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Leadership / Workforce

Diversity and employee engagement are tech leaders’ greatest challenges

Diversity and employee engagement are the greatest challenges for CIOs and CTOs, Tech Monitor's Technology Leaders Agenda reveals.

People management issues including diversity, employee engagement, and talent recruitment and retention are the primary leadership challenges senior technology executives are facing in the wake of the pandemic, Tech Monitor’s Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 survey reveals.

Click the image to download your copy of the Technology Leaders Agenda 2021

In the global survey of 611 tech leaders, including CIOs, CTOs and chief digital and data officers, 61% of respondents place ‘improving diversity and inclusion within the technology function’ among their top two greatest leadership challenges, ahead of ‘keeping employees motivated and engaged’ (38%), ‘recruiting and retaining technology talent’ (32%), ‘securing executive buy-in for technology investment’ (31%), and ‘technology project delivery’ on just 15%.

A steering panel of technology leaders advising the project, which was sponsored by Hexware Technologies, agree that having teams which best represent the talent in the buoyant digital, data, and tech space is the best way for organisations to deliver on their transformation agendas.

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"Diversity is at the core of successful tech delivery," says Åshild Hanne Larsen, who was CIO at Equinor before taking up a new role as vice president of Subsurface Excellence and Digital at the Norwegian energy giant at the start of June 2021. "Technology creates the opportunity set – and is positioned to shape more and more of the ways in which we collaborate, work and even live our lives.

"But to succeed we depend on collaboration between people who have different backgrounds, ideas and perspectives – because how can we develop the best solutions if the teams that make them do not reflect the diverse needs of our users or even the demography in our societies? Finding new innovative ways of addressing challenges, new ways of working, new business opportunities and new technological advances – that all depends on our ability to innovate and think differently."

Norma Dove-Edwin, CIO at the National Grid ESO, agrees: “In order to have real empathy for the community that consume our products, it makes sense that the tech functions reflect and mirror the communities they're designing and coding for," she says.

Respondents indicate that the diversity of their teams is improving. Almost two-thirds (63%) say that their tech function has become diverse in the past 12 months, with just 7% answering the department was less diverse, and 30% that it had remained the same. Answers to this question varied significantly by region, however: an overwhelming 97% of respondents from APAC say that diversity has improved, and 69% of those based in EMEA, but only 21% of those in the US.

By now, technology leaders should have moved on from discussing why they need to improve diversity, inclusion and equity, argues Nadine Thomson, CTO of global media agency MediaCom, and taking action instead. “After years of talking, as influential organisational leaders we just need to get on with it,” she says. “The business case is proven. Team diversity is not rocket science; it simply takes sustained focus and effort on team culture, inclusion and recruitment.

"I'm proud that my team is 44% female and we're broadening our team diversity around race, age, sexuality and background," Thomson adds.

How are technology leaders improving diversity?

Organisations have adopted a broad range of initiatives to improve diversity, the survey reveals, with a focus on improving inclusion and departmental culture (50%) and apprenticeship schemes (48%) the two most commonly adopted measures.

Employee engagement in the tech function

Beyond diversity, the Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 shows that recruitment, retention and motivation are the next biggest challenges for CIOs and CTOs. Thomson describes the past 18 months as “the greatest leadership challenge of the decade”, adding that “a key capability technology leaders will need to nurture going forward is staff resilience”.

Paul Coby, CIO at FTSE 100 sustainable technologies company Johnson Matthey, says that after a challenging year where the technology function operate and continue to thrive, motivation was a key consideration. “Keeping engagement and motivation high is a priority within IT,” he explains. “In a time of unprecedented challenge, we have a strong sense in Johnson Matthey that many valuable and often emotional connections have been made over the last year and we need to maintain that.

“I often remarked in 2020 how we had grown to know and understand each other better – technology has never played such an essential role in our human connectivity.”

Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the UK government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says that it was always the case that recruitment, retention and engagement were the top priorities for tech leaders.

“But what’s made it more apparent over the last five years is the pace and volume of change,” he said. “The pandemic has certainly amplified this and forced us to think more creatively about creating unity, encouraging different ways of collaboration and making sure those that have joined but never seen an office or colleagues feel welcome and productive from day one.”

[Download your copy of the Technology Leaders Agenda 2021]

Edward Qualtrough

Special projects editor

Edward Qualtrough is special projects editor for Tech Monitor.