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The Little Book of IT

The Generation Game: Bridging the Knowledge Gap

5th September 2017

Chris Ducker, Senior Director of global proposition strategy at Sungard Availability Services discusses the skills challenges Ireland’s business leaders face in an age of Hybrid IT…  Is your business doing well?

The Generation Game – soon to be revived on our TV screens – was the game show of the 1970s stealing baby boomers’ hearts and Saturday nights. Two members from the same family, but different generations, competed to win prizes –  both bringing a different perspective and skillset to the show’s tasks. Sixteen years since it last graced our screens, technology has been playing its own generation game with us and the difference in approach and capabilities between users of all ages remains a point of interest.  

Today, across mainstream, technical and social media, we hear a lot about what the millennial generation are bringing to the workplace; a hunger for progression and purpose, a flexible approach to working, and an affinity with the digital world. Growing up in a world of rapidly changing technology, it is widely thought that this generation adapt better to new tools and techniques, mocking previous generations for their supposed ‘digital dyslexia’.

The senior brain drain

But how much weight does this stereotype hold in reality, and how does the millennial generation fare when faced with traditional tools? As part of a long-term strategy, organisations are building sophisticated IT estates with the addition of external services to their traditional on-premise solutions, rendering environments increasingly hybrid. Younger generations – who have not been educated in the disciplines underpinning so-called mainframe and mid-range computers – are often ill-equipped to operate such older, legacy technologies that for many organisations remain the cornerstone of their IT strategy. Despite this, findings from our inaugural The Little Book of IT research found that two fifths of Irish organisations (40%) have said that educational investments in legacy technology are not a priority[1].

“”Two fifths of Irish organisations (40%) have said that educational investments in legacy technology are not a priority.””

— The Little Book of IT, Sungard AS

New technologies are portrayed as the gateway to innovation for organisations and a pathway to foster growth. Unlike legacy technology training, organisations globally are devoting their dollars to changing infrastructure (58% global, 34% Ireland), new market technologies (56% global, 40% Ireland)  and operations/ infrastructure interfaces (48% global, 37% Ireland) as their top three priorities.  Whilst new market technologies tops the Irish league, there is overall congruence with international ITDMs as to where focus should lie. As the expression goes “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but can you teach a young dog old ones? As workers who have been at the organisation for years depart or retire, so too does their expertise and very likely their intellectual capital.  Thus, they leave behind a generation who may well struggle to maintain the legacy infrastructure upon which the business was built.

As later adopters of such legacy technologies, Irish organisations rely less upon these compared to other markets. Nonetheless, The Little Book of IT reveals that legacy modernisation is still leading to redundancies across this skill set (5% of cases in Ireland); demonstrating that those with legacy skills are being let go in favour of new, more digitally savvy, blood.  Whilst Ireland’s figure is significantly less than the global average of 23%, due to a lesser prevalence of legacy technology in Irish organisations, the republic’s business leaders need to ensure against loss of skills that may be needed.  Especially if their relative rarity value renders them as gold dust!  As with their global peers, in the march towards digital Ireland’s business leaders must guard against creating a false economy of skills, whilst nonetheless developing an appropriately skilled workforce.

Out with the old, in with the new?

With the demands of bimodal IT calling for organisations to manage both traditional, and new, more agile technologies at the same time, organisations will be hard pressed staffing across both types of environments. And, with Ireland in the midst of a pressing digital skills crisis, this gap in generational skills adds yet another challenging dimension for companies looking to recruit those deemed suitably fit for the job. How can they ensure their staff are well-equipped to deal with this hybridity?

“”…with Ireland in the midst of a pressing digital skills crisis, this gap in generational skills adds yet another challenging dimension for companies looking to recruit those deemed suitably fit for the job?””

— Chris Ducker, senior director, global proposition strategy, Sungard AS

On the quest for innovation, organisations will need to understand that, while recruiting candidates who are adept with new and upcoming technologies will be highly beneficial, preparing for the inevitable legacy technology brain drain is an equally crucial part of their IT strategy.

A conveyor belt of staff

With technically skilled employees increasingly scarce, neglecting to keep your existing staff ‘in-the-know’ could have devastating consequences for staff retention. There is no doubt that employees of all generations recognise the value of old and new technologies, but failing to upskill could see them sliding out the door as rapidly as the items on the Generation Game conveyor belt.

If the above seems unlikely, consider this: employees named ”having the right technical skills” and ”receiving appropriate training” as the two biggest challenges hindering digital transformation, in our research which looked at the importance of providing the right digital tools and training for attracting and retaining talent.  Further study showed that 43 per cent of Irish workers found there wasn’t enough training, whilst a quarter also said the training they had had was inadequate. The message is clear.  In order to get employee buy-in for new technologies, organisations need to drive an internal cultural change and provide the necessary educational tools for both new and traditional technologies.

Sourcing External Skills

While nurturing your in-house talent is vital to both employee satisfaction and to the success of your IT estate, all is not lost if your organisation simply does not have the resources for an internal training programme that is comprehensive enough to keep pace with digital developments. For whatever reason, if plugging the legacy skills gap amongst your existing staff has to be put on the backburner, outsourcing skills is an option for those who need to run and maintain legacy platforms. This could involve hiring in resource, or outsourcing legacy workloads to third party managed service providers. In fact, the latter of these options is one of the driving forces behind predictions of up to 60 per cent of IT infrastructure moving off-premise.

With a staggering 81 per cent of Irish businesses being impacted by internal budget cuts – significantly more than any other country surveyed globally and a market contrast to the US where the figure stands at 50%.  With Ireland often regarded as a ‘gateway to Europe’ for US organisations, Irish IT leaders have an urgent need to gain the confidence and backing of their fellow board members to make these necessary investments in training or outsourcing.  This seems critical if they are to unleash technology’s potential to transform not just the individual businesses of respondents, but the country’s position overall.  This will involve dedicating a proportion of the training budget to traditional, on-premise infrastructure, or to sourcing these skills externally. In a time when budgets are strapped, this will inevitably translate into a financial hit. However, ensuring your legacy IT is optimised and supported will ultimately render the digital transformation process more successful and place you ahead of the competition.  It will also protect you from the ticking time bomb of a legacy IT skills shortage!

“”A staggering 81 per cent of Irish businesses being impacted by internal budget cuts – significantly more than any other country surveyed globally and a market contrast to the US where the figure stands at 50%.””

— The Little Book of IT, Sungard AS

As organisations juggle the varied skills of a diverse workforce and seek to deploy them most advantageously for future growth, digital transformation will be no mean feat. With so many businesses relying on a legacy environment, ignoring the needs of the older components of their hybrid IT estate would be foolish.  And whilst it may well be able to continue running in the background with minimal technological impact for the time being, neglecting it will mean minimal positive commercial impact to the business too. Ensuring your legacy technologies tick over efficiently in the context of a digitally transformative IT strategy will require more patience, time and training than you realise. But taking advantage of the cross-generation IT capabilities and hunger for skills at your disposal will go far to make your organisation’s innovation process seamless.

Done well, it should take you into a new generation of business success and employee growth too.

[1] The Little Book of IT: Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS) commissioned independent technology market research firm Vanson Bourne to conduct interviews with 1,350 IT decision makers from around the globe and across multiple sectors, ranging from medium to large enterprises. The research took place from October to December 2016.  www.littlebookofit.com