Feature

How to manage a globalised IT workforce

According to some, globalisation is a threat to a healthy UK job market.

Tabloids warn of the dangers of unmanaged workforce migration that is created by offshoring IT, call centres and other support functions. They also fear that this migration could damage the development of technical skills that have been so crucial to the UK's economy.

But for CIOs, the challenge is different. The profusion of software development skills in India, the Far East and eastern Europe has resulted in a dearth of IT professionals capable of managing remote and culturally diverse IT suppliers and partners.

Those fearful of the impact of globalisation can also find evidence in the UK's IT jobs market. From November 2005 to the same month in 2007, the number of job vacancies advertised for junior contract IT staff fell by nearly 10% as more basic programming jobs are transferred overseas, according to the Computer Weekly/SSL survey. In the same period there was a decline of 7% in the number of vacancies advertised by software houses in the UK.

But there are opportunities in the jobs market too. Tilly Travers, head of communications at E-Skills UK, the joint government and industry body for IT and ecommerce skills, says, "Globalisation, offshoring and competition have changed the face of the IT industry. We see that globalisation will also bring opportunities for the UK, it is not just about challenges. People often see offshoring as negative, but it allows UK businesses to be more competitive."

This is borne out by the overall jobs-market data. For example, the SSL research from November 2006 said demand for senior permanent posts rose by 12%, highlighting the growing need for businesses to hire experienced staff to plan, contract and manage outsourcing arrangements.

CIOs can create an environment where IT staff feel they are being prepared for globalisation, according to Elizabeth Sparrow, vice-president of external relations at the British Computer Society. "Globalisation is a major business trend, and not something that you can halt. The UK has a tremendous amount to offer, but we need to identify our competitive strengths and develop the skills for business."

Since 2004, Sparrow has headed a working group in the BCS to examine the impact of globalisation on the UK skills market and how business should respond.

Growing demand for relationship managers

Overall, specific demand for technical skills will fall, but with it will come an increased need to hire people who are technically knowledgeable, but are also experienced in managing relationships, both internal and external, she says.

CIOs should be building strategies in order to develop these skills, because it is difficult to find them in the market place, Sparrow says. "I think we are seeing a range of new skills needed that are not as well developed as you might think. There are requirements for managing relationships between different suppliers, identifying services most appropriate for outsourcing, and knowledge of different types of contract or commercial arrangements.

"Those are not well understood, and the profession is not developing those as quickly as might be anticipated. They are not widely available so that the businesses can recruit new people to do them."

Daryl Beck, director of IT excellence at Unilever's IT training academy, testifies to the scarcity of these key IT management skills. As already reported in this series, the global consumer products firm has re-aligned IT through outsourcing and partnering with a small number of key service and software providers. However, it must also develop the skills in-house to manage these relationships, he says.

"The skills to manage contracts and outsourcers are very scarce because this is simply a new thing globally. We have spent two years developing the capability for business partnering," Beck says.

The key skill to develop is the ability to mange relationships, Beck says. "If you do not have a relationship, it does not go anywhere." Those managing outsourcing or offshoring contracts must also understand how to manage the delivery against the contract, he says.

IT leaders looking to recruit in this area must also seek out softer skills, such as the ability to question and listen, as well as presentation skills, Beck says.

The shift in the jobs market is also demanding that IT professionals have a better understanding have of their own business. Unilever is developing specialities in identifying future opportunities through the application of new technologies, partly through partnering programmes between IT professionals and managers within business units.

However, these roles require new skills from IT professionals, Beck says.

"When we put together business partnering programmes, there are areas IT people need to develop. One is confidence - the old technology skills were acquired by introverted people, used to sitting in a room and do some coding."

Now, IT professionals must become used to being more outgoing and communicate ideas to other groups within their business, Beck says.

In software development too, communication and relationships skills are required by IT professionals to compete on the global stage. Few businesses are more globalised than Amadeus, a travel distribution and technology firm that boasts a presence in more than 200 countries around the world - more than the UN.

Soft skills for all

Denis Lacroix, director of development, sales and commerce platforms, said technical gurus still need softer skills. "We also work closely with the main software suppliers Oracle, HP, IBM, who provide the building blocks our software works on. The people that need to talk on the technical basis, those are our gurus. They talk to the suppliers on technical issues, but they are also representing Amadeus, so although they are nerds, we want them to give the suppliers a good image of Amadeus they have to be socially capable to speak on our behalf."

Amadeus's global nature means it has a self-consciously international approach to recruitment of its technology workforce. Its software development is led from offices in Nice, where English is the lingua franca and more than 40% of developers are from outside the country.

Corinne Pirinoli, Amadeus senior manager for communications and recruitment, says this requires a special approach to recruitment. "We look for the capability of people to integrate across international boundaries. We do a personality interview and look for things like respect and team spirit."

Although Amadeus has an international attitude embedded in its culture, globalisation still presents challenges as the firm begins to recruit from Japan and China, Lacroix says.

"Retention has been a problem [with this group] and it is not traditionally a problem in Amadeus at all. We thought the cultural gap would be quicker to overcome. We think because we can mix engineers from Spain and the US, then why not China, but it is different. It is difficult to talk about without being drawn by stereotypes.

"These engineers [from Japan and China] are very sharp, but you cannot manage them like you have managed people so far. They expect a lot more attention. You cannot give them a job and then speak to them a month later."

Although the software engineers from overseas were just as capable as using their initiative as western counterparts, they would still expect to have conversations with management almost daily, Lacroix says. "For the first-line managers this is a big challenge, but we have got to crack this one. It is a big areas for us.

"We give training to our people in what to expect when managing Asian engineers and we have found a company in France that can do that. We understand European and North American culture, but we have not been exposed to Asian culture in the same way."

As Chinese firms continue to flex their international ambition and western firms are striving to buy their way into new markets in the far east, it is not hard to see that firms succeeding in managing a workforce across this cultural divide will be the winners while the rest will trail in their wake.

Case study: Unilever

Unilever's global credentials are unquestionable. It is the world's largest consumer good manufacturer with a presence in 100 countries. Earlier in this series on globalisation we have seen how Unilever moved its IT strategy from an internal delivery to working with four key IT supplier: Microsoft, HP, SAP and BT. Oracle and IBM make up a second tier of partnership.

This shift has caused the multinational to take a new look at its IT skills. Neil Cameron, Unilever CIO, says, "We are moving from a 'deliver all' function to one with a far more strategic and proactive focus. We therefore now need to concentrate on those activities that add real value to the delivery of our business strategy and business targets. This will require a new IT structure with new skills and capabilities built around industry best practice."

The company's intranet-hosted IT career framework enables the 5,000-odd members of the IT community at Unilever to develop skills and capabilities that are based on a guide to best practice in the IT industry: the skills, training and development standard SFIAplus from the British Computer Society (BCS). SFIAplus contains the Skills Framework for the Information age (SFIA) model, plus detailed training and development resources.

The SFIA provides a model for the identification of the skills needed to develop effective information systems. It is a two-dimensional framework consisting of areas of work on one axis and levels of responsibility on the other, according to its developers, the BCS, government-backed E-skills UK, the Institution Of Engineering and Technology and government IT advisor IMIS.

The new skills framework is necessary because exploiting IT effectively is one of the company's key weapons in the race for competitive advantage, says the director of Unilever's IT Excellence academy, Daryl Beck.

"The Career Framework enables our people to identify the skills and capabilities that would be required for any future role they would like to pursue. The subsequent development programmes should raise their skills level and lead to external accreditation as well as internal assessment."

It was while looking at the skills and capabilities aligned to industry best practice that the academy came across the BCS's standard SFIAplus.

"The credibility of the BCS badge, that label of industry best practice, meant that the Career Framework was easily accepted," Daryl says.

Work on the Career Framework officially started in January 2006. A cross-regional team identified ten "role families" from the 78 skills held in SFIAplus. Role profiles were then created for each of the role families and aligned to a future IT function. These were created using BCS Skills Manager, a browser-based application.

Employees are now able to access the profiles and assess their own IT skills against those required for either a potential or current role. They can then enrol on to a relevant development programme to reach the required skill level as well as gaining appropriate external accreditation.

Daryl says, "It is all about enabling Unilever to gain competitive advantage through IT. For this we need to ensure that we have an IT function with the necessary IT skills and capabilities based on industry best practice. For the members of the IT team, it is about having the right qualifications, being professional and enabling the business to move forward."

Recruiting graduates across Europe: the experience of a global travel company

Amadeus is a global travel distribution company heavily reliant on technology. From its original market of airline ticket distribution, it is expanding into rail tickets, hotels and entertainment. It is also a supplier of software and services to the travel market.

Recruiting the right software developers is tough job, says Denis Lacroix, director of development, sales and commerce platforms. One approach is to send Amadeus staff back to the universities they graduated from.

"We have a policy to recruit top notch people: the best graduates across Europe," Lacroix says. "The problem is we are not the only company going after these people, so we try to get close to students at university. When an Irish graduate from Trinity College Dublin goes back and speaks highly of Amadeus, then that gets the pump going for more top graduates to come our way, because they naturally trust someone who has come up through the college."

Amadeus has development centres in the UK and Germany, but its development headquarters are in Nice. "Our international culture is a strong attraction to people from all over the place. The challenge in the UK is competition from the big financial institutions [on salary], so we switch emphasis and encourage people to check out the standard of living on the French Riviera - can you get to work in 10 minutes? Does the sun shine most of the year?"

Anyone stuck in traffic in a rainy British summer may see the appeal.


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This was first published in January 2008

 

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