Reverse mentoring: A unique approach to rejuvenating your IT culture

Aflac is pairing young apprentices with IT veterans to teach the vets new tech — and to breathe life into the insurer’s ability to deliver digital services in an agile way.

By Clint Boulton
June 7, 2017


CIOs often lament the IT talent shortage, and unless you’re able to lure young techies with stock options, perks and too-good-to-pass-up pay, you may find yourself leading a department stuck in its legacy ways. One solution is to train your veteran IT staff to evolve with the times by tapping a hidden teacher pool: millennial “digital natives.”

Aflac CIO Julia Davis has made great strides on this front by creating a reverse mentoring program that pairs veteran IT staff with “apprentices,” most of whom are recent college graduates. The initiative is enabling her 470 employees, whose average age numbers 48, to benefit from a corporate mind-meld intended to modernize and transform IT service delivery, Davis told CIO.com in a recent interview.

“We have to go through a cultural shift in what we’re doing with technology and changing the organization, moving IT away from order taker to being a consultative partner with the business,” Davis said.

It’s an issue many organizations are grappling with as an ever-increasing rate of change facilitates digital disruption across industries. CIOs are searching for employees skilled in the latest mobile, cloud, social and analytics tools, who can build, ship and maintain software using agile and devops methodologies. But such skillsets are in short supply at traditional enterprises whose IT workforces are long in legacy systems and short on digital capabilities.

Enter digitally-savvy millennials as mentors. This younger generation, now entering the workforce, is a great resource for educating more tenured staff members on the use of new technologies, Gartner analysts Lily Mok and Diane Berry wrote in a research note earlier this year.

“In return, younger staff can gain from senior staff knowledge and capabilities, such as business acumen, proper business protocol and more mature decision-making skills that come with time and experience,” the analysts wrote.

 

Ending the firefighting mentality

Both sides of the coin are on display at Aflac, located in Columbus, Ga., a far cry from tech-talent rich Silicon Valley. When Davis joined the company in 2013 she met veteran engineers working with 30-year-old mainframes and other legacy technologies. IT metrics included counting lines of code in each software release rather than benchmarking value against industry best practices. This made it hard to align IT with the business. “It was an a-ha moment for me,” Davis said.

Moreover, rather than use a wealth of software it had purchased to monitor alerts and track performance, the IT staff attempted manual fixes, leading to high failure rates. Davis vowed to jettison the “firefighter” mentality. “It’s about changing the nature of the culture to say, ‘I know you love being the hero but wouldn’t it be a lot easier if you didn’t have to get in there at 2 a.m. to fix a batch job that failed?’” Davis says.

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