Dow CIO: Digital transformation demands rethinking talent strategy

Melanie Kalmar discusses how Dow's digital transformation efforts have changed her team's IT talent strategy, including training, recruiting, and retention
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At Dow, we’ve been on a digital transformation journey for several years now, but over the past 18 months, we’ve had the opportunity to fast-track the use of digital capabilities across all of our business functions. We are well beyond the days when IT was leveraged primarily to drive productivity – we view IT as a core piece of the business and driver of value growth.

Earlier this year, we announced a $400 million investment to accelerate digital throughout the company.

We identified the key areas we know will improve the customer and employee experience while delivering the most value.

Collaborating with our businesses and operational groups, we identified the key areas we know will improve the customer and employee experience while delivering the most value. One area I’m excited about is material science innovation and product commercialization. How we interact with our customers and innovate has completely changed during the pandemic, with the help of digital capabilities. For instance, when big in-person trade shows were put on hold, we began leveraging online forums and hosting virtual events with hundreds of bench scientists at once instead of one-off meetings, enabling customers to watch the events whenever convenient for them.

From a manufacturing standpoint, we’re focused on implementing capabilities that improve the reliability, safety, and efficiency of our operations. Accelerating our digital capabilities in this area is also helping drive greater sustainability. And like many organizations, we remain focused on improving the moments that matter for our customers, investing in capabilities that create a more seamless e-commerce buying experience. In today’s world, that’s table stakes given the growing demand for digital commerce and the ability to make 24/7 buying decisions.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Our focus on growing digital has also given way to nimble processes and new ways of working within the IT organization. And that has led to changes in the talent we pursue and how we pursue them.

Expanded training for soft skills

When it comes to investing in digital, companies have many choices. There is a lot you could do, but you need to focus on what you should do. One thing is certain: You should invest in your people if you want to be successful with your digital transformation. This is not just about the technology, but using technology to change the way employees work.

My IT organization continually develops its tech skills with curricula on a variety of topics, including cloud computing, machine learning, and the entire data space from architecture to data storage and data visualization. We’re also refreshing our skills around threat identification, user experience design, and expanding our programming skills by learning different programming languages.

But IT organizations also need to grow their soft skills. This includes improving employees’ business acumen, so they understand how their company works and how it makes money. This not only helps organizations identify opportunities but connects them to how the tools being implemented help drive value.

Design thinking helps everyone get on the same page about the problem we’re trying to solve.

Breaking down silos, collaborating more outside of individual teams, and developing new cross-functional partnerships to open lines of communication are all critical in driving success and staying aligned on the priorities.

This has been a key focus area for everyone on my team as the expectations of IT have steadily shifted over the last few years. IT is no longer in the back room waiting to take orders. Everyone in IT needs to understand the business’s challenges and how to partner outside of the IT organization to identify the right solutions. 

To deepen this partnership, we’ve expanded our soft-skills curricula to encompass design thinking and agile methods. Across the company, not just in IT, we are working differently as we’ve moved away from the old hierarchical model toward getting the right people with the right skills together to solve challenges or address opportunities.

Design thinking helps everyone get on the same page about the problem we’re trying to solve. This concept seems simple, but it flips the old model of innovation on its head and ensures that IT is looking at problems from the users’ perspective in order to build experiences and solutions that are easy to use.

When we form project teams, we include people from IT as well as from the business. We use agile methods to involve the business owners, who participate hand-in-hand with the IT team to create the solutions that meet their needs. We’re continuously improving to get a minimal viable product and add to it over time, and we’re building custom solutions that help our company stay on the leading edge and ahead of the competition.

Recruitment and retention strategy

Now more than ever, there is fierce demand for technology talent. That requires a whole new level of focus by CIOs in talent retention and acquisition, including a review of finding the right people with the right skillsets for the future. With demand for talent high and skill needs evolving, this is not a quick process.

We hired former NASA robotics engineers to create custom-built mobile robots.

Rethinking your recruiting process is important. We’ve made a number of changes to our approach, including growing our recruitment reach through virtual forums. We’ve also updated our employee location strategy to help expand our candidate pool. While we haven’t quite moved to a “work wherever you want” policy, we have implemented a hybrid flexible model, and we’ve grown the number of hubs we have and the locations in which we’re recruiting our talent.

In addition to rethinking recruitment strategies, CIOs also need to look at the talent pool differently. There are certain roles that call for a specific level of technical expertise, while other positions require individuals who excel in soft skills, such as problem-solving or communication. CIOs need to be comfortable looking into new and different talent pools, given the evolving dynamics and demands of today’s manufacturing landscape.

For example, if you’re looking for someone to migrate your systems from on-premises to cloud, because it’s a system-wide update, you’d probably want a candidate who is deeply technical. However, project managers or user experience design folks could come from a completely different skill pool that’s outside of core technology. We’ve put this ideology into practice by hiring former NASA robotics engineers to create custom-built mobile robots to conduct remote inspections of potentially dangerous or difficult-to-access areas within our plants.

CIOs should also consider the talent already in place and challenge them with new opportunities. Because we’ve established digital teams within each of our business units, we’ve had marketing, sales, and R&D professionals get interested and excited about technology, and we’ve brought them into the IT organization by creating new “hybrid roles.” It’s fun to see people follow their passion and rewarding to nurture them along the way. If you aren’t opening the doors within your organization, you could miss out on the opportunity to tap into an engaged, enthusiastic pool of talent.

While the pandemic has been difficult for all businesses and individuals, it also presented Dow with an opportunity to accelerate our digital capabilities. Getting the right mix of tech and soft skills and rethinking our talent strategy have been critical over the last 18 months in setting us up for whatever the future may bring.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Melanie Kalmar
Melanie Kalmar is corporate vice president, chief information officer and chief digital officer for Dow. She drives the global strategy for information technology, digital capabilities, business process solutions and analytics to advance Dow’s growth and business strategies.

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