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How IT departments can upskill in the new economy

There is a skills crisis. Traditionally, IT has outsourced to fill the skills gap, but in the gig economy, there are new approaches to sourcing technical skills

A report on the new economy from Open Assembly and TopCoder has suggested that businesses need to look at how they can adapt some of the business practices of the gig economy to become more competitive.

In the report, Sajeev Nair, head of global ADM group operations at the Zurich Insurance Group, said: “Every company will need to develop a gig economy strategy, just as they’ve had to develop a social media or mobile strategy. Companies that do this now will outpace those that don’t.”

This is something that seems to work quite well in IT, where contractors are often used to backfill skills shortages in business. From a contractor’s perspective, one Computer Weekly reader noted: “The gig economy does not have to be the full answer to an IT worker’s need for work. But it can be used as more of a lead into slightly longer engagements that are still short, but result in a much more varied, and therefore, to some people, much more interesting set of work than standard employment or IT contracting.”

Bola Rotibi, research director, software development, at CCS Insight, has seen a number of so-called software development-as-a-platform services appear, which provide a 21st century jobs board, to connect IT works with organisations with particular skills or training requirements.

“We’ve been looking at development services as a platform where people can ‘like’ and hire developers,” she said. “If I want to find someone who can do a particular kind of work – and it’s a standard piece of software development – people can bid for the job.”

These platforms generally keep track of how well their community of IT workers work. The business users can then decide whether the developer is cost-effective and meets the level of quality required. 

Rotibi believes demand for such services may increase as a result of tech skills shortages. “They work well when the work needed is very standardised and well-scoped so that there is no ambiguity and you don’t have to open the company so that information flows out,” she said.

Pooling skills

Collab365 is one of the new companies pooling skills in the gig economy. Its speciality is in Microsoft skills. The people posting on Collab365 offer training, project management, scripting, configuration and programming across the Microsoft product portfolio. Costs range from £10 to more than £2,500.

Writing on LinkedIn, Collab365 founder Mark Jones said: “Many businesses are already dipping their toe in the ‘gig economy’ and utilising online freelance workers. If there’s enough opportunity for the new breed of worker to work as a solo-preneur, they will take it, meaning you may miss out on some fantastically skilled workers.”

One example of this is when companies need to find skills to support legacy software. Origina, a third-party support provider,  has developed a network of IBM specialists which can be drawn upon to service the support needs of large enterprises.

Tomas O’Leary, CEO and co-founder of Origina, said: “Our business is built around the gig economy. We have 650 technical resources around the world. We recruit them, agree a rate and pay them a retainer.”

For enterprises requiring an expert with a particular IBM software skill, O’Leary said: “We assemble the tech resources for a period of time so that we can guarantee you will always have the resources when you need them.”

When the company was founded, O’Leary was concerned that traditional large enterprises – the types of company that generally need support for legacy IBM software – would inquire about how many technicians worked at Origina. O’Leary said they bought into the company’s business model. “Over half of our clients have a global turnover of $10bn,” he added.

Hacking collaboratively

Working in the gig economy works both for small businesses and startups, and large enterprises and public sector organisations. Yorkshire Water is one of the businesses mentioned in the TopCoders report. The water utility firm opened up 12 months of its data through the Leeds Open Data Institute to crowd-source the discovery of new trends or patterns.

According to Yorkshire Water, it received a number of interesting submissions, such as an app proposal to use artificial intelligence (AI) to automate the recognition of leak noise, and a Fitbit-like device for monitoring water usage in household water pipes.

New research has found that crowd-sourcing ideas for the smart use of public sector data offers a huge economic benefit. In July, the European Union (EU) reported that the total direct economic value of the data held in the public sector is expected to increase from a baseline of €52bn in 2018 to €194bn in 2030.

Yorkshire Water recently sponsored a hackathon, in which software development teams were invited to take part in a competition focused on ideas for using open data to create a county-wide data dashboard for Yorkshire.

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In the private sector, enterprises have traditionally used workshops, adopted Google-style Friday innovation days and regular hackathons to surface new ideas. Many organisations use hackathons and workshops to bring people from different areas of the business together outside their normal day-to-day jobs, with teams competing for the best ideas.

Following on from Tesco’s recent hackathon in June, Jo Hickson, head of Tesco Labs, said: “The hackathon is a great way for us to pull in brilliant ideas from people across the business. Last year’s winning idea is now being trialled in a store in the Czech Republic and we can’t wait to explore the ideas from this year, too.”

CCS Insight’s Rotibi said hackathons also offer a way to hire people with the right skills. “People think differently and are not constrained by the traditional corporate environment,” she said. “There is an opportunity to see how people can work creatively.” 

Mark Ridley, a former CTO of jobs website Reed.co.uk, who now mentors CTOs, said: “We used to run hack days at Reed. It became a big part of our culture.”

However, Ridley found that in some cases, a team from marketing and sales would work together on a “killer” presentation of their idea, while the developer team often spent their time creating the best user experience, but very little time on a polished presentation of their ideas. For Ridley, it is therefore paramount that teams are cross-functional, to bring different sets of skills both to the hackathon day and subsequent development of the idea into a fully fledged product.

Whether it involves external contributors or internal employees, companies need to look at how to take ideas from such events forward. Although they come from different points of reference – the gig economy is leveraged to provide the right skills to meet a specific requirement, while hackathons are used to generate new ideas – experts believe both have a place in filling the skills gap in the new economy.

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