CIOs should plan for potential interruptions to their IT workforce, writes talent risk and knowledge transfer expert, Steve Trautman.

Business continuity in the time of Coronavirus is certainly creating new pressures on IT resources, services and budgets.  These demands are an opportunity for CIOs to demonstrate their true value to the business and solidify their seat at the table. But they also need to ensure that they have the right talent in place to do the reviewing, re-deploying, re-prioritizing, and rapid ramping-up that is needed right now.   

In addition to monitoring the pressures put on your existing systems, set aside time to take a look at new talent risks. Here are a few you’re likely to see:

  • Productivity will be down. “Working from home” can allow for increased productivity under the right circumstances but when it is required and on short notice, the chances are it will have a negative impact, at least to begin with.

  • Systems for sharing information, mentoring and on-the-job training will be stressed because of the new work environment.

  • Executing “contingency plans” will create increased demand on your best people – the ones who were already tapped at 100+%.

  • There may be a surge in retirements because some people will find the demands of this new work environment just one hurdle too many.

  • Family Medical Leave Act usage will surge because of the increased pressures on caregiving across generations.

  • Hastily executed layoffs will be required in some instances, and this can lead to unforeseen talent gaps.

  • Rapid on-boarding demands and new, virtual methods of on-boarding will ramp up for the companies who must scale up to meet new demands.

  • Re-engineering will be required to respond to the new market conditions which will put new pressures on some of your best people.

Now is the time to think about the front-line technical experts who could make or break your ability to move through this crisis as smoothly as possible.

Start with the New “Big Picture”

As a starter, take a closer look at how you are communicating the new “big picture” for your organization. What key deliverables are going to be different now and in the next 3-6 months?  Has your customer changed or been reprioritized? Are you adding or deleting services? Which partnerships are more or less important than a month or two ago? Which KPIs have changed and why? What work has to stop for new priorities to be executed? Are these temporary changes or will some of them be the new normal going forward?

How are you testing to ensure these messages are getting to your front lines? Front line leaders and their teams should be able to answer all of these questions, and they should also be able to give you an indication of how they are managing the new talent gaps they face.

Talent Risks Create Execution Risks

To prove that your front line is responding well to the new big picture, they should be able to make a list of the unique individuals who must participate in these critical new short-term deliverables. Ask for more than a list of these experts by name, list them by specialty. What is it that they do on their projects that makes them so unique and valuable? What are the blocks of work where you’d say “she’s my go-to person for that.” You should know the key people on architecture, security, application management, infrastructure, vendor relations, etc. 

With this list in hand, notice how many times the same people show up on different deliverables. We call these people “Pacers” because they are needed in so many different projects that the whole organization can be slowed down because they can’t be in more than one place at a time.  


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Now take that list of key talent and imagine they are out for an extended period of time. This is much less hypothetical in this environment where global leaders and celebrities have tested positive for COVID-19 alongside tens of thousands of average citizens. Even though it may be overwhelming at first, the next step is to ask for a quick list of the people who could step into the gap. Don’t think about replacing the whole individual. Encourage your team to go back to the notes about what blocks of work these folks do that makes each of them so valuable and look for someone else who could cover that one block. Since they don’t likely have the luxury of adding to their team right now, list out whoever is the best backup, and also note just how prepared they are to cover.  Remember to set the bar at the right level. Think bug fixing vs design work.

Now take the notes from this simple thought exercise and circle the people and the blocks of work that present the highest risk to the key deliverables for the next three months. This is an immediate talent risk profile.

Reduce the Most Critical Talent Risks First

What comes next is an exercise in working to reduce your highest talent risks before they impact execution. This is where CIO level leadership is required, even though it may feel like you’re getting too deep in the weeds. Your teams are likely fully engaged in heads down troubleshooting. They are moving from fire to fire as quickly as they can. They are going to “soldier on” as best they can, working long hours and making sacrifices to do their very best to deliver. Just like you have to make sure they take enough time to eat and rest, you also need to make sure they take enough time to reduce the risk that if they have to be out of the office on sick or family leave, there will be a path to continuity left behind.

Here are some knowledge transfer quick steps that you and your people can apply to reduce your talent risks.

  1. For each high-risk block of work, make a quick list of the tasks that need to be done in the next week to a month. The tasks will start with verbs like troubleshoot, analyze, set up, run, etc.

  2. For each task, answer four questions either aloud with an apprentice listening and/or in a quick note.
    1. What are the steps to getting the task done?
    2. What are the mistakes a newbie like me is likely to make?
    3. How can I troubleshoot the most likely problems?
    4. Who else can I call and/or where else can I look for help if needed?

  3. Have the apprentice say back their best paraphrase of the answers to the questions above as a test of how well they heard. This quick exchange, especially in a stressful time will further reduce the chance of failure.

CIOs and other senior leaders are going to be more critical than ever in this season of fear, uncertainty and doubt.  As you lead the “war room” efforts to keep all of the lights on, don’t forget that even though people don’t show up on your dashboards, the work is being done by humans who are more vulnerable today than they were just a few weeks ago. Take the time to look at them closely enough to be ready for anything.

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