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Nationwide CIO readies IT workforce for 'inevitable future'

Susan Gueli, CIO of infrastructure and operations at Nationwide, explains how she helps ensure the company's IT workforce is up to the challenge of digital transformation.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. has focused on deploying strategic enabling technologies such as APIs, artificial intelligence and the internet of things as part of its digital transformation.

However, the insurance company, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, sees technology as only one of the investments required for digital transformation. Nationwide believes that it must invest in its IT workforce, too, by preparing workers for what's ahead. As such, it has made IT workforce development a priority, said Susan Gueli, senior vice president and CIO of infrastructure and operations.

Gueli, who started at Nationwide in 1986 and worked her way up from an entry-level programmer to her current position, shared insights about Nationwide's emphasis on continuous learning to train its tech talent -- along with her thoughts about careers in technology in the new millennium -- during two recent interviews with SearchCIO.

Technology has always undergone change, so why is there a bigger emphasis on IT workforce development today?

Susan GueliSusan Gueli

Susan Gueli: When many workers started their careers, they learned skills and built their careers on those skills. We're saying that doesn't work anymore, because technology is changing so fast and business is changing so quickly. So, we're working to make an environment for continual learning and real-time learning because things are changing so dramatically.

We use the studies that have been done around the half-life of a skill; from the business perspective, the half-life of a skill today is about five years. That means everything we learned 10 years ago is obsolete. Many people in IT would say the half-life is more like three to five years. We share those stories to help folks understand that continuous learning -- real-time learning -- is incredibly important to enriching our careers, especially if we have a long runway and we want to have meaningful, rich careers in IT.

Today, we're seeing some technology and tool decisions that we made 24 and 36 months ago are no longer the best way forward, and we're confident because we have strong exit and pivot strategies.
Susan Guelisenior VP, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

What does that mean from a leadership perspective?

Gueli: The technology decisions I made 10 years ago, I was making those decisions thinking that they would last me for 10 years. So, we had to be very deliberate and make sure they were right. But, today, the useful life of technology decisions in many areas is shrinking, because technology is changing so quickly, so we have to make those decisions differently. We need to think about an exit strategy, and how I can get into it and back out as well. Today, we're seeing some technology and tool decisions that we made 24 and 36 months ago are no longer the best way forward, and we're confident because we have strong exit and pivot strategies.

What is IT's role in the company's digital transformation strategy?

Gueli: We have what I'd call a holistic transformation agenda. We have categorized our approach in three key portfolios. [This first is] providing new enabling capabilities like cloud and robotics automation [and] building those new capabilities that drive and disrupt our industry as we move forward. Next, we have an efficiency portfolio; we know we need to be driving lean IT throughout the organization and other optimization initiatives because we owe it to our business to be a competitive IT organization. Then the third piece of the puzzle for us is all around workforce and culture; we recognize the pace and change and the introduction of new technologies is moving at an accelerated pace, so we need to create a culture where associates can do their best work every day and they feel empowered to be ready for what's next.

What's your role in supporting digital transformation at Nationwide?

Gueli: I have specific sponsorship and leadership responsibilities for various initiatives within this transformation initiative, [such as] cloud, next-generation infrastructure, cybersecurity. The approach that we have taken across Nationwide is aligning specific initiatives in this to pairs of CIOs. [For example] I partner and co-sponsor in leading our culture initiative with the head of IT HR.

What does this mean for your IT workforce?

Gueli: We're transforming how we deliver infrastructure at Nationwide. We're thinking and driving a level of automation of the work we do beyond anything we've done before. So, for infrastructure professionals, I'm asking them to drive what we do to the cloud and toward automation. I'm asking them to dramatically change how we work. It's a structure where professionals need to have skills that look more like application development professionals have -- they have to write code and treat code like an asset and watch it evolve over time. That's a different skill that we asked infrastructure people to have than in the past. It changes how people do the work and the work we ask them to do. It really requires a nimbleness and constant curiosity and willingness to continue to evolve skills. It's a different mindset than what IT demanded previously, when the skills you nurtured lasted for a long period of time.

We try to create an environment where it's easy for people to feel very empowered to go after what they care most about.
Susan Guelisenior VP, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

How do you prepare them for this?

Gueli: We're building continuous learning opportunities throughout our normal mode of operation. We do that across Nationwide. There are Teaching Thursdays -- that's peers teaching peers. We have so much skill knowledge within our Nationwide IT resources, and we're trying to find ways to share that more broadly.

We also do an internal technology conference once a year, where we do bring in outside speakers and do a lot of sessions with peers teaching peers. We have regular hackathons where we encourage people to try new things, enabling through tools the passion of our associates to solve problems with a level of speed and agility that are new.

We try to create an environment where our associates can take full accountability for what they want out of their careers and then go after it. They need to define what they want out of their careers, and we try to create an environment where it's easy for people to feel very empowered to go after what they care most about.

What do you mean when you talk about continuous learning and real-time learning?

Gueli: Most of us joined the IT profession because we loved that it was always changing. It's exciting to a lot us, and we loved the fact that, in our profession, we would be continuously learning. But the pace of change is much swifter today, so, therefore, our pace of learning has to be much faster. It's beyond on-the-job learning; we have to be the ones willing to push ourselves to that edge -- that edge that might be uncomfortable [or] that causes that productive stress for ourselves -- so we're doing that real-time all-the-time learning.

What does that look like?

Gueli: It's going to be different for every individual. What makes me a little uncomfortable might not be what makes you uncomfortable. We have to do some self-pacing, because we're all individuals from that perspective. So, we have to ask ourselves that question and push ourselves at the pace that's reasonable for our environment and our business, as well as reasonable for us as individuals. It's always looking at what's next -- looking for and finding the opportunities. When you're looking for those opportunities, you'll find them. It's always looking around the corner, and not resting back and feeling like the skills that served me well yesterday will be the skills I need to be fully productive and engaged six months from now or one year from now.

Can you give me an example of how you put that in action?

Gueli: We're doing a lot of experimentation. Experimentation helps with that learning, too. In an experiment, the key objective is to learn. We walk into experiments with a list of things we want to learn. If we learn those things, whether we go forward or not with that technology, as long as we achieve our learning objectives, we consider it a successful experiment.

How do you support a learning culture?

Gueli: We've always believed that there's personal accountability to keep your skills current, and there is support you get from your leader and the organization as well. Teaching Thursday happens two Thursdays out of the month, and we ask leaders not to schedule things during that time because that's time people can invest in themselves.

We have a lot of formalized training. We leverage our partners who bring in key experts to teach broad audiences new skills and capabilities. We share a lot about the tech trends, how they're impacting our business and what our adoption strategies are. We spend time talking about our inevitable futures: What does IT look like 36 months from today, so that helps our associates understand what they need to learn more about. They have those conversations with their leaders as well -- how they can hone their skills and acquire new skills. We have skill guides in how you can evolve or move across professions. We promote a variety of experience for folks because one way we help people have a variety of skills is through job rotation.

How do you further strengthen your workplace culture to support digital transformation?

Gueli: We've got to align our rewards and recognitions. We have to make sure we're aligning all of our management practices to support those things and to support the faster speed [that's needed]. Technologists in general are risk adverse. But if we're increasing the threshold of the risk we're willing to take on, we [need to be] shifting from a management practice that supports less risk-taking to one supporting more risk-taking for the benefit of speed. So, you're rewarding and recognizing more of what you want more of -- and you're knowing that with more calculated risks, you're going to have a few more slips.

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