A Commentary from Federal Business

Upskilling the IT workforce: Let it be disruptive, not destructive

by | Dec 20, 2021

Upskilling skillsets is key to IT workforce transformation. And successfully recruiting “early-career” IT talent into an established IT workforce is an important component of an upskilling strategy. IT leadership must leverage the disruption that accompanies new talent while avoiding potential destruction. Proactively managing workforce culture is more important than ever given the influx of Digital Service and Digital Corps “early career” technologists across Federal agencies under the Biden administration.

Admittedly, new talent can be culturally disruptive. Yet, disruption can be healthy and exciting, not only for an IT organization but also for the customers and end-users who benefit from new products and services.

In a large IT organization – often found in government – disruption sometimes leads to destruction – of productivity, of morale, and of future opportunities to apply new tools and techniques.  This need not happen!

Achieving disruptive success begins with understanding, respecting and managing your workforce culture. Without deliberate, empathetic culture management and workforce engagement, disruption and its positive outcomes will be threatened.

What makes a disruptive team a positive team? Being “different” is only the beginning. They must be deemed valuable by the rest of the organization. By that, I mean these newcomers must have earned enough regard to warrant some allocation of resources – money and/or people. And as anyone who has worked in government will tell you, resources are limited. To compete for resources consistently and successfully and thereby create new products and services, disruptive techniques and tools must be accepted and adopted by the existing workforce’s culture. Cultural adoption of new tools and processes does not happen by accident. It requires planned and empathetic action by leadership.

To thrive, disruptive teams must collaborate with the existing workforce.

Rather than disenfranchising the workforce through well-intended but culturally divisive tactics, leaders – focused on upskilling – must build ways for the current workforce to participate, contribute, and graduate to new actions and processes. There are plenty of comfortably accepted compliance checkpoints in current processes that can be co-opted as gateways for disruption. By making disruptive tools and processes easily available and usable within a known context, an internecine culture war between disruptive haves and disrupted have-nots can be avoided.

To grow, disruptive teams must teach but must also learn. Constructive lessons flow both ways. A former boss of mine in the Pentagon had a plaque on his wall: “Never attribute to maliciousness, that which is attributable to ignorance.” The point I took from that old saying was: Most people aren’t trying to be malicious. They just do not understand the others want to accomplish. It is management’s job to clearly communicate desired outcomes and offer training opportunities to build the required skills inventory in the workforce. Leaders must teach not only the workforce that reports up to them, but also the stakeholders who are affected by the disruptive changes.

Disruptive teams should be more than a “cool kids club” of talented techies. Disruptive teams must serve as teachers, in addition to being technical leaders.

By broadly communicating the “why” (customer benefits) and the “what” (new products and metrics) and patiently teaching the “how” (new tools and processes), customers, stakeholders and the current workforce will feel they are a part of (not apart from) the transformation and support the role and growth the disruptive teams.

Bill James is the President of Federal Business LLC


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