Improving staff skills and offering training is crucial to motivation and retention but is often overlooked. Lindsay Nicolle examines how employers need to shake up their ideas before staff move on
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Staff development has never been the sexiest of responsibilities for IT managers. But it is an area you would be wise not to neglect during the downturn as experts agree investment will be useful when IT prosperity (and a fluid job market) returns.
Mechanisms for staff development range from:
Broadening IT skills knowledge within and outside the needs of current IT projects
Teaching so-called soft skills such as interpersonal, presentation and teamworking skills
Nurturing the work and whole life ambitions and aspirations of your employees, as identified in development reviews and informal chats.
In addition, helping staff to achieve a better work/life balance by, for example, implementing family-friendly policies, can create an atmosphere more conducive to successful overall development.
That may translate to allowing sabbaticals for career breaks, secondments overseas or to other areas of the business or academia, part-time working, temporary job swaps, or even funding voluntary work in IT where it helps the business' local community.
Count the cost
While some of these moves appear to be expensive, they could save you money by reducing office overheads and boosting the retention rates of valuable staff.
It seems that the answer to staff development is to do whatever it takes to help individuals reach their maximum potential in their particular jobs. Idealistic maybe, given current budgetary and headcount constraints, but this is the key to ensuring the IT department is ready to serve evolving global business needs when the economic upturn comes.
As Andrew Harvey-Price, research director of public/private sector training partnership E-skills UK, notes, "The development of our IT professional workforce is fundamental if the country is to meet the challenges of the digital economy, raise productivity and increase competitiveness."
But are IT bosses rising to that challenge? "No" is the emphatic answer from Peter Skyte, national secretary of the Information Technology Professionals Association (www.msf-itpa.org.uk), part of the UK's second largest trade union, Amicus.
"Our 12,000 IT professional members tell us that too much staff development is done on a just-in-time basis and is unimaginative. Plus the level and degree of training is pretty poor. Worse, IT professionals fare worst if they work for IT sector companies as opposed to IT-using firms."
This is despite the fact that the key asset of most organisations is people, not capital equipment - as recognised by the people management experts, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The CIPD is working on developing a toolkit to help managers in all types of employment to evaluate the contribution, talent and progression of their staff.
Meanwhile, it would help if employers had an accurate assessment of their staff's competencies. Conducting personal development reviews helps, but for busy IT managers a software tool that can run a skills audit, such as those from AdVal, Docent, Personic, Sciigo and SmartForce, or a web-based competence development and management system, such as Competence Online from IT training firm, Global Knowledge, might be the answer.
Competence Online creates wide-ranging staff development programmes covering areas such as soft skills, behavioural analysis, knowledge-based training and company-based certification.
Certainly, employers of IT staff appear to need such help rather desperately. Only one in seven IT professionals received any training in the last quarter of 2002, according to ITPA research. Furthermore, the skills taught only related to current IT deployments or projects.
Skyte argues that employers should not only train staff more but also plan ahead and teach them skills that will benefit the business - and the individual - in the future.
Training is an investment
"The best companies view training as an investment, not a cost," he says. "It is a fact of life that you will lose some people if you train them but you will also lose them if you don't - and it is cheaper to train than to hire.
"Companies that are not necessarily the best payers have good recruitment and retention rates because they invest in developing their staff."
In fact, investment in IT training is beginning to show signs of recovery, according to a survey of IT training sector profits and revenues by IT Skills Research. The most popular course run by Learning Tree International is Windows 2000, followed by Oracle, SQL Server, web management, Java, Visual Basic, project management, software engineering and networking.
But insufficient training is just one enemy of staff development. Staff can also be held back by too rigid, hierarchical job structures. It is up to employees to lobby against this.
Iain Smith, director of IT staffing consultancy Diaz Research, suggests re-engineering career structures so that they have clearer, more relevant and development-focused career benchmarks.
Chiefly, loosen the link between career benchmarks and pay, and dismantle the hierarchical job structures favoured by most organisations. "Progress" would then no longer be judged by where you are on the corporate ladder but by how much closer you feel you are to achieving your full potential.
This idea may be too radical for many but some kind of action may be needed soon. The morale of IT staff is among the lowest across a range of managers in key industry sectors analysed last November by recruitment group Reed.
Nearly six out of 10 say their trust in management has fallen during the past year, and motivation is also way down. Typically, the lack of a visible career path and poor line management are to blame.
Low spirits among workers are understandable given the many IT job cuts and cancelled projects of recent months as companies batten down their hatches to weather the economic storm.
However, managers have no such excuse. A stagnant jobs market means your employees are unlikely to leave for greener pastures. So now is the time to foster individual talents and implement career development plans of worth.
You may be reluctant to invest in new IT skills training because the future directions of IT and the business may be relatively uncertain. But there is a strong argument for spending money on honing staff skills in IT bread-and-butter areas that could save the business money whatever happens.
For example, skills in IT security, rapid development tools, structured methodologies and software auditing.
In addition, there is always a need for IT staff to improve their management, presentation and communications skills, and their understanding of the business.
The gap between business and IT has blurred in recent years, but there is still an us-and-them mentality in many organisations which does nothing for a company whose branding needs all its staff to sing from the same hymn sheet.
For those firms with very tight training budgets but a conscience about it, encouraging staff to broaden their skills by volunteering their IT services to the local community may be an attraction. The move can add value to the business as well as being a challenging and rewarding experience.
Clearly, employers could be doing much more to develop their IT workers than they are at present. Without action, when the good times return, IT assets will surely vote with their feet all over again.
Business in the Community (www.bitc.org.uk), a UK membership organisation founded to improve the commercial world's impact on society, has created checklists for action for employers keen to get involved in volunteering. See www.cci-resource.org.uk
Case study: Nottingham City Council
In recent years Nottingham City Council first moved to unitary status, then coped with Y2K, and then undertook a project to completely re-position its whole IT infrastructure around Unix/Oracle, decommissioning ageing ICL/Fujitsu VME systems. All in a weekend - well, not quite!
In the process, all the council's 100 IT staff have had to learn new skills. The high degree of change, a focus on staff development, and skills supplements on salaries have helped to keep staff motivated and committed to working for the council, says the head of IT, Paul Martin.
Before each change, Martin assessed his team's skills gaps against planned projects. But he also took account of those skills identified from staff development reviews as being attractive to individuals and of potential value to the business, even though they were not specifically related to current business needs.
Nurturing individuals' aspirations in this way can be of long-term benefit to a business since it can help to reduce staff churn. Martin then allocated a training fund.
Protect training budget
"The one budget we don't cut is our IT training budget," Martin says. "We try and keep that at the same level each year. It helps staff retention and morale."
He adds, "Formal training has been extremely useful, but I would guard against sheep-dipping people where everyone attends the same training course and some people use their new skills immediately while others have to wait weeks or months - that is not valuable. Even if it costs more, it is better to teach people skills they can use immediately."
Post-technical training, Martin has set up teams consisting of business and technical people to encourage a cross-over of knowledge and understanding of business operations. However, being a member is not compulsory. Staff are treated as individuals, and allowed to opt out if they want to.
Martin values mentoring and coaching of staff but advises careful management. "It is true that getting the most from your IT staff has never been more important, but what you must guard against is overloading them to the point at which they cannot cope.
Staff development means nurturing the abilities of each member of staff as far as they are able, and not stretching them beyond that."