Whether you’re a CIO or a mid-level manager in a non-IT business unit, staff development, motivation, and “talent retention” are probably some of your biggest challenges. Endeavoring to further all these goals without breaking the bank seems impossible, which is why I love the idea of a “tour-of-duty” program, which I first heard of from a CIO I worked with in the UK.

The term has military origins and refers to a situation where soldiers are sent to a specific geography or assigned to a particular post for a defined period of time. For the grunts, the tour of duty provides a “light at the end of the tunnel” for what might have been an arduous and dangerous battlefield assignment, and for those on the military equivalent of the “management track,” it might provide a defined time period in a series of different roles, allowing a high-potential leader to develop into a potent commander.

In an IT shop, the idea is similar, although with far less risk of taking a bullet. Take high-potential employees in your department who may be in danger of burnout or who need to round out their resume before moving into a higher-level position, and then seek candidates in other business units in a similar situation and arrange for a swap. While many of us like to think that it would take years or perhaps decades to develop the skills we bring to our specific job, in truth a skilled individual can probably pick up the basics quite quickly and also bring a new and unique perspective to the role.

While there are some obvious costs to this type of program, they are fairly minimal, and most are soft, such as lost productivity as the new arrivals learn their respective role and the associated management and administrative duties to facilitate the transition. The benefits, however, are exceptionally compelling, the three largest being:

  1. “Saving” high-potential employees who might otherwise leave your company. If someone is stuck in what he or she perceives as a dead-end job and is looking for new challenges, a tour of duty is a great way to let that employee try something new, while keeping a talented individual within and contributing to your company. For the employee, he or she gets nearly all the benefits of a new job, yet retains all the familiar comforts of the current employer.
  2. Exceptional staff development. What better way to develop well-rounded IT talent than having some of your employees spend six months to a year in Marketing or Finance? Not only will their knowledge of your company’s business grow, but they will also see your IT organization from the outside and likely bring back pointed and astute observations on how to improve it upon their return.
  3. Finding the ever elusive “business alignment.” A constant CIO gripe is that people in “the business” don’t understand IT and vice versa. Cross-pollinating IT and business unit personnel lets each experience life in the other’s shoes, engendering a deeper understanding and respect for the trials and tribulations of each and sharing formerly compartmentalized knowledge across the organization.

Imagine the potential of someone who knows your IT organization intimately from the inside but has also consumed its services, and you will begin to see how exceptionally beneficial this experience can be not only for the individuals involved but for your organization as a whole.

Structurally, this type of program should not be wildly difficult to set up, and in a medium or large corporation, Human Resources should be able to both facilitate the administrative transition and provide expertise in helping tour of duty participants acclimate to their new positions. Some of the best HR departments will even help develop this into a well-structured program that can be a model across the organization. When the tour is complete, getting the participants in a room with full attention of key management should be the first order of business.

Perhaps the only risk to a tour-of-duty program is that occasionally a high performer from IT may discover that her true calling lies in corporate finance, although the chances are just as likely that an ace from sales ends up discovering an unknown passion for technology. In either case, a tour-of-duty program should be on every CIO’s radar as a way to develop strong staff, spread new ideas, and develop a better understanding between IT and non-IT functions.