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One year to Brexit: Focus on skills development or risk halting digital progress

With 365 days left until the UK leaves the EU, the countdown has begun. Computer Weekly looks at what CIOs should be doing as they prepare for Brexit, and the challenges and opportunities it could bring

With one year to go until Brexit, UK CIOs must ensure their IT departments have the skills their organisations need – or risk further delaying their digital transformation initiatives.

According to Ovum’s ICT Enterprise Insights research of more than 6,300 CIOs globally, less than 10% of enterprises consider their digital transformation to be complete and most firms are still in the early stages of their plans.

That scenario could be aggravated in the UK, where the pace of digital change is also “glacial” and IT decision-makers are “looking to cover as many bases as possible” over the next few months ahead of Brexit, said Ovum research director Maxine Holt.

“CIOs are very cautious about Brexit, particularly when it comes to areas such as contract structures with suppliers,” she said, adding that this particular area of uncertainty could mean digital transformation projects in the UK might suffer further delays.

To mitigate these pressures, one of the areas Ovum is advising UK IT leaders to look at is the internal expertise needed to deliver projects going forward. In that sense, said Holt, Brexit could be the force behind a much-needed new approach to skills development.

“If Brexit is what it takes [for CIOs to look at skills development], then so be it,” she said. “Traditionally, IT departments have been split into those who keep the lights on and those who work on change. The upcoming changes could now work as an opportunity to, for example, rotate people, give them new jobs, train them and keep them engaged.”

Although the looming Brexit date has left many IT leaders feeling uncertain about what the future will bring, there is a general consensus to try to make the best of the situation.

According to Andy Haywood, chief operating officer at UK retailer N Brown, Brexit was “another unwelcome challenge” on top of the usual business intricacies around meeting consumer demand, engaging the workforce and driving shareholder value. But his company has been looking at possible opportunities. 

Read more about Brexit

“Over the last 12 months, we have been scenario planning various potential Brexit outcomes, thinking about risks and threats,” said Haywood. “However, we have also been busy looking at where the upsides might be.

“I don’t believe Brexit will fundamentally change our IT strategy, but we must be much more willing to bend and flex as the post-Brexit landscape becomes clear.”

Looking at possibilities has also been the focus for David Ivell, CIO at The Prince’s Trust. According to Ivell, although Brexit came as “more of a surprise than it should have been”, the charity has tried to look at it in a positive light. 

He said some key employers that the trust works with have cited availability of skilled entry-level staff as a major risk and have been asking for the organisation’s help in providing young people for those positions. 

“Putting the politics or personal preference to one side, there is already an impact where thousands in the UK economy in entry-level jobs have started returning to their home countries and the speed of repatriation will only increase in the next two years,” said Ivell. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of young people here in the UK that we work with and there is now a greater opportunity for them, with the help of The Prince’s Trust programmes, which provides much-needed employability skills to get entry-level jobs.”

Tool to take cost out

CIOs should use Brexit as a tool to take cost out of their businesses, said Martin Tennant, IT transformation expert at PA Consulting Group. He said the changes provide an opportunity for companies to rebalance their IT supply chains by reducing the number of locations where work takes place, as well as the number of steps taken to deliver IT services and the technology employed in delivery.

“Firms can use the disruptive nature of Brexit to challenge their ways of working, introducing agile processes, digital technologies, artificial intelligence and automation to create an IT supply chain than can withstand an unstable future,” said Tennant. 

Combined with a review and optimisation of working processes, said the consultant, in order to prepare for Brexit, an imperative for all businesses over the coming months must be to retain and attract talent.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of EU citizens choosing to leave the UK is at its highest for 10 years.

There are already more digital vacancies in the UK than there are people with the skills to fill them – a skills gap the technology industry fears will only worsen after Brexit. 

With matters such as migration policies yet to be decided, this could spell trouble for organisations that rely on the expertise of international staff.

Corrosive effect on morale

“In most organisations, IT is one of the most cosmopolitan workforces,” said Tennant. “Uncertainty about the future status of EU nationals in the UK, and UK nationals working across Europe, will have a corrosive effect on morale and retention. 

“It is therefore important to start thinking now about how to retain existing staff and attract new talent, access key emerging skills and manage the business as usual – and unusual – together.” 

When it comes to responding to demands around advancing digital transformations while trying to ensure their departments are ready for the future, CIOs will need to avoid hasty decisions, despite pressures from the board. 

A key mantra in the coming months will be to guard against knee-jerk reactions, said Tennant. 

“The UK wartime plea ‘keep calm and carry on’ has become a familiar meme across the globe and CIOs know that the usual business of running an IT organisation has not changed in the slightest,” he said.

“Organisations must guard against knee-jerk reactions, such as large-scale termination of projects, and remain focused on delivering great IT.”

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