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Growing Skill Gaps Provoke IT’s “Innovation vs. Efficiency” Struggle

As part of our series of interviews on the IT skills gap, low-code development, and citizen developers, we were fortunate enough to speak with Michael Krigsman, industry analyst and host of CXOTalk.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Michael shared a historical perspective on the IT and the skills gap we now face; how citizen developers can help bridge that gap; and how companies should establish governance structures to ensure that citizen developers create opportunity—rather than risk—for IT departments and the broader organization.

In 2017, all U.S. computer science graduates would have filled less than 9% of all open developer positions. There are plenty of people out there who are suggesting there is a large and growing “skills gap” in the IT world. First, do you agree with them? Second, if so, how did we get to this point?

I do think that there’s an IT skills gap, but to answer your question, we must look at the history of IT.

IT as a corporate function began with technology. Computers were large, expensive, and complicated machines, so it made sense to create layers of protection between business users and those with the technical skills to operate that equipment. We all know the stereotype of people in white coats with punch cards.

From the beginning of time in computing — in the 1950s right up until recently — the focus of IT has largely been on protecting those machines and ensuring they were used to greatest advantage.

We live in a different world now — a world of digital transformation — and two key shifts have had a major impact on the role, responsibilities, and purpose of the IT department.

First, equipment has become much less expensive and therefore pervasive. Second, we’re all computer experts now, and computing is fully integrated into our daily lives.

Although these shifts have had profound implications for modern IT departments, many senior IT leaders have retained the mentality that the sole, or at least the primary, role of IT is protecting corporate assets and the infrastructure that runs the business. And yet, the expectations of IT’s partners on the business side have shifted. Business partners today expect IT to support business agility and speed.

So, what is the role of modern IT? Business leaders want IT to help them deliver work quickly and with the greatest advantage. In other words, these leaders expect IT to be a strategic partner that can help us figure out how to accomplish what we want using technology. And, do it fast.

However, do not confuse speed (or agility) with efficiency. The business wants IT to be fast and efficient (getting more stuff done with fewer resources), but also to support innovation (which means doing things better).

It is no longer sufficient for IT to be only an enabler of efficiency — those days are gone.

The modern challenge for IT is transforming from an efficiency focus to being a definite enabler of innovation. It’s hard, because the business says, “We want you to do a lot more stuff, and we want you to innovate, but we also want you to cut your budget.”

My advice is: Provide the services, provide the infrastructure, get the right governance in place — and then let your employees have at it.” Michael Krigsman

Okay, so how does this history of IT relate to the skills gap today?

First, we know that the business expects IT to be a strategic partner. But does the IT department possess sufficient skills to play this role? Can we realistically expect IT to engage with the business beyond technology solutions and infrastructure, to possess expertise about marketing campaigns, financial programs, and the like?

There’s a business skills gap. And that’s the most important gap.

Second, we have the mindset issue — the demand that people in IT shift their thinking from efficiency as the prime directive to innovation as the essential IT mandate.

Third, we’re living in a different world — a world where IT’s mandate has changed, and people in business have strong technical skills. Coming back to citizen developers, the tools now exist for non-technologists to take a certain level of development into their own hands. In this world, companies must decide where development and computing should take place.

With the proliferation of easy-to-configure SaaS applications, there’s a very fine line between departments purchasing computing applications and doing their own development. The ease of buying web-based applications has accelerated the rise of “shadow IT” [For more on this topic, check out our interview with Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto].

The concept of shadow IT means people outside IT buying (and configuring or developing) applications without involving or asking IT.

The skills gap you mentioned is really about meeting business needs in a world where IT does not have unlimited resources, but the business does have almost insatiable demand for IT support That’s your gap.

Will citizen development—the empowerment of business users to start solving problems previously the domain of IT and the development community—help bridge that skills gap?

Yes, I think so. My advice is: Provide the services, provide the infrastructure, get the right governance in place — and then let your employees have at it. It’s beneficial for IT and helpful for employees who want to become citizen developers.

As long as you set things up in the right way, I suggest letting IT focus on infrastructure, services, and enterprise architecture. Why not offload a lot of the work of traditional IT on to the people who need it and know what they want? If you give them the right tools and they have the right skills, and they can just do it themselves, they don’t have to talk to IT. They just do it.

So it’s less work for IT, letting them do more with less as I described earlier, and it’s faster for the business, which increases speed and business agility.

So there’s a clear benefit — but a caveat: “As long as you set things up in the right way.” How do companies define the governance around this new cadre of citizen developers?

Make sure that your systems don’t allow users to bypass core governance standards. You don’t allow users to expose data through the firewall, for example, unless it’s governed in the usual ways that the corporation allows.

Make sure that citizen developers only have access to certain types of data, whatever is within their permission role or profile. You only expose the services that are appropriate to the role and profile of that citizen developer. So you build the governance into the system, and then you let them do whatever they want.

Doing these things is the mark of an efficient and innovative IT organization.

Michael Krigsman is one of the experts we’ve been interviewing on the IT skills gap, low-code development, and citizen developers. For more on these topics, check out:

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the city of Palo Alto, on why we face a skills gap in the Fourth Industrial Revolution; Anna Rodriguez of Slalom on how citizen development can shrink the skills gap; Damian O’Farrill of Autodesk on How Naiveté Fuels Innovation and David Riggan and Sudheer Sura of BMC on why citizen development helps IT departments do more than simply “keep the lights on.”


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