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How to Build a Techforce

Christian N. Schmid (Managing Director and Partner), Raffael Kazda (Associate Director), Daniel Wagner (Manager) and Annika Melchert (Senior IT Architect), all core members of the Banking Practice Area of BCG and BCG Platinion
Christian N. Schmid (Managing Director and Partner), Raffael Kazda (Associate Director), Daniel Wagner (Manager) and Annika Melchert (Senior IT Architect), all core members of the Banking Practice Area of BCG and BCG Platinion

Christian N. Schmid (Managing Director and Partner), Raffael Kazda (Associate Director), Daniel Wagner (Manager) and Annika Melchert (Senior IT Architect), all core members of the Banking Practice Area of BCG and BCG Platinion

What if the Venn diagram showing all of your company’s employees versus all of your company’s IT employees was a single, overlapping circle?

Of course, your head of marketing, your customer service reps, and many others don’t need white-hat-hacker-level IT chops, and they must continue to bring their crucial non-tech expertise to their particular roles. But imagine how a significant increase in their tech proficiency could turn your digital ambitions into reality.

Because you can’t truly leverage the advantages of new technologies solely on the basis of a nice digital strategy and an IT department with good foundational skills. Everyone, in IT and beyond, needs ongoing and targeted training to stay on top of emerging technologies. It’s crucial that the business side of your business be part of the equation—a very informed and active part. Just knowing certain tech buzzwords like “cloud” and “data lake” is not sufficient; everyone on the business side needs to be conversant, if not fluent, in the language of digital so that they can understand the advantages and disadvantages of particular technologies and team with their tech-side counterparts to choose the best technology for the particular task at hand and to deploy that technology to meet a business goal. Lacking these abilities, your company can’t succeed with digital. Bear this in mind: the most important words in that last sentence are “can’t succeed.”

Here’s how to build a tech-adept workforce team—a Techforce.

Toward a Techforce

Building a workforce that is sufficiently technologically proficient is a tall order. In fact, the wave of disruption that digital technologies will usher in has been likened to the profound change wrought by the Industrial Revolution. But disruption also means opportunity, and in this case the opportunity is to redefine jobs so that people can focus on uniquely human elements while finding ways to deploy an ever expanding array of technologies. That requires learning about new things—and about new ways of learning.

Exacerbating the challenge, groundbreaking technologies are being introduced almost every day. Such tech proliferation means that somebody looking for the right tool for a particular job will find it difficult just to keep track of the growing roster of options, even in areas where the innovation cycle has traditionally been slow; across the board, innovation cycles are ramping up. For instance, underlying tech infrastructure, once a fairly static area, has cycled rapidly—from servers to virtual machines to the cloud to containers to serverless computing—in just the past few years. The speed and velocity of technology change makes keeping up a challenge even for the people in your IT department.

And, right off the bat, your tech education endeavor will feel like a vicious circle—or, indeed, a pair of them:

• Your employees can’t really learn to use the technologies until the technologies are in place, but they can’t put the right technologies in place until they have used them enough to understand whether they will meet business needs.

• You will have trouble hiring the experts you need to put new technologies in place if you don’t already have those technologies up and running. Tech startups attract digital talent not just because of their innovative business ideas, flat hierarchies, and lifestyle perks but also because they work with cutting-edge, nonlegacy systems—the tools that are right for the job, not the tools that comply with enterprise standards. Bottom line: if tech experts can’t work with new technologies, they don’t want to work for you.

But even digital innovators started with these challenges. Clearly, there are solutions.

The old standbys—training sessions, broad-based conferences—are not appropriate here, though. Those classical approaches don’t transfer relevant knowledge sufficiently. And they tend to focus on individual, not team, learning. A company’s success, particularly in the digital age, depends on efficient interactions within teams.

So, tech enablement needs to focus on training that is individualized (though not solo or siloed) and teambased. That is, you need training options that not only directly address what each individual needs to learn about a technology, and why, but also consider how each individual’s work meshes with that of others. Another consideration: Tech is complex. There can be several solutions to a tech problem, but a solution that works doesn’t necessarily work well. Devising the best approach to a particular tech problem requires teams that interact and share what they have learned via coaching and feedback.

Our approach to technology enablement makes technology tangible, because participants work with real, and relevant, code examples. It emphasizes the reality that tech upskilling and reskilling is not just for IT but for both the tech and business sides of the company. And the initiative is not just for the employees working hands-on and day to day with the various technologies: managers and C-suite-level executives must know the technology sufficiently to understand how and where it’s valuable and how to leverage it to support strategic business goals.

Among the specific solutions we advocate are new ways to qualify employees and teams and innovative training formats:

• Code Camps. Code camps are two- to six-hour guided tutorials during which engineers and other interested employees learn about specific technologies or programming languages(for instance, the use of frameworks such as Angular or techniques like querying a data lake) by doing real work and learning from coaches along the way.

• Code Coaching. In this training scenario, code camps become more personal, as new coders are paired with experienced, specialized developers and engineers. They might be set up as a brown-bag-lunch meeting or as a mixed social/training event, like a “code & pizza” session. Together, the participants solve coding challenges. These sessions can be one-on-one or larger, as is the case in mob-coding sessions that pair experts with seven to nine trainees, working in agile fashion.And this approach is not limited to artificial training scenarios: code coaching can be deployed in the course of daily development work.

• Guided Prototyping. A step beyond code camps, guided-prototyping sessions generally span six to nine weeks; during this time, employees and external experts work together, using agile elements like sprints to build a piece of software that solves real business problems and gives participants experience in working in new, agile ways and trying out new technologies. Lots of new technologies, in fact; one feature of this training is that it involves testing as many technologies as possible to learn how they work, uncover their advantages and disadvantages, and more.

• The 16th Minute. When tech enablement is the goal, the BCG approach leverages the 15-minute daily standup scrum (an agile standard). After the standup, the team stays to devote another 15 to 30 minutes to deeper exploration of technical topics, often building upon issues raised in code camps and guided-prototyping sessions.

• Master Classes. Focused on particular topics (for instance, containers, the cloud, microservices),master classes rely on interactive elements, like gamification, and non interactive inputs, such as presentations from experts, to give managers and non-tech employees an overview of the concepts and limitations of technologies. A master class requires about three hours.

• Secondments. This is a venue for select, promising, tech-talented individuals to work outside of the company for three to six months with a top-notch software or startup company to practice new coding styles, technologies, and ways of working. Secondments open the door to other things, like putting in place a tech evangelist (see below) or guiding a company’s venture investments.

• Tech Teasers. In these venues, which can last up to two hours and be live or video meetings, engineers and other interested employees can get together to discuss in detail modern tools and technologies, like REST APIs, data exchange formats, containers, and service meshes. The sessions begin with short intros and proceed according to questions and comments from participants. Tech teasers are a good way to deliver first impressions of technologies.

• Evangelists. You have probably built internal evangelists via measures cited earlier in this list. Good news: you can redeploy them, to guide master classes, tech teasers, and the like. And external experts can join you as evangelists as well. The focus should be on helping all employees to understand, and be inspired by, the technologies you need.

• Defect Dojos. Everybody talks about learning from their mistakes, but nobody wants to talk about their actual mistakes. That inhibits learning. By formalizing and normalizing both the talking and the learning, defect dojos overcome that problem. During a sprint, select identified defects will be marked and discussed with the whole team, usually by presenting snippets of the code defects and corresponding solutions. Having a chance to make the solution to the problem as publicly known as the problem will go a long way toward lifting the stigma and encouraging people to focus on finding better ways forward.

The various formats can be very flexible, but all must be well organized, with clear learning objectives--for example, in guided prototyping, the goal is not to produce nice interfaces in four to eight weeks but to give five to seven employees practical experience in at least five technologies. They must also incorporate feedback cycles, such as postmortems and “sailboat” retrospectives in which participants identify forces that could hinder or propel their progress.

The Value of Tech Enablement

You could enable your workforce by, say, buyingsome expensive car for each employee to help them show up on time, but if theydon’t know how to drive, the cars will at best just be nice places to lounge in comfort and listen to the high-end stereo. Tune our metaphor to the tech enablement reality at hand: You can introduce any fancy technology to the workplace, but if your team doesn’t have above-average skills when it comes to using that technology, your investment will not pay off. You will not reap the full value of the technology.

You might not reap any value at all.

Good news: there are many different approaches to training, as shown earlier, that can tap new ways of working and address individual and team needs—on both the business and tech sides of the organization, and at different levels of the organization.

Providing ways for employees to gain new skills means that you’ll tap the full potential of your employees while increasing their job satisfaction by expanding their capabilities. And doing that clearly makes an organization a desirable target for job seekers: you’ll be able to recruit—and retain—top tech talent (digital natives, children of the cloud generation), whose capabilities will boost your digital efforts. Those vicious circles we described earlier will become virtual circles: your team will be so tech adept that it will easily assess and incorporate new technologies, and your culture of learning and your roster of active technologies will draw experts to you. And—if you are doing this right and making tech enablement a joint business and IT effort—you’ll reap the benefits of a tech-adept workforce that knows how to wield the right tools in the right ways at the right time.

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