For IT directors juggling theever-complex problem of IT staffing, the coming year will be dominated by two key factors, warns Philip Virgo of the Institute for the Management of Information Systems.
These are, says Virgo, the continuing acute scarcity of industrial-strength e-commerce skills and the fact that the global economy is heading into recession once more.
What impact will these factors have on IT staffing and what can IT directors do to ensure their departments are in the best position to thrive in these conditions?
With e-skills in continuing short supply, and the e-economy revving up unrelentingly, the keyword, says Virgo, is training. Training is the only way to increase the overall supply of e-skills, and IT departments cannot afford to rely on "the market" to balance supply with demand. They must help to increase supply themselves. This means, says Virgo, putting hands in pockets and digging much deeper into training budgets (or even creating training budgets in the first place).
Budget, he says, "between £10,000 and £15,000 per head on external training costs."
This may sound grim, but this spend has to be very carefully targeted. To begin with, the staff that need to be trained - or taken on to be trained - are not the Java whizzkids. That is because for the coming year the key task for e-commerce is not the "suck it and see" experimental regime that has dominated so far. This year, e-systems have to get real.
"Companies now need high reliability, high performance Web sites rather than noddy ones that fall over," warns Virgo. "They will need to be able to match the throughput of EDI systems, which do transactions without losing them, and yet also do what people now expect of Web sites by way of good, clear design."
What companies will need for their e-teams will be mature staff who are used to the developmental disciplines such as structured programming and a respect for standards and interoperability - but who are then trained to apply these traditional skills to the Web environment.
"You need to start with those who have this ability and then cross train them in Web skills," says Virgo.
Training such people will not only cost money - it will take time.
"Over an l8 month project the odds that leading IT staff will spend 20 to 30 days off site doing training," says Virgo.
Some of the training may even have to take place overseas. "Some of the courses don't run in the UK, only the US," he warns.
Companies will also have to be resolute when it comes to ensuring that their expensively trained staff don't get wanderlust too soon.
"You'll have to be able to keep them in the face of ferocious head-hunting," Virgo warns. "Training them could quadruple their market value."
To that end he sees companies inevitably making training conditional upon something like a two-year lock in to achieve payback on investment. But companies should be realistic, and flexible, he urges.
"Their terms and conditions must be flexible," he says. "You'll be developing world class people and you won't necessarily need them all the time."
In their "time off" allow such staff to freelance their expensive and valuable skills elsewhere in the market.
Ironically, points out Virgo, there will be people that you may wish to encourage to be head hunted. These will be the "know it all" Web-wizards who may have thrived during the dotcom frenzy, but who, if they have not taken aboard the tough lesson that e-commerce must be industrial strength (and operating against a sound, financially resilient business model) will be, warns Virgo "a menace not an asset."
"If you've got them and they are bright enough to understand the need to design reliable systems, send them off to be trained," he recommends. "If not, use them as torpedoes - Silicon Valley speak for people given magnificent references and sent off to work for rival firms."
Training will also play a key role in mitigating the other problem IT departments will face this year - an economy heading for recession. IT directors will come under severe pressure to cut IT costs - and a lot of that will be headcount, says Virgo.
That being so, now is the time to establish a strategy to survive budget cuts while retaining good people so that you don't lose out completely on their valuable skills.
This can be done in two ways. One is to encourage staff likely to be axed to take career breaks during which they come off salary, but are kept "on ice" for when the recession eases. During the career break, on-going training can be a vital investment for ensuring such staff are at peak value for their return, both to themselves and to their employers.
The other way to survive head-count edicts is to encourage staff to go part-time, thus appeasing the finance department, but still keeping a line in on their skills. As Virgo points out, the training element could even be turned on its head.
"If you've got surplus people," says Virgo, "help them to move into teaching.
"The great thing is to get them off your head count on good terms."
Skills strategy: long-term view
Tim Gregory, IT director at BACS (Bank Automated Clearing Services) and chairman of Tif (Technical Infrastructure Forum) thinks that companies should take a longer term view of their IT recruitment and training policies. He said, "Companies tend to recruit for the next project or for their requirements over the next 12 months.
" I'd like to see some kind of legal imperative for companies, of say over a 1,000 employees, to have one or two IT trainees or apprentices at any one time. This would ensure that the IT industry is self-perpetuating and constantly refreshing itself. I'd like to see a scheme similar to the New Deal initiative but for the IT industry with tax breaks for the training of IT people.
"Blair has said that he would like the UK to boast a skills-based, knowledge economy - tax relief for IT training would one way of kick-starting that. Companies would be more inclined to recruit for the industry, for UK PLC rather than for their own short term needs."
Do you have any innovative ideas on training IT staff? If so, e-mail [email protected]