Finding and retaining the correct talent to support an IT organization during a time of significant change is an ongoing and notable challenge for many. The pace of change seems to be accelerating even while the useful life of specific technologies is declining. This creates an exciting environment that rewards flexibility. For organizations that have not historically needed to be flexible, this new reality also creates an opportunity to rethink some basic tenets.

Recently, when we were on an innovation tour in Silicon Valley, a broad discussion about the value of traditional education ensued. One of the key points raised was the importance of models that support continuous learning and the recognition that a reliance on skills or experiences that were developed a generation ago may have diminished value in the future. “Just in time training” on new technologies and a continued investment in building skill portfolios becomes key for everyone from startup organizations to major multi-nationals.

Liberty Mutual recently announced a technology bootcamp for helping to skill, or reskill, members of their labor force. In this Wall Street Journal article, one of the elements identified was that it is harder to teach people the nuances of the insurance industry then it is to scale them up on technologies that the organizations need, or anticipate needing, today. Their CIO highlights several examples of how this has been beneficial for the company and the employees, as they look to align skill development with demand requirements. It is an interesting concept and one that makes tremendous sense in our view. The complexities of a highly regulated industry combined with varying requirements for different lines of business make the insurance experience particularly valuable, especially when IT organizations are looking to accelerate the delivery of capabilities to support their business partners.

In some ways, this is not a new concept. At an earlier time in the industry, carriers routinely developed and executed training programs to build technology skills. In the 1960s, for example, many carriers brought in talent that had demonstrated capabilities in other places (e.g., the US military) and ran their own training programs to develop human capital. At the time, technology was also going through a rapid transformation in the dawn of the computer era. Building and refining skills at that time created competitive differentiation for carriers. While no one is advocating a return to COBOL or Assembler as cool tools, there is a potentially valuable analog here that carriers should be aware of as they plan for future transformation or modernization efforts.

To be clear, today this works most effectively when combined with the cultural and process changes required to both accelerate decision velocity and improve time-to-market capabilities. Changing a single element in a system that is in equilibrium will likely introduce uncertainty and disequilibrium, rather than improve throughput. The importance of focusing on people, process, and structure could never have been more true for organizations looking to improve performance.

Liberty Mutual is hardly alone in pursuing innovative strategies which have a focus on the future but a foundation in a proven past. We see other examples of partnerships between technology companies and universities to develop skills in what amounts to an apprentice program, building skills that can be immediately used in the industry. In fact, in other industries, we have seen similar programs emerge such as BMW’s development of talent for an increasingly automated manufacturing environment in South Carolina.

All of this is fascinating in the context of what true innovation means. In many cases, it is experimentation and the refinement of an existing model which provides the breakthrough idea. As we learned on a recent visit to Amazon Web Services, it was a small pivot to go from failure in the Fire Phone to skyrocketing success in Alexa.

This blog entry has been reprinted with permission from Novarica.

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