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CIO advice: How to build skills for a digital future

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: The changing role of the CIO

How to attract and retain talent for a digital future? That was the question posed by session moderator George Westerman, principal research scientist at MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. Wrapping up a discussion among three business executives and a prominent academic that ranged from using data to find the right talent to dealing with robots in the workplace, Westerman asked, “What one piece of advice would you give to a CIO how to build the right skills for the future in their unit and the organization?”

MIT Sloan CIO panel

Steve Phillips, of Avnet Inc., speaks on a panel on developing skills at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. To his right is Karen Kocher, of Cigna, and to his is left is Gerald Chertavian, of Year Up.

Karen Kocher: “I would have it be for the CIOs to be advocates of data-based talent decisions.”

Chief learning officer for healthcare insurance company Cigna, Kocher relies on data and various software tools to “identify the tendencies, the characteristics, the competencies of an individual.” Cigna does this to determine what differentiates a high performer from his or her peers. The company uses the same method to create a “role profile” that can be used as a reference point when helping others to develop their own skills. CIOs are key to implementing such tools and systems, she said, “because you are the ones most people look at as the sources of valuable data and information.”

Steve Phillips: “Hire the best and trust the people.”

Phillips is CIO of electronics distributor Avnet Inc. His strategy of developing skills for a digital future starts with finding the right people — often by building relationships with students and professors at universities. He also emphasizes the importance of building teams of people with the “right diversity” of say, thoughts or skills. Not only does that make for a powerful team, but it helps leaders with their own personal growth, Phillips said. “It also should drive for excellence and rigor as well.”

Gerald Chertavian: “Think differently about talent, where it resides and how you access it.”

Chertavian is CEO and founder of nonprofit Year Up, which helps low-income young people build their technical and business skills and get jobs. He stressed that if organizations look for talent in just the usual places — namely, four-year colleges and universities — “you’re really starting to narrow the pond in which you are fishing.” The 18-to-24-year-olds Year Up works with are highly motivated, Chertavian said, and stay in jobs two-to-four times longer than the average Millennial, who sticks around for 18 months.

Tom Davenport: “Plan for augmentation, not automation. Think of smart people working together with smart machines.”

The analytics and knowledge management scholar cheated, using two sentences instead of the one Westerman required — but both drive home the same idea. The digital future will be people working alongside robots. Robots are smart. They learn fast. And they “keep taking over things that we normally did,” Davenport said. So they aren’t overshadowed, the people CIOs hire need to be good at what they do — at some technical skill, such as programming — but they also need to exhibit “human” characteristics and skills such as initiative, interpersonal skills and teamwork.

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