Saturday, November 2, 2013

Competence in the Disruptive Age

Once upon a time, people who could learn to read, write, and calculate were deemed competent to participate in the democracy, work in a factory, and live the good life.  Don’t you just long for the simplicity of that era?  Some days, I think I do.  Our fast paced world 2013-11-02T13-59-37_0where “[c]hange is accelerating, to the point where it will soon be nearly continuous” (Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now) is not simple, and old competencies are the very basic minimum requirements to prepare a person to fully participate.  Our world has changed dramatically since the days when learning was simple and slow.

Competence (or competency) is the ability of an individual to do a job properly. A competency is a set of defined behaviors that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviors in individual employees.

A key responsibility I have in my role as CIO is to develop and lead an IT group.  Overall, I am impressed with my current group and their abilities but I need to consider how to prepare them for the future and enable them to progress to meet new requirements.  We need highly competent people so that the services we provide to schools and our business are of high quality and provided in a timely manner.  Traditionally (and currently) IT people are judged based on what certifications, diplomas, or degrees they have along with some number of years of “relevant” experience.  I think the pace of change we face now is rendering this method of qualifying people, basic.  Being certified in some specialized technology might tell us what someone is capable of at that point in time with a specific technology.  However, it doesn’t indicate their orientation and attitudes to learning and their ability to “learn, unlearn, relearn” (Alvin Toffler) which is essential when the technology IT people work with is invented, purchased, installed, configured, maintained, and replaced on an ever shorter time span.  Having a degree or diploma tells us that a person should be able to learn, possibly work with others, and that they can think.  This is a good start but no longer enough, in my opinion.

As the technology in schools we call “computers” begins to disappear and solid state self-healing, self-diagnosing, mobile devices take over, the traditional work of installing and maintaining computers will all but disappear.  Installing software has shifted from a complicated problem fraught task to one where you queue up remote push methods and software simply appears on devices (even computers) based on a stated schedule.  Software (app) installation is also now substantially a pull model where the users of the device can select items to download and they do and are available to use almost instantaneously.  It gets a little more complicated for large organizations with volume purchasing, managing application sprawl, etc. but the technicalities are simplifying rapidly.  In a BYOT context, what’s there for an organized IT group to do in providing software and support beyond the ‘back-end’?  I think IT people will need be more empathic, more able to help clients use technology effectively, give advice, design and recommend methods 2013-11-02T13-59-37_6and solutions, etc.  They will need to be more learned in the domain of knowledge their clients have – in our case, teaching and learning practices.  They will do less traditional technical work and more analyze and guide type work.  IT people in the field will need to be authentically interested in how they are able to help people, to make them feel, as they assist them with technology.

Our IT staff who manage the sophisticated ‘back-end’ systems such as server farms, enterprise storage, backup/restore systems, network switches, network optimization, firewalls, wireless networks, web platforms, workflow engines, design, architecture, project management, etc., are finding the pace of change to be very challenging.  Their skillsets and competencies are quite different from those working in the field supporting end devices.  A certification today and some experience might not be a good measurement of competence when filling these roles.  Deep knowledge, relevant experience, and an orientation to detective work, problem solving, creative thinking, solution finding, design, and development, will all be important attributes to have and seek.  Additionally, pressure will continue to mount to move some of this workload into ‘the cloud’.  Our current privacy law makes this difficult in public education but I believe this is temporary.  In the future, we will have to be very strategic with what we run in-house vs leverage in the cloud.

Assuming we have a clear sense of the roles and positions we need to meet the needs of our ‘business’ and a clear understanding of the competencies we need, then we need a transparent way to assess people for these.  We need to be clear about what a person needs to do and know to demonstrate the competencies required for a particular role.  What training should the organization provide and what professional learning should individuals be expected to invest in personally?  I think there’s got to be a balance here.  Essentially we need people to have an orientation toward being agile learners, people who strive to learn quickly, invest in learning continuously, and be able to change focus when needs change.  We need our IT people to understand deeply how to leverage networks, whether these are small work teams, cross functional teams, or the Internet community at large.  Working in isolation as IT people often prefer, won’t cut it in this new disruptive fast paced extreme learning world we now live in.

I think it will be important for IT organizations to develop a strategic staffing plan and career framework.  The University of British Columbia (UBC) IT group has done a great job on creating a career framework program for their organization.  You should check it out.  From their site,

The Career Framework provides Managers, Directors and HR Representatives with a one stop shop to making the recruiting, hiring and career development processes easy and efficient.

We live in unprecedented times and they are ever rapidly changing.  We should never get comfortable with what we know, what we are skilled at, our attitudes, and behaviors.  We should continuously self-evaluate and adapt to the changing world around us.  We risk obsolescence if we accept status quo.  Learn fast, learn always, learn fearlessly.