Why Familiarity Is The Key To Digital Success

Ravi is SVP of Engineering and CTO at Couchbase, overseeing development and delivery of Couchbase’s modern database for enterprise apps. 

Businesses spend a fortune on IT. Gartner, Inc. estimates that businesses will spend more than $4 trillion in 2021, while Markets and Markets forecasts that the global digital transformation market will be worth more than $1 trillion by 2025. Despite this, many still struggle to achieve their digital goals.

As any IT director will tell you, getting digital transformation right requires more than just spending more money. Putting technologies such as modern data platforms, AI and edge computing in place can be difficult. The transformation involves adjusting to tectonic shifts in data management platforms, leveraging edge and connected applications for convenient usage and the move to consumption-based computing offered by the cloud. All too often, businesses find that they don’t possess the right skill sets to get the most out of these innovations, and the pandemic has widened this skills gap even further.

What’s behind this crunch, and what can businesses do about it?

Sometimes, The Old Ways Are Best

All too often, newer technologies call for a completely new approach to operating them. This might not sound like much to ask, but many IT teams will have accrued years of good experience in using existing technology in a certain way. When the business opts to roll out a new cloud platform, for example, IT teams are required to retrain and reskill to get the most out of it. In some cases, all of the valuable experience they’ve built up using their existing legacy systems may become redundant.

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Investing in retraining or in new staff entirely would seem to be the obvious solution, but why should it be? Advancements in other industries don’t require employees to rip up their rulebooks in order to enjoy the benefits of progress. The move from the internal combustion engine to electric cars hasn’t demanded that we learn how to drive all over again: the steering wheel, brakes and much more all resemble those found in cars from decades ago. The technology involved may be different, but the fundamental principles remain the same. Similarly, a logistics business rolling out a fleet of new vehicles might draw its drivers’ attention to some new onboard innovations, but it wouldn’t ask them to take their driving tests again.

Those of us who turned to Zoom during the pandemic didn’t need to learn a new language; we merely had to familiarize ourselves with mute buttons and waiting rooms. In other words, businesses of all types have learned to transform while using existing skills, yet IT teams are compelled to adapt to an entirely new set of habits and processes. It’s hardly surprising that many of them may have struggled to keep up.

No Time To Reskill

Last year, our research showed that more than a quarter of IT decision-makers claimed that their developers do not have the skills required to meet their organizations’ digital transformation needs. Yet while retraining staff to use new applications is necessary, it’s also a costly, time-consuming process. Moreover, those IT staff members enrolled in training programs are effectively “out of action” for the duration, meaning that yet more pressure is piled onto the rest of the team.

This suggests that just seeking to acquire new skills isn’t the answer; the issue is more complex. The situation calls for a more balanced approach — one that gives equal weight to acquiring new skills and making the most of those the business already possesses. As such, it’s vital for businesses to consider where and how the skills their teams already possess can be put to use.

Old-School Familiarity, Next-Gen Functionality

What’s the answer? Ultimately, it lies in making technological improvements without rendering existing skill sets obsolete.

The first step lies in knowing exactly what skills you have. Regular skills audits don’t just show who will benefit from training or gaps in capabilities. They can also uncover abilities you might not have been aware you had. In an environment where CIOs are set to increase the number of full-time roles in IT, leading to increased competition for skills, knowing exactly what resources you have on hand could prevent overspending on in-demand talent. 

The second step is understanding what skills you need. This shouldn’t be focused on specific technologies but on capabilities. For instance, take databases—my particular area of expertise. Most legacy databases in use today were originally designed in the 1970s and 1980s. Understandably, technology and expectations have moved on from then. However, many of the latest innovations don’t only update the underlying technology but add completely new ways to talk to and interpret data, meaning IT teams need to develop completely new skill sets. But there’s a third way—transforming the innards of the database, which is where technology has stagnated, while not needing a completely new skill set. IT can then look for technology that provides the capabilities it needs while still using its IT team’s hard-earned skills.

This won’t always be possible. For example, expanding into entirely new areas or taking advantage of previously unexplored technology might demand capabilities that existing skill sets simply can’t address, In most cases, however, there will be someone in the organization with the skills it needs. Regardless of the outcome, regular skills audits make good business sense.

Stick With What You’re Used To

As businesses begin sketching out their digital strategies for a connected future, many accept that the patterns of demand they’ve faced over the past two years are likely here to stay. This inevitably means that pressure to digitalize isn’t going away any time soon—and neither is the need for a high level of digital skills.

Rather than risk new technologies widening this skills gap, the focus should be on modernizing certain layers of technology while preserving the innovations of the past that still offer value. In other words, reinvent the engine but not the steering wheel. After all, IT teams have built up years of expertise with legacy systems, and it would be a shame for it to go to waste.


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