How CIOs can adapt to growing demand for specialised talent

The shortage of highly skilled technical workers is becoming apparent as organisations gravitate towards AI, big data, and IoT, but Microsoft Australia's CTO James Kavanagh believes this is an opportunity for businesses to unlock the potential of existing talent.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

James Kavanagh, CTO at Microsoft Australia and Azure engineering lead for ANZ region.

Image: Mark Nolan/Getty Images for Microsoft

Advances in technology are reshaping the IT workforce, with many businesses looking to grow their capabilities around big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Meeting the demands of a highly digitised and interconnected world where advanced technical skillsets are required but are in short supply requires creative thinking, according to Microsoft Australia CTO James Kavanagh.

Rather than fixating on the lack of specialised talent in the market, Kavanagh suggests businesses explore ways to unlock the potential of existing talent, which starts with identifying the depth of skills required to deliver high-priority business outcomes.

"There can be a danger in trying to develop extremely deep expertise in machine learning and data science. There just aren't enough people and there aren't enough skills available," he told ZDNet.

"CIOs [need] to understand at what level do we need the skills. Do we need them deep in the technical space? Or do we need them more in business? Or more in the understanding of data and applying it?"

Given the availability of off-the-shelf platforms, businesses might not require deep expertise in areas such as machine learning, Kavanagh said. Instead, developers can use off-the-shelf platforms without being tangled in the mathematical or scientific complexities behind it.

"There is an ecosystem of partners of ours and others who are building new solutions ... they take many of the core services that we have in cognitive [computing] and machine learning, but they specialise it to specific circumstances in high security, in government, in financial services," he said.

Kavanagh also noted that a lot of organisations in Australia are trialling new technologies as part of their digital transformation initiatives, and are rapidly building relevant skillsets in the process.

In October, technology analyst firm Gartner published survey results indicating higher adoption of IoT, AI, conversational interfaces, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and blockchain in the Asia-Pacific region than other markets.

According to Gartner, 43 percent of CIOs in the Asia-Pacific region said they have deployed or are in the short-term planning for deployment of IoT technologies, compared to 37 percent globally; 37 percent for AI, compared to 25 percent globally; 28 percent for conversational interfaces, compared to 21 percent globally; 20 percent for VR and AR, compared to 17 percent globally; and 13 percent for blockchain-based technology, compared to 9 percent globally.

Kavanagh strongly advocates experimentation, saying that "short, rapid sprints of experimentation will yield the best results", while enabling organisations to understand which skills require more or less focus moving forward.

But understanding data is certainly one of the most important skills to possess today, Kavanagh admitted.

"Maybe there aren't enough data scientists, but there are lots of people who understand data, lots of people who can understand how that data gets applied," he said.

"It's really about applying that data and applying the tools to try and drive business improvement."

Nurture your existing employees

In the developed world, where talent shortages in technical fields are expected to persist, Kavanagh suggests that organisations consider broadening the skillsets of existing employees, while supporting them as the nature of their jobs change.

"If you think about what a chartered accountant does, they understand the numbers, the finances of a business. They're one of the skills, one of the industries at most risk of disruption by automation. So [Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand] made a choice and said we need to actually change the way a chartered accountant works," Kavanagh said.

"They invested in data science skills, in training and learning, in building a platform to take financial data from their clients and make it available in portals so their chartered accountants can process them and make decisions. Those chartered accountants can then guide their clients on good choices for their business."

In this scenario, instead of hunting for scarce data scientists, Kavanagh said chartered accountants can be thought of as financially literate data specialists.

"The job of a chartered accountant today is not what the job of a chartered accountant was 10 years ago and won't be in 10 years from now. So it's about bringing data science tools to their work, not expecting them to become data scientists, but bringing it to them so they can adapt," he said.

That's not to say that organisations should ignore the market for specialised talent, just that tectonic market shifts such as evolving customer needs and increasing competition, in combination with disproportionate supply and demand, necessitate strategic thinking.

"Do [organisations] need more skills? Yes, but it's a difficult marketplace. And so, to some extent, if they have people who are great at dev, or great at IT, or great at business, upskill those and nurture those people, because as they approach the market, they'll find that it's a hot market," Kavanagh said.

Microsoft seems to adopt the approaches it preaches, encouraging employees to expand their knowledge base by immersing themselves in different areas of business, according to Kavanagh.

"As we transitioned over the last few years to a new strategy, leadership, and focus, one of the most fundamental principles was developing a growth mindset -- the idea that we're not all experts and we'll make mistakes," he said.

"What we've found is that there's a much more open recognition that we don't know everything ... If you don't know the data science, then you learn, you make mistakes along the way, but you continue to experiment.

"On top of that, there's more formal training, but 80 percent is in the culture and the growth mindset, and 20 percent might be the training and the skills development."

Microsoft believes it's more effective to encourage employees to take ownership of their own learning experience, rather than throw modules at them.

"We try to make it as self-directed as possible, so a lot of it is about on-the-job learning, learning from each other within teams across the organisation," he said. "A lot of it is sprint-based work. It might be a six-week project that people are involved in who don't have that domain [expertise].

"There are programs on top of that, but we tend to focus programs on things like inclusion and broadening people's horizons so that they have a broader view of the problem and the challenge."

Kavanagh, who is also the Microsoft Azure engineering lead for Australia and New Zealand, makes a conscious effort to invite contribution from employees in other business units.

"Something I try and do with my teams is bring people from other parts of the business who on paper don't have the skills for the job -- they don't have the five years' experience, they don't have deep technical experience -- but all come with a perspective and can contribute from that perspective, especially when you're talking about six-week sprints," he said.

"To have an intern participate in a six-week sprint, to have have somebody from a totally different part of the business participate, it changes the whole dynamic of that sprint. Yes, you should have your core team, but allow that team to have participants from the most diverse parts of the business. They will surprise you. What they come with is usually far more valuable than what's on paper or what their experiences are.

"I treasure both generalists and specialists, but there's this concept of the T-shaped skillset -- very deep in one area, very broad in another. That's what we all look for, but we don't always find it. You have to help people develop and nurture it."

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