TopCoder to tap into a large global community of developers with common and specialized skills or uTest to access to a large community of testers who can perform functional, usability and localization testing.

Srini geared this article in the Exponential IT series to highlight the basic battle plan that CIOs can use to Win the war for talent as they build the ExO IT organizations of the future. He plans to cover more on the other shifts in his future articles. 

Click here to go to the original article.

This is article #3 of 4 articles written by Srini. Here is the listing of his other articles:

Article 1: The Traditional Model of IT is Dead - Meet Exponential IT
Article 2: The 8 Shifts in Thinking for IT Organizations and its Leadership
Article 4: ExOs Moving from Transactions to Experiences


Srini Koushik
Chief Technology Officer
Magellan Health

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