[QQ]An IT skills crisis is nothing new, but this time it's serious.[QQ]y? You are not alone, for the apparent absence of able bodies is being suffered industry-wide. But, as Richard Young discovers, recruitment is not the only recourse - you should be looking to train and retain the talent within to maximise your company's potential. Along with the ever-present demand for 'nuts-and-bolts' expertise, the surge in demand for staff needed to respond to the twin challenges of millennium and EMU compliance is generating unprecedented heat in the system. Wentworth Research calculates that, as the number of vacancies for skilled IT jobs rose by a third last year, the industry is now short of 30,000 bodies.[QQ] But retaining, recruiting and even generating skilled staff from within the company need not be a lottery. The odds can be weighted in your favour if you pay attention to the 'Three Rs' - retention, recruitment and retraining.[QQ] Of these, the latter is perhaps the most important as, by training staff you stand a better chance of retaining them and thereby slow the recruitment roundabout. What's more, if there's a shortfall in skills, retraining existing staff can be a viable alternative to the time-consuming and expensive process of recruiting experts externally.[QQ] But are companies alive to the merits of training when it comes to bridging the skills gap? Business Computer World commissioned Spikes Cavell to ask both business and IT managers about the state of IT training within their companies. The results indicate that training is indeed a much misunderstood and under-funded resource.[QQ] Fulfil your potential with training[QQ] As is so often the case, Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon observes the realities of the business world with uncanny accuracy. Dogbert - a consultant, naturally enough - is warning the pointy-haired boss about the dire financial situation at his company. The boss's answer to these woes is unequivocal: 'Cut the training budget again.'[QQ] The point of the cartoon - and a general rule in business - is that, in times of trouble, it's those areas which impact on your long-term survival that suffer first in the face of the debt collectors. Cut the training budgets, kill off R&D and freeze pay. All these measures are likely to damage the long-term survivability of a company; but it is training which draws the short straw, generally receiving the least attention in the first place and often the prime candidate for the axe when trouble strikes.[QQ] This is short-sighted in the extreme. Training makes better employees, creates an enhanced impression of the firm to outsiders, and can make a significant difference to the overall efficiency of the company. And when it comes to IT, training is vital, as the modern business's reliance on computer systems means that both end users and IT staff need to be well-versed in the workings of their technology.[QQ] But it is the complexity of these systems and the technophobia of many employees that makes IT one of the hardest areas to train. At a time when managers are stressing the need for return on investment in IT kit, well-trained personnel ought to be top priority. And many licences for sophisticated software packages are being wasted because staff, as a result of inadequate training, either misuse the system or use just a fraction of its features.[QQ] Who runs the classroom?[QQ] It seems appropriate to start with the good news: nearly 9-out-of-10 respondents to our survey claim that their companies get good return on investment from IT training. The bad news is that much of this response probably comes from gut feeling rather than calculation, since surprisingly few of the general business or IT departments we investigated has their own IT training budget.[QQ] In fact, only 31 per cent of business units say that their IT training budget originates from within the IT department, and astonishingly only half of IT departments have a budget set aside for training their own people. The picture could be bleaker - at least there is money coming from somewhere. Also, it's encouraging that a quarter of the departments who claim they are without a training budget have a dedicated training department backing them up.[QQ] The key fact here is that IT departments tend to be out of the money loop when it comes to end-user training (only 17 per cent report that they are expected to pay for user training). On the one hand, this may be a good thing: IT budgets are hard-pressed anyway, and if a training or human resources department can take the cost, then so much the better.[QQ] But IT training is a very different beast to, say, sales training, where the basic principles remain the same year in, year out. Co-ordinating training on a new sales automation system or an upgrade of Lotus Notes is a time-critical and strategic task which probably requires more input from IT.[QQ] Budgetary control isn't everything, although it would seem sensible to incorporate training costs into the projections for new IT project roll-outs. The other key factor is which department is organising or undertaking the IT training. It is here that IT departments fare better, with three-quarters of firms allowing IT to organise their own training, but still only 42 per cent of companies letting IT in on the end-user training act.[QQ] So what is the effect of dissipating training administration away from IT, as most companies do?[QQ] In IT departments, the situation seems to be tolerable. Indeed, 70 per cent of business respondents reckon their IT department is trained to a high standard; interestingly, only 64 per cent of IT managers consider their own department to be so well trained.[QQ] Business respondents are also quite positive on their independence from IT departments when it comes to identifying training needs, with three-quarters claiming users should specify their own requirements. It's hardly surprising to discover that a third of IT managers disagree with that stance. Again, sophisticated products which may have cost the IT department huge amounts of money to install can be largely wasted if users are improperly trained and, without expert direction, it is unlikely that users will be able to identify particular requirements for those systems.[QQ] This problem is thrown into even sharper relief by the lack of knowledge that business managers have on the training their people undertake. A surprising 39 per cent do not even know how many days a year their staff spend training. IT managers seemed far more aware, with two-thirds reporting that their staff have up to 10 days a year, and one-fifth between 10 and 20 days. Obviously the need for training is more acute in technical departments, but business managers would do well to at least recognise that training should be taking place and keeping tabs on how much.[QQ] There is a consensus when it comes to assessing whether the levels of training are increasing or decreasing. The majority of both business and IT respondents claim that their training time has remained static or has increased in the past three years, and they expect the pattern to be repeated during the next three. A good time to buy shares in IT training companies?[QQ] Well, maybe: in every survey we conduct, such questions elicit a guarded response - after all, would you tell a total stranger, even anonymously, that your company intended to slash its training provision?[QQ] By far the biggest factor affecting the change in training for users remains the adoption of new technology; half the business managers cite this, along with 72 per cent of the IT respondents. Other factors did come into play (strategic direction of the company, productivity goals, changes in the business), although only the issue of changes in the recruitment market show any significant difference between the two sets of respondents, with IT twice as likely to cite it as a factor in training needs. Presumably this is symptomatic of the volatile nature of the IT job market.[QQ] What's being taught?[QQ] So where is all this training going? For end-users, the trend is towards training on standard application packages like Word and Powerpoint, with more than a third of business managers claiming that 50 per cent or more of training time goes on this type of software.[QQ] But this figure tails off dramatically for communications and management software and is almost negligible for bespoke applications. This suggests that the packages which have supposedly been designed with ease-of-use and user-friendliness in mind are the ones which require the most attention.[QQ] Equally notable is that a very high proportion of companies send end users, IT staff and their managers on training courses for IT - but director-level management are up to a third less likely to be IT trained. Many would argue that these people tend to be in more strategic roles that require less 'nuts-and-bolts' IT knowledge. But with IT systems now strategically placed at the heart of business operations - particularly the bespoke applications and enterprise-level systems - it is unfortunate and a little foolhardy that directors don't do more to develop their knowledge and experience of IT.[QQ] We also wanted to know what experiences companies have had with different types of training. The emergence of the Internet, intranets, multimedia tools and even sophisticated helpdesk systems has changed the way users and IT specialists learn about IT skills. And every company can cite software training which has gone terribly wrong due to the lack of retained knowledge.[QQ] In this respect, gaining IT expertise is no different from any other learning experience, and the age-old maxim still applies: 'I heard and I forgot; I saw and I remembered; I did and I understood.'[QQ] Three-quarters of companies use internal training facilities for end users - but only two-thirds use them for IT staff training. Indeed, while 9-out-of-10 companies send IT specialists outside the company for training, only 70 per cent do so for end-users, presumably due to the costs involved.[QQ] Meanwhile the new technologies that are allowing training at the desktop have made some impact, with roughly 50 per cent of firms using these systems for both IT and end-users.[QQ] This weighting for training location is reflected in managers' assessment of the different methods. Most business managers claim in-house is best, while an overwhelming number of IT managers prefer external sites for their own staff. And hardly any IT managers want their staff undergoing the relatively unsupervised desktop-based training.[QQ] How's it done?[QQ] And the methods? We asked about tutorials (popular with both IT and business managers); computer-based training (less popular with IT managers, surprisingly); audio-visual (which is less interactive and much less popular); on-line training (which seems to be anathema to business managers, although 11 per cent of IT managers said it was being used); and the least popular, correspondence courses.[QQ] In fact the levels of satisfaction with all these methods is surprisingly high. Correspondence courses score the lowest - no IT managers rated them above average - while online training proved to be widely disliked by business managers. This may be due to lack of experience, since the format is still relatively new, but it's almost certain that IT managers are much happier to have their staff dealing with technology rather than more responsive tutors for end users.[QQ] Overall, half the IT managers feel that training is best carried out by external agencies, while only a third of business managers agree. This suggests that IT people recognise that expertise is essential - particularly for training IT staff - while business managers prefer to keep their people close at hand. Two-thirds of both IT and business people want more training to be supplied by vendors, and this remains the key point: IT is special.[QQ] It requires a high level of skill to perform even menial tasks, and users and companies do have a right to expect more training as part of their purchase package. ERP vendors, for example, will rarely quote for a project without factoring in training programmes. And when this doesn't happen - many IT companies claim it is better to offer a choice on training - the IT department needs to be pitching for training budget from the word go.[QQ] Lessons from vendors[QQ] After discovering that standard packages are in fact one of the key areas for skills training in UK businesses, we decided to find out what Microsoft has to offer. The company has come in for a fair amount of stick for adding features and promising ease of use whilst in fact confusing users with new functionality at each upgrade.[QQ] Microsoft has traditionally opted out of offering an end-user training programme of its own. But recent moves to offer end-user certification for its standard office productivity applications represents a major step towards ensuring that companies can find and keep staff skilled at using the most ubiquitous software in the world.[QQ] 'We asked what we could do to bridge the skills gap,' says Debbie Walsh, skills development manager at Microsoft, 'and one of the answers we got back was that vendors should be providing more training.' Since there had been virtually no training from Microsoft at all, the company could only improve on the situation.[QQ] 'When we introduced NT and technical certification, we concentrated purely on technical training - end users could still go into the market for training,' says Walsh. 'Over the last year, our customers have demanded the end-user side as well.' It may appear that this demand flies in the face of the 'making it easier' motto that the company once had but, facing such demand, the Microsoft Office User Specialist programme was launched in October.[QQ] But the company still doesn't undertake any end-user training itself.[QQ] 'We see it as the 1990's equivalent of the Pitman typing test,' says Walsh, underlining the fact that the company merely sets the standard rather than undertaking the actual legwork. Indeed, the central philosophy of the Microsoft model is that any user, once they are familiar with the Windows interface, should be able to use other Windows apps straight away.[QQ] 'The difference,' Walsh points out, 'is how much of the functionality is being used. Even an experienced Office user like me doesn't use all the functionality. Training is very important to get the most out of a product. When you use the product better you get greater productivity out of the person using it.'[QQ] This raises questions about the method of training. Classrooms are all very well, but for most productivity applications, on-the-job training remains more productive. Help systems are all very well, and walkthroughs and wizards can teach users what to do in certain situations. But even Walsh admits that she hasn't yet taken the walkthrough that comes with Internet Explorer 4.0 (it's over eight weeks since she installed it), and any user familiar with Office 97 will tell you the first problem is killing off the intensely annoying Office Assistant 'helper'.[QQ] 'I haven't taken the IE 4.0 walkthrough, and maybe I'll end up asking someone else about it,' says Walsh. 'The best way to learn about a product is conversation.' In other words, getting a colleague to show you how it's done.[QQ] But Microsoft has spent the last few years heaving itself away from the desktop and is now totally committed to being an enterprise software company.[QQ] This changes both the way it certifies professionals - there are now many more IT workers who need a good working knowledge of, say, NT to keep their companies running, and need to be able to prove that knowledge - and the way it expects people to be trained.[QQ] 'When we first launched the ATEC (Authorised Technical Education Centres) programme four years ago, all we did was classroom-based training,' says Walsh. Third-party ATECs train IT staff towards the Microsoft Certified Professional qualifications, just as many of them do for other products from companies like Novell and Lotus. 'But, as customer requirements have changed, we've started to offer self-study kits and projects such as the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI). I believe online training needs to be combined with other things as well, including classroom,' asserts Walsh.[QQ] This blend approach is typical of most training systems. An 'open learning' framework works well because it allows each company or individual to tailor their course to their own strengths or needs. Walsh is keen to emphasise one other point. 'Certification programmes need to be simple enough to be understood by the industry. We have a broad base of products and we need to clarify, to go back to basics on what we're certifying people for. We need to make sure we're working with other organisations in the industry to ensure there are skilled people coming into IT.'[QQ] Online courses[QQ] Blending different approaches to training is nothing new. What has emerged in recent years is a greater emphasis on computer-based and Internet-delivered training modules. Ideal for a fast-moving industry, these formats allow much quicker delivery of courses and often mean that key personnel don't need to take too much time out of the office to brush up their skills.[QQ] One of the pioneers in Internet and intranet-based learning systems has been NETG (www.netg.com), an international training company founded 25 years ago. Although it provides a huge array of modules for many applications, the real skill, claims technology manager Jon Butriss, lies in its software.[QQ] 'Our real expertise comes out in the design of the engine (to run the modules over the network) and the tools to manage the courseware,' he says.[QQ] For example, companies keen to ensure staff are up to date on SAP R/3 modules can simply download the one they want - say, purchasing - and use the NETG system to run the course at their desks. Assessment tests determine the proficiency of the user, then the course runs though diagrams and instructions on how to operate the system. 'The system offers great flexibility for training,' says Butriss, 'which means even bespoke systems can be catered for.'[QQ] There are many other players in the market for this type of training and, in terms of delivering focused and immediate solutions to technical problems, the computer-based, interactive, networked modules seem to work very well - as evidenced by the positive reaction from the managers in our survey.[QQ] Back to the blackboard[QQ] However, traditional, classroom-based, training still has a major role to play - particularly as more companies seek to emulate Novell's certification system. 'Manufacturers' certificates really do open up doors for the individuals who have the qualification,' says Martin Jones, marketing director at tutorial-based training firm TECH Connect (www.tech-connect.com). 'And it can be a big reassurance to organisations that their support people meet a standard.'[QQ] The danger for firms thinking of sending staff on certification programmes is that they will take advantage of the skills shortage and find more lucrative jobs elsewhere on completing the course. But Jones thinks changes in the market have allowed corporates to tailor their training, which not only forces 'students' to address skills specific to the needs of their employer, but also stops them walking away with a marketable qualification.[QQ] This independence from rigid training programmes set by manufacturers is a real strength for companies like TECH. 'Our growth is dependent on the quality of the training we provide, rather than the stamp of approval from an external body,' says Jones. But with companies like NETG and CBT Systems (www.cbt sys.com) snapping at the heels of the classroom-based trainers, what does Jones think the future holds for his tutorials?[QQ] 'We like classes of 8 to 10 people, because you get interaction ... you then benefit from the other individuals in the class with their range of experience, and the practical exercises can be more constructive,' he says. 'Human interaction and the fact that you can assimilate more information than by just sitting in front of a screen makes classroom training highly competitive with the computer-based systems. It's horses for courses.'[QQ] Perhaps the biggest problem facing IT managers is how to select modules, courses, training companies and training methods to suit their people.[QQ] You can find a list of companies and courses in our training diary on page 90, but that only scratches the surface. In this respect, Jones is absolutely right: it's not just a question of having the right training blend for your company, it has to be right for the individual - the right course for each horse. Only then can you use training to generate an increased return on your investment in IT, motivate staff and improve company performance.[QQ] [QQ] HANG ON TO WHAT YOU'VE GOT: INVENTIVE INCENTIVES FOR RETAINING SKILLED STAFF[QQ] IT staff have a history of being more loyal to their profession than to their current employer and of moving on to pastures new simply to further their careers. But turnover can be managed, albeit within limits. Pay and training, two of the traditional personnel management tools are one means of attack, but they are blunt instruments and neither will guarantee higher staff retention. So a more rounded package of incentives is needed. Broadly speaking, such packages have four components: pay, working conditions, personal support and training.[QQ] Training, both for existing staff and for new recruits, is an important factor in retaining skilled staff:[QQ] - No one wants to do boring, repetitive work. Conduct skills audits to identify those needed among permanent staff and the tasks that can be farmed out. Training, motivation and career development can then be directed accurately at those staff who must be retained.[QQ] - Keep thorough and up-to-date competency profiles on all IT staff and consider retraining them in scarce skills rather than spending time and money trying to hire rare breeds.[QQ] - Consider reskilling existing staff and look at staff elsewhere in the business.[QQ] - Create a long-term training programme for each staff member setting out targets, and the responsibilities of the employer for providing opportunities and resources and of the employee for self-development. This will prove your commitment to their development.[QQ] - Offer training in leading-edge technologies, but make sure you have projects that need these new skills. Providing your staff with skills that make them attractive to other employers is risky, but avoiding training only ensures that the ambitious will leave. The best way of preventing staff taking their newly acquired skills elsewhere is to continue to offer challenging work in an enjoyable environment.[QQ] - Assign each new recruit a mentor so you get a faster transfer of skills and knowledge. Award cash bonuses to staff for good mentoring performance.[QQ] - Encourage and, if necessary, provide financial support for staff participation in NVQs, business training and recognised programmes such as the British Computer Society's Professional Development Scheme (PDS).[QQ] - Collaborate with other local employers with similar skills and needs, and share the costs (of training). People are more likely to stay in the area and to move between sponsoring companies.[QQ] - Work towards the Training and Enterprise Council's Investors in People award, which is given to employers demonstrating business-focused and ongoing investment in the training and development needs of their staff.[QQ] - Offer free training to contract staff on whom you are particularly reliant.[QQ] - Clear out unwanted staff, not with compulsory redundancy, but by offering to fund courses on alternative lifestyles - for example, on running their own business. It's cheaper, and valuable existing staff will not regard those leaving as victims of an uncaring company.[QQ] - Hire more trainees and put them to work on specific projects such as the Year 2000. This will solve an immediate need and also give the employees a thorough grounding in past and present IT problems and systems. Promise them a more exciting role in the future with technical training. Define your commitment to them and honour it.[QQ] - Don't fight shy of taking on raw recruits and funding their future marketability - it often takes more time to fill a vacancy than to train a novice.[QQ] Finally, remember that those entering the IT workforce today are seeking a better balance between quality of life and career achievement. They are attracted to flexible working arrangements, desirable geographic locations, family-oriented programmes, and training and education that opens up career opportunities. Take these issues seriously and your success in retaining skilled IT staff will be well above average.[QQ] This extract was taken from IT Skills Crisis - Avoiding the Drama (by Lindsay Nicolle, a Wentworth research associate) produced as part of Wentworth's Opinions report series for the IT management programme. Contact: 01784 476291 or www.wentworth.co.uk.[QQ] [QQ] THE CASE FOR ON-THE-JOB TRAINING[QQ] One of the major problems in using training to overcome skills shortages is that, whichever system you use, the memory of those being trained comes into play. True, the computer-based systems can supply modules of courses just when the information is needed, but a proper 'on-the-job' training system is still required for spot training.[QQ] Enter case-based reasoning (CBR), the technology which is most often used in call centres and internal helpdesks to remedy problems as they happen. Using a database of solutions to common problems, CBR systems allow relatively unskilled operators to talk both end-users and technical staff through tricky situations and thereby train them to deal with them in the future. New problems, or those unique to an organisation's own environment, can be entered into the system, so it is then equipped to pass this knowledge on to the next generation of employees.[QQ] 'Training isn't CBR's primary function, but it is an inevitable consequence of using the product,' says Garry Brecht, director of professional services at Inference (www.inference.com), a market leader in CBR tools.[QQ] 'It certainly prevents the need for complex training in certain environments.'[QQ] Brecht has recently returned from Ireland where Inference was helping to update Gateway 2000's call centre. In a sense, CBR allows users to come to Gateway with problems and be trained how to solve them, although Brecht doesn't see CBR as a replacement for training.[QQ] 'It will allow an organisation to free up training resources to focus on things that are not fixable straight away,' he says. For example, using CBR with a knowledge pack related to Windows NT, a central helpdesk, or even IT staff using the system themselves can learn about and solve problems that they may be unable to handle with their previous experience. Even staff who have been trained on a product but find they haven't had to use a particular part of their knowledge for some time will find this kind of tool useful, either as a refresher or a way of walking them through a situation in a real-life environment.[QQ] The other key point is that staff learn to deal with products exclusively in their current environment, rather than being given a certificate of general understanding which actually helps them move elsewhere for more money. For the cynical IT director concerned about keeping systems up, staff on board, but experienced in handling their unique problems, CBR may be just the thing.
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