Staffing Digital Projects: Not as Straightforward as It Sounds

By Robert Half October 31, 2017 at 9:51am
Several months ago, when Robert Half Technology started reaching out to tech leaders and other IT hiring decision makers to learn how they approach staffing digital projects, we expected to conclude our research in short order. After all, what business isn’t working on a digital initiative these days?

To our surprise, however, we had to do a lot more digging to get the answers we were looking for. It turns out that the simple question we were asking — How do you staff a digital project? — wasn’t. In fact, many of the initial responses we received from IT hiring experts included an important question for us: “How do you define a ‘digital project’?”

We didn’t have a set definition. So, with input from several of the tech leaders we contacted, we came up with this:

A digital project is any product, service, campaign, program or other company initiative intended to help support or grow the business that is created with, enabled by, and published, distributed or otherwise made available to stakeholders and customers using digital technology.

Even with expert help it wasn’t easy to arrive at that definition. Digital projects are so diverse, and the “digital project” label can be applied to just about any business initiative that has a digital component. One thing most all digital projects have in common, though, is their core purpose: to provide a technology solution, simple or complex, to a problem that impedes business efficiency.

Highly valued: ‘fundamental’ tech skills and a willingness to learn

As businesses digitize and use technology more strategically for gaining a competitive advantage, they are looking to their IT teams to be close partners in helping them achieve their digital objectives. As we explain in our white paper, Staffing Digital Projects: Aligning the Right Resources for Success, today’s IT teams, by shepherding digital projects, are often tasked with removing bottlenecks or enabling new capabilities that enhance productivity and efficiency and promote growth and innovation.

A key challenge in successfully executing a digital initiative is finding technology professionals with the right combination of relevant skills to complement the digital project team. Findings of our Technology Benchmarking Survey, featured in our white paper, show that 77 percent of IT hiring decision makers in North America have a hard time finding candidates with up-to-date digital skills.

Top skill set areas most lacking on digital teams include web and user experience design (UX), data science and data analysis, and content creation and content marketing, according to the survey. And the top IT roles in highest demand for digital teams — and IT organizations — include:

  • Programming and systems analysis (31 percent)
  • Business analysis (28 percent)
  • Security (26 percent)
  • Project management (24 percent)
  • Data warehouse, data architecture, and business intelligence (20 percent)
  • Systems programming and systems administration (20 percent)

The technology leaders we interviewed work through the IT talent shortage by hiring people for their core in-house team who have what they consider “fundamental” technology skills. As an example, one chief technology officer said he looks for developers who have a solid foundation in programming instead of proficiency in a specific language.

Other important qualities today’s IT pros should possess, according to our research, include a willingness to learn, self-motivation and the ability be trained quickly. A project management expert told us that digital teams — and IT organizations, in general — need people who can “go beyond what they know, to innovate and be creative, and keep learning all the time.” He added, “I can tell you that those people are very hard to find.”

External resources keep projects on track, provide fresh perspective

Another strategy many technology executives employ when staffing digital teams is to tap external support. They do this to find skilled talent quickly, so they can keep projects moving forward. But they also look to outside resources, like IT consultants, to provide specialized skills that are needed only for the duration of the project.

What types of projects typically require support from external agencies? Web development tops the list, according to our Technology Benchmarking Survey, and was cited by 76 percent of respondents. Rounding out the top three are cloud hosting (55 percent) and mobile development (55 percent).

There are other benefits to engaging interim support for digital projects, aside from securing certain skills, the experts told us. The “objective eye and fresh perspective” that these professionals can bring to a project are among them, said one digital team manager.

Cross-functional collaboration drives digital project success

Another thing we learned as we explored how companies approach staffing digital teams is just how important cross-functional collaboration is to the success of most any digital initiative. Increasingly, digital teams include experts from many departments outside of IT, including marketing, creative services, human resources, finance and internal audit. And if extra bench strength is required for any digital project, businesses will often turn to outside agencies and vendors for support.

Input is often needed from a wide range of groups because digital projects can impact many people both inside and outside the organization, including customers. That’s a key reason why marketing often takes the lead in planning, executing and evaluating digital marketing initiatives, our Technology Benchmarking Survey found.

However, collaboration takes work, and creative and IT teams often struggle to get on the same page with their project vision and goals. One senior director of a service desk at an IT company noted that IT and creative professionals must often overcome the hurdle of not speaking the same “language.”

To learn what strategies IT teams are using to bridge the communication gap with Creative, read the Robert Half Technology white paper, "Staffing Digital Projects: Aligning the Right Resources for Success."

 

With so much pressure to collaborate effectively with colleagues across the business on digital projects, many tech pros are realizing they need to work on refining their soft skills. Their managers are likely sending them a similar message. In another recent Robert Half Technology survey, 28 percent of chief information officers said communication skills, including written, interpersonal and face-to-face, was a top area of improvement for today’s tech pros. And one-quarter of IT executives said those skills are necessary for career advancement in the technology field.

Leaders of digital teams need a ‘big picture’ view of the business

The technology executives and other IT hiring decision makers who contributed to our white paper were also in agreement that digital project success hinges on strong IT leadership.

To understand what skill sets might be needed, both technical and nontechnical, to get the job done requires technology leaders to take a “big picture” view of the business. If they don’t understand how the company can use technology to solve problems and generate revenue, they won’t be able to align the right resources for success, and help the business set an effective digital strategy.

But again, staffing a digital project isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. One digital team leader had this advice for tech leaders tasked with building a digital team and driving a digital initiative for their company: “What is the outcome you are working toward? What does that look like? Then, think about the skill sets you need to get there and develop the best product or experience for the customer.

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