How to develop your IT team's capabilities

In order to keep up with ever-changing business needs, IT must evolve. Here are tips on how to identify and build new IT capabilities.

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If you could take a time machine even five or 10 years into the past, you'd likely be surprised how much your IT department has evolved. While the office and people are perhaps more or less the same (other than aging), the demands, skills, and day-to-day activities have likely evolved. If you've diligently and thoughtfully managed these changes, you'll likely reflect with happiness at how your plans are evolving.

Perhaps this evolution has been less carefully managed, and your shop has evolved haphazardly in response to external demands rather than careful leadership guidance. Perhaps you built a strategic capability around mobile app development that's now helping deliver consumer apps, casting IT in an entirely new light. Or, perhaps you were saddled with a new cloud platform, and you find yourself with a dozen technicians dedicated to that single platform while other capabilities languish.

In either case, strategically developing the portfolio of capabilities that your IT organization delivers and building them thoughtfully will bring significant long-term benefit. Furthermore, if you have the right capabilities, you'll end conversations around "alignment" and IT's strategic value since you'll have the capabilities the business needs to execute its objectives.

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SEE: Vendor risk management: A guide for IT leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1: Take a portfolio approach

Organizational capabilities for IT or otherwise should never be developed in a vacuum. A capability that looks beneficial on its own might conflict with others you're developing, or ultimately distract the organization and create conflicting priorities that derail multiple efforts. Similarly, a well-intentioned capability might be missing several dependencies that will fundamentally prevent its successful implementation regardless of how much money and staff are thrown at it.

IT capabilities should be considered in the context of what the rest of the organization is doing. If you create an amazing capability around mainframe support, but the organization is moving toward cloud tools, you'll find yourself investing in something that has a limited shelf life. Similarly, creating an expensive digital strategy capability might be for naught if your organization is focused on core operations.

2: Don't do everything

It's tempting to immediately jump to capability building every time a new technology appears on the horizon or your company's strategy shifts; however, this is an expensive and distracting proposition. Each new capability requires different "muscles"--think about the fact that it takes an athlete months or even years to transition to a different sport. A sure way to burn out your staff and lose the confidence of your peers is to dramatically lurch from one capability to another, never actually seeing the value of creating a sustainable and valuable capability.

3: Leverage your vendors

New capabilities can be expensive and time-consuming to build, and these factors are often underestimated. Simply because you've performed a task before doesn't mean you now have a scalable capability, and it's easy to fall into the trap of "we did it once; therefore, we can do it again twice as fast at half the cost." Some capabilities might be useful for a short time period before becoming obsolete. For example, if you're re-platforming core applications to the cloud, you may need a cloud architecture capability to plan and execute the migration, but it's largely irrelevant once that migration is complete.

SEE: Third-party vendor policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Consulting providers and vendors are an obvious solution to short-term capabilities, but they can also jumpstart building your own internal capabilities. If you're going to leverage an external provider, rather than just getting the brains and bodies, make sure you structure the relationship such that the end outcome is that you have the desired capability internally. This should include everything from training to staffing to strategic considerations around how to leverage the capability. This will obviously be more expensive than a typical consulting engagement, but if you ultimately want a capability in-house, it delivers the capability quickly in the short-term and makes it sustainable in the long-term.

4: Know when to fold

As you review the portfolio of your capabilities, consider when it's time to sunset some of them. It can be painful to retire a capability that has served you and the organization well for years, but it's a necessary part of maintaining a portfolio of beneficial and interrelated capabilities. Retiring capabilities thoughtfully allows you to redeploy staff and leverage vendors to help with the transition, and it keeps the organization current. Ignoring this responsibility puts you in a position to haphazardly cut off chunks of your organization when faced with cost-cutting, creating significant long-term damage to your organization.

With some foresight and a portfolio-based approach, you can create an IT organization that delivers what your company needs today, and grows and evolves as needs change. Having the right capabilities at the right time not only makes IT a strategic asset, but it creates a dynamic and exciting IT shop that grows and retains your top talent. Playing the long game as you build your IT shop's capabilities will ultimately prove your worth and position you as a key player in bringing your organization's strategy to life.

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