Beat a path through the IT skills jungle

Can a skills framework add clarity to the challenge of managing the constantly changing skills required for IT roles? Bill Goodwin reports on the experiences of two very different organisations

In the project-driven culture of IT, skills are all. But finding the right person with the right set for the task at hand can be even more difficult when you do not know exactly what skills your staff have - or indeed what skills the business needs to take it in the direction it wants to go. Add to that the constant skills drain created by heavy staff churn, and many IT departments are locked into a hand-to-mouth reactive approach to meeting the business's demands.

A skills framework offers a way out and a way forward. It can engage with staff by offering them a transparent training ladder, while giving IT directors a better understanding of the IT roles and skills in the department. It can also paint a clear picture of the skills portfolio needed by IT if it is to match the direction of the business.

Case study: BAE Systems

Defence and aerospace company BAE Systems is the latest of a small but growing number of companies to deploy an industry-standard skills framework to manage the skills and training of its IT workforce. It is using the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) to help navigate the confusing array of job titles used across IT, by identifying the underlying information skills of each employee.

For BAE, the framework is key to improving the way it manages and develops the capabilities of its IT staff, following a major internal reorganisation.

But although the framework is simple in theory, BAE's managers have found it challenging to implement at the same time as juggling other major change programmes in the organisation.

The catalyst for adopting the framework was the decision by BAE to outsource its IT in a multi-supplier contract last year. The project led to the creation of a new, retained in-house IT operation of 450 staff.

Feedback from staff surveys showed that the department's morale had suffered following the reorganisation. Many IT staff felt that training and staff development had taken a back seat, says Chris Coupland, director of IT and e-business.

At the same time, BAE realised that the job roles and skills needed by its in-house IT operations had changed significantly.

"We have changed quite a lot about what we think we should be doing as an internal IT organisation, supporting internal IT in the context of the outsourcing arrangement. And that means there are new areas in terms of business requirements, strategy and architecture, and to some extent commercial skills," Coupland says.

Rather than use the standard SFIA framework, BAE decided to add behavioural competencies to the usual technical competencies in the framework. This was not difficult - it simply meant importing concepts that were already used in other parts of BAE.

Coupland decided to give each IT director the responsibility of rolling out the framework to their own team. Under the plan, every IT professional is expected to map out their skills in the framework, in relation to a standard job definition. These in turn are passed to IT managers for validation.

The process, Coupland believes, will help BAE identify what strengths it has on its IT team, and where there are any gaps. It will also help BAE manage its outsourcing deals better.

"It will help us regain the ability to be an intelligent customer, or at least an increasingly intelligent customer dealing in an increasingly multi- supplier environment and the complexity that goes with that," he says.

SFIA will also give BAE a common language it can use with its IT suppliers, to help them define what specialists are needed for what projects.

"Having the language and the debate has put this whole topic much more firmly on the agenda than it would have done if it had just been a talking shop about what we need to do on skills," Coupland says.

BAE has invested in software from Infobasis to manage the role descriptions of each IT professional, and to provide a standard template to manage the skills of its employees. The main challenge, Coupland says, is that managers need to invest time and effort to make it work.

"The real investment is the time you spend as an IT director with your staff. There could be anywhere between five and 30 people in your business. You need to work through their assessments of their skills, your gap assessment for the role they are in, and indeed, defining the role," he says.

But implementing the skills framework has not been plain sailing. IT managers have simply had too many other issues to contend with to meet the deadlines.

"We set ourselves a target of 2006 to deploy SFIA to the majority of staff. And we are short of that because of other business pressures. We are looking to rectify that in the first half of this year," Coupland says.

"It is not difficult. It just requires some management thinking, and in an operational business, going backwards and forwards with lots of things happening, the trick is to force yourself out, and to have a bit of thinking time to do it."

There are difficulties in calculating a return on investment figure for implementing SFIA, but Coupland argues that the business has no option but to implement it.

"As an executive you need to take those things seriously," he says. "You need to look after your people and you need an attractive place to work, where you can develop people. Whether you use SFIA or something else is your choice."

Case study: Cornwall council

North Cornwall District Council was one of the first local authorities to adopt SFIA. The framework is now being rolled out across local and central government.

The council's ICT business manager, Russell Cosway, introduced the framework to help the IT department complete the local government fair pay and grading review. This major exercise requires each member of staff to have an up-to-date job description, and to complete a detailed job evaluation questionnaire.

As a small council, with an IT department of only a dozen people, Cornwall's challenges were on a different scale to those faced by BAE. A potential hurdle was developing non- standard job descriptions that reflected the multiple roles that each member of the IT staff had to perform, says Cosway.

Cosway used the online SFIA Profiler service to implement SFIA. The service, provided by public-private training partnership E-skills UK, allows IT managers and staff to develop job and skills descriptions through standard web-hosted templates.

"I could see an easy, cost-effective way of implementing it without having to sit down and write job descriptions, which is always the problem with these things," Cosway says.

The biggest challenge was working out a set of job roles which reflected the wide range of activities carried out by the relatively small number of IT staff at the council. "The profile did give us 20 or so prefabricated job roles, but they did not fit. They were just not big enough," he says.

So Cosway spent 20 to 30 hours working on extending the job role descriptions, largely working at home outside normal office hours. "Apart from the time, it is the difficulty of understanding the crossover between the different skills - for example, the management of development and development itself.

"There are people on my team who are developers and also manage two or three developers. I did not know whether to give them both skills, or one skill. In the end, you can have management at this level, and development at that level," Cosway says.

Once the job roles had been described, the IT team were able to assess their skill levels against the list of competencies in each job role. Cosway worked with them to ensure each member of staff's assessment truly reflected their capabilities. He also helped them to identify areas they wanted to develop, and to factor that into a staff development programme.

Implementing the framework has had tangible benefits for the IT department. Most immediately, it helped the IT department complete the fair pay and grading review smoothly - a major exercise that consumed much of the council's time last year.

"The SFIA profile gave us a consistent baseline, consistent wording, consistent measures," Cosway says. "We were literally able to cut and paste to fill in the review questionnaire."

Equally importantly, the framework has provided the IT team with a clearer understanding of their skills, and how they fit in with the needs of the IT department and the council. As a result, IT staff are thinking much more about the business needs of the council, he says.

"People are now interested in the strategy of the business on the IT team. From the perspective of 'we think we can develop in this skill area' to 'we can provide the business with this because we can see where the business is going.' Previously we were probably not interested in the business because we were very task-oriented."

The framework is also helping IT staff identify gaps in their knowledge. Cosway enrolled in a training course on managing successful programmes, and other staff have identified training that could benefit their roles.

"The team as a whole needs to develop. It is no good developing everyone in one area. Fortunately, I have a team with their own personal areas of expertise which are diverse enough to fill all our needs. But we do have skills gaps, and a few of them are thinking of stepping into those areas," he says.

Six months on from rolling out SFIA, and having gone through a major period of organisational change during the fair pay and grading review, Cosway says it is still too early to measure the impact that SFIA has had on delivering IT projects. But he is confident it will make a difference.

"SFIA has refreshed the IT department. Everyone has a new job description. Everyone is very aware of the targets line management has given them, and what skills they need to fulfil. We have the capability to build performance measures, and we have a team who know where they stand," he says.

 

What is SFIA?

The Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) is designed to help organisations match the skills of their workforce to the needs of the business.

SFIA can help to identify gaps in the skills of IT departments, and to implement programmes to develop staff in the IT skills the business needs for the future.

Organisations that have deployed the framework claim it has significantly improved the efficiency of their IT departments, reduced staff turnover and motivated IT teams.

The framework was created five years ago by the British Computer Society, sector skills council E-Skills UK and the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Further developed over the years, SFIA is now in its third version.

 

How the framework works

The Skills Framework for the Information Age is tracked on a grid, with the columns representing the relevant skills for each job function arranged under categories ranging from development and implementation, to sales and marketing.

Personal skills could include factors such as the ability to work without supervision or being able to communicate well.

Business skills vary from role to role, but a systems developer, for instance, might be expected to have skills in business analysis, data analysis, systems design, database design and software development.

The rows represent levels of competence, ranging from the ability to follow instructions to the ability to set strategy, inspire and mobilise.

Managers can use the framework to assess the skills of their employees through interviews and discussions and to work out what further training or project work they need to progress to the next level.

 

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

 

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