Dealing with employee stress is now a growth industry. Advice is available from all quarters about how to spot the signs of stress in the workforce. But in the rapidly-changing IT industry there may be one source of stress that is not yet being properly addressed: over-training.
Training is widely seen as an incentive for staff, reassuring them that their employer values them enough to keep their skills updated. This may be true for the majority of those working in IT, but what of the minority who feel under enormous pressure to attend training courses and see them not as career-enhancing but as a treadmill?
"People should feel they work for an organisation that supports them as human beings," comments Gary Homes, managing director of training firm Global Knowledge. "Workers who do not want skills upgraded should feel able to say no [as long as they can justify why] and feel their manager will support that decision, even if that support results in outplacement."
That may be fine in theory, but in practice resource management - especially of the labour force - is one of the biggest challenges for successful organisations.
Simon Mingay, vice-president of the Gartner Group and author of a recent paper entitled People: Strategies for Your Most Limited Resource, says managers should carefully balance the need for speed within a business against the need to retain intellectual capital. "Identifying whether someone has reached the limit of their capability to take new technologies or training on board is difficult and varies hugely from individual to individual," he comments. "Some people have a voracious ability to absorb and apply new information and there are many people in the IT industry with that ability. But for the less gifted, there is a point where learning new things requires application - they need to try things out. In fact, that reinforcement of the training is true for most people."
Although it is hard to generalise, Mingay believes there is a limit to what can be learned. "If an IT manager is sending a member of staff on IT courses covering very different areas more than three or four times a year, they are probably reaching the limits of that person's ability to apply what they are learning in any sensible way," he reckons. "There are some exceptions, but that would hold true for most people."
The fact that the IT industry is seen as so fast-moving - with individuals needing regular training in new products and areas - can disguise the difficulties some people may have in keeping up with the pace of change.
Training is seen almost universally as a major incentive for staff, and a benefit rather than as an overhead. Gartner puts training and career development at number five in its top 10 list of rewards and incentives for IT professionals. It says access to technology training is vital, but adds that IT professionals must also improve their business skills and behaviour competencies. As a benchmark, Gartner suggests that companies should be looking to spend roughly 5% of salary on an employee's training each year. This adds up to a fair bit of training, given the salaries on offer in much of the IT industry.
The usual objection to providing high levels of training for members of staff is that they end up being trained out of their existing jobs. That is a recurrent complaint from IT managers, who face demands for training from their staff, but know there are risks. As Mingay points out, "Sending people on training courses just because they want to know about the latest, greatest technology gives a short-term gain but long-term loss," he says. "When those individuals get back from the training, they expect to work on those areas. If that is not possible, their only choice is to move on."
Too much of a good thing
The answer is to send people on training courses only to meet business needs. David Bloxham, operations manager at IT recruitment firm GCS, agrees that too much training causes problems. "Managers can train people too much and make them more valuable in the market; they are actually training them to leave," he comments.
Another area in which too much training can cause problems is when managers do not fully understand the real motivation of IT staff and start sending their technical employees on more managerial or business-based courses, designed to push them up the managerial ladder. That is not something that everyone wants.
"We have programmers who feel they are being pushed into management roles," says Bloxham. "That can cause real problems. Managers should be careful and understand that programmers really like their job. They often do not want to be managers; they get paid well for what they do and they do not want to have to look after groups of people."
The answer here is to have a good appraisal structure in place that will ensure managers understand the real likes and capabilities of their IT teams. Otherwise, says Bloxham, managers are in great danger of alienating their most talented programming staff who, rather than be moved into managerial roles, will leave and become contractors.
Managing training requirements for IT staff in a way that avoids these various pitfalls can be difficult. Some companies have turned to technology for tools to help measure and monitor employees' progress and to try and ensure that the training they are providing meets the needs of their staff and the requirements of the business itself.
Citibank in Dublin is one such organisation. It employs about 1,500 staff, all of whom receive business and technical training on a regular basis. Colin Murphy, employee development specialist at Citibank, uses the Ingenium tool from Click2Learn to help him and his training team ensure the bank's staff are getting the right training at the right time.
"Using this system ensures that all the training is getting tracked," says Murphy. "At the end of each month or quarter, we can look at how many training days we have provided."
Business training within Citibank is primarily done via traditional, instructor-led training courses combined with Web-based technical training courses in software packages such as Microsoft Word and Excel. All training courses, whether provided online or by the team of in-house trainers, are tracked by the Ingenium software and this is very useful in ensuring staff, particularly new recruits, get the right training in the right order, says Murphy.
But he adds that the package alone cannot solve all training problems. "Like any other database, it is only as good as the information you give it," he comments.
This means it is important to get the right information about individual's job roles within the company and Murphy's department also has to work closely with business managers to ensure the right level of business training is provided. "If someone is a customer service rep, for instance, their training path is determined by business-led factors," says Murphy. "They tell us the core competencies they require and we build the training plan."
Regular assessments of training courses are carried out and this would often provide the first inkling that someone was unhappy with their training, points out Murphy. "The first port of call for anyone who is unhappy would be the trainer. After that, if it needs to be escalated, they would talk to their line manager or to the training manager."
Murphy says it is relatively rare for Citibank employees to have to go through this process. "We try to address those issues from the start of the hiring and screening process and give people time to learn and understand what the business is about, so rather than just doing four weeks of theory, we build in time where they can also learn on the job."
Tools of the trade
Murphy has used Ingenium for several years, both at Citibank and at his previous firm, Intel, but other European companies have proved somewhat slower in appreciating the way in which such tools can help match up training needs to individual's needs, thus helping to avoid some of the pitfalls of over-training.
Lindsay Mann, Ingenium project manager at Click2Learn, acknowledges that companies in the US have been quicker to take up this approach. "Europe is a bit further behind, but it is now catching up," she comments.
Mann says there are several different reasons for the present interest in learning management tools like Ingenium, including the greater use of online learning courses, where managers need to keep track of what their employees are doing. "They need to ensure people are actually taking the courses and they want to track the scores and so on," she points out. "Another big driver is the idea of providing personal career development for employees."
Companies that use software are at least showing their staff they are committed to providing training and meeting career development needs, argues Mann.
London-based Internet consultancy Proteus is one organisation that has gone to a great deal of effort to ensure it is meeting the training needs of its staff and its business. That can be very complex, mainly because the company works on a project-by-project basis for its customers, points out Proteus HR manager Andria Saxelby. "Because we are very project-based, we can provide training for staff quickly when necessary, but that can put a strain on staff, so we have developed a skills matrix," she says.
This is a framework of 10 core competencies expected by the business, which enables people to look at their own skills and map out development over a longer period of time than simply the next project on which they will be working. "Everyone has quarterly appraisals where we can map out their objectives," says Saxelby. "These may be technical goals, but they can also be more personal goals. My part in the process is to put realistic timeframes on people's objectives."
With a relatively young workforce in a new industry, it is not surprising that Saxelby has not yet come across the problem of people feeling over-pressured into training courses. "People are fired up and hungry to learn," she comments. Being eager to learn has been a hallmark of IT staff in general, but it still pays managers to take a careful look at who they are sending on training courses and ensure that there are not too many round pegs in square holes.
Five sure signs of employee stress
This was first published in January 2001