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IT talent management systems stuck in the 'Mad Men' era

Devan Dewey

IT talent management, a tough job for CIOs under any circumstances, is approaching albatross-level status. Even the best hires can’t be expected to possess all the technical skills they’ll need to keep up with the blistering pace of technology change and business demands.

So it is hardly surprising that the session on IT talent management at the recent SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit — “The Fight for Talent: How to Mentor, Groom and Grow your Team” — drew a large crowd. The shocker? CIOs are not just fighting an uphill battle in the so-called IT talent wars, the talent management processes at their disposal — developed for labor markets that no longer exist — are worse than one might have surmised from personal experience.

“Deloitte did a study in 2015 in which 88% of companies said they were planning on rethinking or changing their employment processes,” said panel moderator Devan Dewey, CTO at NEPC LLC, a Boston-based investment firm.

As Dewey explained, the two-pronged focus of talent management systems — employee accountability and employee development — has its roots in the U.S. military. The merit rating system devised by the military in WWI to flag performance was by the 1940s in use at 60% of companies for measuring past performance and allocating merit raises. In WWII, the military changed its approach, devising a system to identify and develop promising officer candidates; by the 1960s, employers had decided they too should be in the business of employee development and goal setting.

Over the decades, corporate emphasis on the twin strands of these military-derived talent management systems has shifted back and forth depending on the economy. Since the turn of the century, however, there is growing recognition that practices — whether regarding employee accountability or growth — have not kept pace with reality.

“Bottom line, we’re in an environment that is changing rapidly. Finding and developing talent is difficult, and the systems we have to do that are in flux,” Dewey said.

Attitude and adaptability

Dan Sheehan

The inadequacy of current IT talent management systems was borne out by the panel’s two veteran IT leaders: Joel Jacobs and Dan Sheehan. Jacobs is CIO at The MITRE Corp., a large not-for-profit that provides research and other services to the federal government. A MITRE veteran of 28 years, he oversees an IT team of 400 people.

Dan Sheehan, a veteran of the retail industry whose previous posts include CIO at Dunkin’ Brands and COO at Modell’s Sporting Goods, joined DentaQuest as CIO in Jan. 2015. He oversees a team of 270 IT staffers and contractors at the $1.9 billion oral health insurer.

For Sheehan, attitude is the No. 1 predictor of employee success. “I am always looking for not just what was done but how it was executed,” he said. People with the right attitude will want to learn skills they may lack. In his two years on the job at DentaQuest, Sheehan said he has struggled with finding those employees. The health insurance

ce business is undergoing many changes, but work processes — and performance metrics — are slow to change, so even new hires quickly get attached to the status quo. “It has been tough, I have to admit, because some people just don’t want to change,” he said. Or embrace new ways of working. “I can’t get folks to think beyond the process they’re in charge of.”

Everybody’s system ‘sucks’

Joel Jacobs

Asked if this was also a challenge for him, Jacobs said, it is, in particular with regard to new hires. “I don’t have a magic formula for determining who is going to be able to learn and adapt. I wish I did,” he said.

But MITRE does invest a lot in training, Jacobs said. Everyone in his organization goes through customer service training; senior management goes through “trusted advisor training,” which teaches techniques for partnering with business partners. Those two skills, plus adaptability, are a big part of people’s success at MITRE.

In addition, MITRE decided two years ago it needed to rethink how it evaluated employee performance. Jacobs — one of the executives who led the project — took a course at Harvard Business School in performance and talent management, expecting to learn about the useful techniques and the many excellent talent management systems in use at other companies.

“What I heard was that every company’s system sucks,” he said. “I was stunned, but it left me in the position to say we can’t look to somebody else’s model … we have to determine what works for us.”

The network effect

MITRE wound up renovating its old performance management system — but not before a thorough re-evaluation that revealed a “thirst” for more accurate and effective assessment and employee development, Jacobs said. “We ultimately determined that we should be having a conversation about roles and results and behaviors,” he said. “It is a completely different process than what we had before.” The need for clearer expectations, more frequent interaction between managers and staff, and a better understanding of when people go “above and beyond the table stakes of their job descriptions” and when they fall short, drove the overhaul, Jacobs said.

The new system also takes into account how results are accomplished. “If you left dead bodies by the side of the road while you did the job, we ought to know that and maybe change the process.”

Another new wrinkle at MITRE? The company, with permission, has recently begun using the LinkedIn networks of MITRE employees to find new people, Jacobs said. People who work in a given space are more likely to be connected to people with similar skills. “We are in a war for talent, we want to get the best people we can and we can’t wait forever,” he said.