Companies are in the midst of a major battle for digital talent. With top candidates in higher demand than ever before, CIOs must create strategies to retain their talent.

Experts recognise that training and development can be key to keeping existing employees happy, yet they also know that upskilling workers is easier said than done. Research from IDC and Salesforce suggests one in six UK workers have either low or no digital skills.

So how can digital leaders make sure their employees receive the skills they need? Four tech chiefs give us their best-practice tips for upskilling staff.

1. Develop technical and communication skills in tandem

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, says successfully upskilling technology workers is about focusing on two key things: the development of soft skills and the ability to ensure that employees keep their technical capabilities fresh.

“Sometimes in tech, we get pigeonholed into the areas that we’re most comfortable with,” she says. “So as CIOs, we need to help people open up their eyes to how new technologies can be applied and can coexist, and maybe even sometimes replace the ones we know. That’s about giving people the time to experiment and the time to try things out – so the training and the education component on the technology side is really important.”

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Stoddard says digital leaders must also ensure that their staff continually hone their communication skills. She says IT professionals must be able to communicate at different levels and must be provided with the opportunity to present to people.

“One of the things we’re working on right now within my organisation is trying to tell the story better. When you’re trying to sell an idea, or when you’re trying to communicate the value of a project, or the value of a technology change, you have different audiences within an organisation,” she says.

“So we’ve been focusing on how you tell a story to different audiences within the organisation, so that our people not only have the technology smarts, but they also have the communication skills to go with those capabilities.”

2. Find ways to create your strategy with your team

Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says upskilling starts with digital leaders thinking long and hard about the capabilities their team possesses now and where they’d like to go next.

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“And it’s not just technical skills – I think there’s a lot more to it than that,” he says. “So, what are the people skills you need? How do you get the team to gel and co-create on projects?”

Hoods says it’s far too easy for a CIO to go into a new organisation and rely on tried-and-trusted strategies they’ve used in previous roles. He takes a different approach and works to create the organisation’s business technology strategy along with the rest of the IT team.

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“Then there’s a bit of buy-in. And part of that is trying to get people to understand what the drivers are, what the weaknesses are, where you need to kind of beef some stuff up, where you need to change things, and what you can do to bring in outside expertise, or even get your people to go and develop some outside expertise,” says Hoods.

“So have a real focus on people – don’t say you’re going to focus on people and then do nothing about it. It’s easy to create sound bites, but you have to involve people. And that’s what we’ve done.”

3. Give every opportunity to those who are eager to learn

While senior managers play a crucial role in helping IT professionals to develop their careers, Dal Virdi, IT director at legal firm Shakespeare Martineau, says there also has to be a high level of receptiveness from the people in their teams.

“It’s about balancing incentives from a personal perspective for the individual – which is what they can get from it, how they can grow, and how they can learn – with what they can give back to the firm. You need to provide a pathway to what they can achieve as individuals and an awareness of some of the technologies that are coming on board, and how they will make a difference in the organisations they work for,” he says.

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Virdi says most good businesses will normally provide the time and resources to help people learn and develop, so long as they enjoy their work and are passionate about what they do. Within his own firm, he says there’s every opportunity for IT professionals to upskill, such as when the company started using new cloud-based technologies recently.

“Everybody was given the opportunity to learn about Nutanix and the new technologies that we’re bringing on board,” he says. “What we won’t do is drag them through the training. They’ve got to be self-starters. Everybody’s empowered, but they have to be motivated to want to get involved with the training and want to move forward in that way.”

4. Make sure your people can get their hands dirty

Mia Sorgi, director of digital product and experience at PepsiCo Europe, says business leaders need to recognise that the key to helping their digital professionals to upskill is an eagerness to learn – and that includes keeping up to date with technology trends.

“You don’t have to get a PhD in computer science, but you have to want to tinker – and I think you need to always have a user-based focus on how that could be useful,” she says.

Sorgi recognises that there’s an increasing focus in business on ensuring that people understand the strategic implications of their work. But she says practice is better than theory.

“I think studying digital strategy is a poor way to become a digital strategist. Making things, in addition to that, is probably a better way to do it. And you don’t need to spend years doing that, but you need to have been through the humbling experience of trying and failing to get there,” she says.

“Get your hands dirty. Learn how to make something. Understand trial and error, computational thinking, how that’s different and why things need to be ordered in a certain way. The good news is that none of it is beyond the stretch of the imagination, but you have to have the intellectual curiosity to do it – and that will give you confidence in digital.”