IT managers in the finance sector are finding themselves trapped between the ongoing skills shortage and a squeeze on budgets as the credit crunch bites which means they are no longer able to recruit contractors to plug skills gaps. IT managers in other sectors may soon find themselves facing similar headaches. Here are seven suggestions for tackling the skills crunch.
Prioritise: "Look at the projects you are doing from a portfolio management perspective," advises Iain Davidson, a director with business change consultancy Quortex. "Get close to the people in the business who are the source of the projects and work with them to understand how critical each project is and which ones you can stop working on."
Spend to save: Invest in improvements to your operations that will cut your workload. If you can identify and eliminate tasks that do not add value or which can be simplified, you will give your existing team more time to use the scarce skills you hired them for.
That is the approach adopted by Principality Building Society, the tenth largest Building Society in the UK. "We had lots of routine tasks that took 15 minutes each 10 times a week, and required fairly high-level access privileges and some systems knowledge," explains Marc Jones, Principality's IT infrastructure support manager. "Using NetIQ's Aegis, we have been able to automate those so that they can be handled by first-line support staff, freeing second and third-line support staff for more valuable work that makes better use of their skills."
Shift the focus of your team to upfront business analysis: The later in the development lifecycle you have to fix an issue, the more time-consuming and costly it becomes. More time spent on understanding what you are trying to do, creating a robust design and ensuring you have come up with the best technical approach will reduce work downstream, Davidson points out. "As well as requiring less development effort fixing issues, you will reduce the risk of scope creep and have a basis on which to choose tools and technologies that will help save development and support effort later," he says.
Improve team performance: Many IT departments are still "stovepiped", with each team concentrating on just one area of IT operations in isolation from the others. Improving the way these different specialists work together can have a significant impact on overall workloads and skill requirements.
When it comes to development and implementation, Davidson says you need to involve the right people at the right time - and that usually means much earlier in the project than traditionally was the case. For example, get the operational staff who will be asked to manage the production system involved at the analysis, design and technology selection stage to ensure the solution can be supported cost effectively.
On the production side, Principality is demonstrating how you can turn specialist support staff into generalists who can deal with any of the several different types of technology in use at the Society. Using Aegis, it has automated support tasks so that technicians who understand how to carry out tasks on one platform can perform the same tasks on other technologies without needing to have detailed knowledge of how those other platforms manage the tasks. "As a result, staff can be more easily cross-skilled on other technologies, and we can now have everyone covering everything," says Jones.
Develop a talent management strategy and the tools to support it: "A booming economic environment allowed managers to use contractors to plug skill gaps that came from poor planning, but the credit crunch has taken that flexibility away," says David Helme, business development manager at HR systems consultancy Epi-Use. "A talent management strategy allows you to understand what roles and skills are needed to satisfy the demands of the business, allocate your existing staff to those roles, and identify gaps and ways of filling them."
The trouble is, he admits, many managers do not have easy access to information about their current staff to be able to plan effectively. He says you need to open up a dialogue with HR to find ways they can push the data they hold on staff skill profiles, appraisals and training plans out to managers in IT.
Manage training better: If you cannot recruit or buy in skills, you need to train existing staff - but training often takes a back seat to hitting deadlines for current projects. Helme suggests making it easier for staff to access training by offering e-learning in the office and at home, as well as access to traditional classroom-based courses. He also advises putting systems in place that allow you to develop training plans for each member of staff, monitor that they have received the prescribed training, and reward staff for investing their own time in training in skills you need.
Improve individual performance: Ramping up on technical skills is just one half of the equation. The way your IT team behave towards their colleagues may be slowing you down and wasting time and effort. For instance, we all know people who hoard their knowledge because they believe knowledge is power, or who constantly spring surprises on colleagues because they are not very good at documenting and communicating what they are doing. "You need to focus more on behaviour-based management and brush up your own coaching skills to help staff deal with unproductive behaviours," Davidson says.
He admits that this is not a quick fix - you need to identify and describe unproductive behaviours so team members know what is expected of them, and reward people for behaving appropriately in the same way you reward them for hitting targets. "It also needs to be lived from the top and embedded throughout the organisation," he warns. "It is not going to work, for instance, if managers regularly come out of meetings and immediately go back on what was just agreed."