Diverse teams are more productive and innovative, research shows, and with the IT sector in the midst of a talent war, prioritising inclusion could help solve the staffing shortage.

In its annual State of Cybersecurity report, the ISACA found that almost two-thirds of survey respondents say their organisation has unfilled cybersecurity positions. This talent shortage is repeated across the IT sector. Germany expects to need 780,000 additional technology specialists by 2026, for example.

And once companies have hired tech talent, they are finding it harder than ever to retain them. The Covid-19 pandemic briefly made staff more likely to stay put, because of the overall level of uncertainty. But the best workers are now finding that going freelance provides a better work-life balance and increases the variety of projects they can work on.

Unfortunately, the talent shortage is not the only issue plaguing IT recruiters. They are also struggling with diversity. Women make up 49% of the UK workforce, for instance, but only 19% of tech workers. Similar diversity issues surround race. For example, in the US, 6.9% of software developers are Latin American, compared with around 18% of the overall population, while only 4.9% are African American, compared with 13% of the overall population.

Fixing the diversity problem is not only a matter of fairness; it’s a question of performance too. Making an effort to hire from under-represented groups is one way to tackle the skills gap, and there is mounting evidence that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones.

Inherent and acquired diversity

Increased diversity is linked to greater productivity and innovation. Take gender diversity for example. Businesses with above-average gender diversity and engagement outperform below-average businesses by up to 58%, while companies with higher-than-average diversity overall had 19% higher innovation revenues. Today’s workers are also more attuned to the culture of potential employers. Two-thirds (67%) say that workplace diversity is an important consideration when choosing an employer.

Researchers have identified two types of diversity that have an impact on organisational performance. 

The first is inherent diversity – the traits someone was born with, such as their gender, race or sexual orientation. The second is acquired diversity – traits gained from experience. For example, the researchers wrote: “Working in another country can help you appreciate cultural differences, for example, while selling to female consumers can give you gender smarts.”

Having team members from different social, racial or gender backgrounds can ensure that multiple viewpoints are considered. For example, an all-white development team might not be aware that facial recognition tools often don’t work as effectively for people with dark skin. However, the distinction between inherent and acquired diversity demonstrates the need to think about team composition in a range of dimensions.

The importance of soft skills

Today’s increase in remote work makes it possible to hire the best talent, wherever it is located, but it also brings experience from different cultures. A team developing a software tool that depends on ubiquitous internet connectivity might find it useful to hear from a team member in a country where the internet is not at all reliable.

There is also a diversity of skill sets. Software developers, stereotypically, are very logical and methodical but perhaps lacking in ‘soft’ skills – communication skills, teamwork, leadership and so on. The ISACA survey found that the largest skills gap within cybersecurity is in soft skills (54%), just ahead of cloud computing experience (52%). 

Cross-training employees is a good way to close skills gaps, as is bringing in contractors and consultants. When it comes to diverse skills, such as soft skills, organisations could look at broadening their hiring practices. 

For example, the ISACA notes that many companies no longer require a university degree for entry-level cybersecurity roles. Bringing in people directly from school could change the types of people joining IT teams. And organisations could consider training people from other areas of the business to further increase the range of perspectives within IT.

Tackling diversity through elastic teams

Tackling diversity through the recruiting process will take time. The organisation must rethink its efforts first of all, but even then, the talent has to be there. Only one in five computer science students in the UK in 2018 were female, for example. If women don’t feel that there is a place for them in the sector then they won’t apply for those degrees. To borrow a phrase from tennis champion Billie Jean King, “You have to see it to be it.”

Giving women and under-represented groups role models to follow will require a culture change and outreach efforts. Many of these are happening already but they are long-term plans. CIOs and CTOs are facing a talent shortage right now. A solution in a decade’s time won’t help. 

To win the talent war, IT leaders need to find alternative strategies. One emerging solution is elastic teams, sometimes known as private talent clouds. These are groups of freelance IT experts who are kept engaged by a high-quality working experience and easy access to a range of projects that challenge them and help them grow their skills.

Freelancers have to apply to join these elastic teams and their skills are tested before they are admitted. Once in, however, they can work from anywhere in the world and join projects that fit their skills. CIOs and CTOs that use these teams get a bespoke group, chosen for their talents, as well as their cultural and personality fit. That means they can seamlessly join the organisation’s existing team while bringing an injection of diversity of perspective and background.

IT leaders are fighting a talent war and losing. To fill their vacancies they must increase the diversity of their teams, which would bring the added bonus of improved performance. But increased diversity can only come if the sector can lose its intimidating image. That will take time. Meanwhile, CIOs and CTOs should consider private talent clouds as a way to fill gaps and diversify their teams.

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