Alan Shields is chief architect of LGSS, one of the UK's largest public sector shared services organisations. He's also part of the steering committee for Computing's upcoming IT Leaders Festival, a three-day virtual event from the 20th-22nd October. With scores of panels, workshops, networking opportunities and fringe events, there will be something for every technology leader at the festival, which is free to attend.
Computing caught up with Shields to find out how his organisation is responding to the pandemic, and to find out what skills he finds hardest to recruit.
Computing: What skills do IT leaders most need to lead their organisations over the next 2-3 years?
Alan Shields: Whilst if you Google 'Leadership skills for a post-COVID world' and I have, you get a plethora of articles on want will be need in this new world, I don't think the skills an IT Leader needed in 2019 are fundamentally different to those need in 2021 and onward.
In the 21st Century, IT is now so integrated into the workings of any organisation, private or public, when things get tough, the organisation turns to IT to get them out of trouble. Often conveniently forgetting all the budget cuts the IT Department has had to endure. In the public sector, this has happened when the financial constraints of austerity hit and local authorities wanted to save money in their transactions with the public and accommodation costs for staff. IT can help. Do not get me wrong, that is a good thing.
So, what skills do IT Leaders need?
The ability to always know the "art of the possible". Leaders, by sheer definition will not be up-to-date in all the latest technical matters, but always need to what is possible or not when discussing how IT can help with a specific business need.
Good communications. Even more important in the days of Zoom meetings and remote working. They need to still be able to garner a sense of belonging and teamwork, creating a single direction of travel (strategy, if you will), regardless of the medium used to communicate.
Trust. This goes back to the fact that a Leader will have moved away from the more technical tasks performed by their department/team and therefore need to trust the expertise of their staff. As the saying goes, "why have a dog and bark yourself". Trust is equally important with a geotropically dispersed workforce. You cannot walk around the office anymore staring over your staff's shoulders. You must trust that even whilst you cannot see them, they are still performing their task and use output and quality measurements instead of how long they were logged in on any one day.
Finally, they should lead. When IT is even more critical to the success of an organisation, they must effectively represent IT to the rest of the organisation. Defend the department against unfair or inaccurate criticism, but equally take fair criticism and use this to improve the department's/Team's services.
CTG: How do you build and maintain a team in the face of mass-remote working?
AS: The answer to this question is very dependent on the make-up of your team. If your staff require little supervision and can act relatively independently then having them work remotely will not negatively affect the quality of their work. A quick once a week call should suffice.
However, it gets more difficult, if you either have a new starter, a less experienced member of staff or a person that thrives in the company of others. For the new starter, integrating them into the team will be difficult, even with the best of the various video conferencing/collaboration tools available. The practicalities of a virtual "meet and greet" on their first day will be challenging.
For the less experienced member of staff, supervision should always be the key and should not be affected my physical distance. Maintain regular contact, preferably via video calls and make them feel supported.
The most difficult type is the person who thrives in the company of others. Whilst not a complete replacement for face-to-face interaction, modern, good quality video conferencing can create, once staff get used to communicating via this medium i.e. not talking over people, putting your virtual hand up and appropriate use of the mute button, a collegiate atmosphere.
Two final points on this one. Make sure your video conferencing platform is easy to use and is optimised to deliver good quality audio and visuals. Problems in either area will sap the strength and enthusiasm from your staff. Equally, as a Manager, you have a responsibility to look after the health (both physical and mental) of your staff. It then helps to 'see' them via a video call and do not forget to use IM or chat for those more informal 'water cooler' conversations.
CTG: What is the biggest challenge facing IT leaders today?
AS: Supporting the workforce in the 'new normal' whatever that will end being. After the Covid-19 lockdown started, it is fair to say, all IT Leaders faced one of the biggest challenges of their careers, when sudden all their users were dispersed to the four corners of the earth. Well, the country anyway. Often VPNs and remote gateways that were used by a small number of staff, started to strain at the seams with loads they were never designed to cope with. Procedures reliant on face-to-face contact had to be revised and the whole IT support model was thrown up into the air.
Now it is fair to say that these challenges were not exactly new, as flexible working and remote computing have been requirements for some time now. The scale required was the unique element. Therefore, the challenge for the future will be to embed this scaled up flexibility into everything we now design and implement. Accessing IT resources not from the office will be the norm not an occasional requirement. This will accelerate the option of cloud-based services and organisation will need to ween themselves of technologies such as VPN and the traditional laptop device and move to more device-agnostic approach using the public internet and a 'zero trust' model for security. This will remove the barriers to working from anywhere and allow staff to use the device that best suits them, dependent on their environment. A smart phone whilst out, a laptop during the day in their 'office' or a tablet siting in the living room.
CTG: What skills are hardest to recruit in your experience?
AS: Working in the public sector it is difficult to recruit IT staff in general. Whilst we offer benefits such as flexible working, our salaries often do not compare favourably with the private sector- especially in areas such as Cambridge. However, in my experience, one of the most difficult posts to recruit are Technical Architects and Implementation Analysts. I would admit, this may be unique to local government or even my own authority, but this has been my personal experience. As a result, we often try to recruit within the organisation and adopt a form of career progression using such things as 'job families' and apprentice schemes. Whilst this is often possible from (say) Helpdesk Agent to Junior Infrastructure Analyst or Support Analyst, it is often more difficult to get an Implementation Analyst to become a Technical Architect. Often the difference is salary grades is too small or the staff member wishes to continue in a more "hands-on" role.
A possible answer maybe the creation of less specific posts giving staff the opportunity to undertake one role in a project and then move to undertake a different one for the next piece of work. This would have the advantage of creating a more agile and flexible workforce that maybe more attractive to prospective candidates.
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