There is a dearth of IT talent companies are scrambling to fill for 2013 and beyond, and it's not just insurers fighting over the top talent. It's any organization looking for tech-savvy employees with adept business minds. One insurance CIO offers this advice: start at the top, and the rest will fall into place.

Kin Lee-Yow, VP of IT and CIO at CAA-South Central Ontario, a company in the midst of implementing three Guidewire modules in less than a year, was astonished at what he found when he assumed his role less than a year ago. His predecessor, Jay Woo, currently COO at CAA-South, changed the way the company was run because of his understanding of both business and IT operations.

"[The previous CIO] was able to bridge the gap. He had the board behind him, the CEO behind him, so you don't face an uphill battle to get senior people involved-that piece is there. And to me, that is one of the major thrusts in this organization that is helping recruit talent," Lee-Yow says. However, he stresses that hiring practices are equally as crucial to maintaining that IT mindset cultivated at the top.

"We want the expertise, but we're also looking for a cultural fit. My belief is that I will look at someone who will culturally fit and is willing to learn instead of somebody who is very skilled but very arrogant," says Lee-Yow. "In order to attain an agile methodology, you need to have all people on the same level-whether that's the developers or the business lines. And we're all on the same page. To me, that was something that was incredible."

To be sure, giving a head of IT such a prominent role in decision-making is highly uncommon among insurers, which in turn makes them highly attractive to IT talent, Lee-Yow says.

"One chairman and CEO told me very recently that 'people like me still don't have sufficient appreciation of IT.' In many places, it's still thought of on the cost-center side, where it's about efficiently operating your software systems and infrastructure," says X by 2 Analyst Ram Sundaram. But this will need to change. "It's actually a very strategic asset and weapon for competitive success in the marketplace," he adds.

Identifying, attracting and capitalizing on IT talent is a game insurers will be playing for years. A survey from RainStor, a global engineering firm and big data consultancy, asked what the limiting factors are for those looking to adopt and deploy big data strategies and Hadoop. More than half of the respondents agreed that they lack the skilled resources.

The survey highlighted one looming fact for insurers: as quickly as technology is changing, so are the skills and talents required of IT personnel. As big data, analytics and mobile technologies, among others, transform the industry, putting the onus on insurers to adapt to consumer and marketplace demands, the workforce needs to transform with it, similarly putting the onus on insurers to identify the skill sets they need and to cultivate an attractive working environment. Even companies well-equipped with seasoned IT users, administrators and operators of relational and columnar-type databases, found themselves in need of Java programmers or engineers who can easily deploy and support open-source Hadoop, and then provide the analytics that the business demands.

Enterprises around the globe are searching for tech-savvy youngsters willing to learn the business and adjust quickly to any new tech demands. However, X by 2's Sundaram says insurer's search for fresh IT talent is more nuanced than that.

Indeed, there are three angles to the turnover of IT talent: developing new C-level positions dedicated to technology, hiring young IT talent and the need for the middlemen-the project and data managers- which may pose the biggest challenge of all to insurers.

"There is plenty of general IT labor. You can plunk bodies in and make things happen, and there is a tremendous push in the industry to-still, in a wishful way-think that this can be done. If you really peel the covers back, however, you'll find that such initiatives are not hugely successful," Sundaram says.

The Real Thing?

Insurers need project leadership with a thorough knowledge of the business as well as the IT operations and CIOs and executives need to be mindful when staffing these positions, as this is where the talent shortage is particularly acute.

Project or program managers tend to be positions bogged down in the administrative tasks behind an initiative, such as HR management, maintaining project plans, and adding up monthly spending. Thus, Sundaram warns that when looking for project managers insurers need to keep an eye out for candidates who have been called project managers, but have served administrative roles and are not necessarily experienced in sinking their teeth into a project.

"If you're thinking of an underwriting transformation, the quarterbacks need to know insurance. They need to know technology. They also need to know the domain really well, the technology foundation upon which they are basing the initiatives," Sundaram says. "Same with architectural leadership. For these large initiatives you need architectural visionaries, and there's a huge shortage of people who can play those roles because the skill sets are very specific. You need to think about so many things: how to organize your large system, what are the moving parts, what are your needs today, what will they be five, 10 years from now."

For the long-term, Sundaram points to grooming internal IT talent as efficiently and effectively as possible, so that staff is familiar with your unique systems when they one day take over. However, the every day IT demands are unrelenting and far outpacing the supply.

"The speed at which you can accelerate people to gain the level of experience that they need? You can't grow them fast enough. That's the single biggest inhibitor," Sundaram says. "At the end of the day, what a lot of these guys do, it comes with having fought many battles. Winning many, maybe losing some."

This trial-and-error process takes time and patience, as it only comes from years of first-hand experience, which leaves forward-looking insurers staring down a pressing question: How can you accelerate it?

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