ITskills audit simplifies training and project plans, saving companies 'millions'

The national IT skills framework helps firms to make the most of existing skills

The national IT skills framework helps firms to make the most of existing skills.

Financial services company Norwich Union has saved millions of pounds on recruitment and training costs by adopting an industry-wide framework for assessing and managing the skills of its IT staff, it said last week.

It is one of a growing number rolling out the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), an initiative supported by IT's leading professional bodies. The SFIAis designed to help companies to match the skills of their workforce to the needs of the business. The framework, which has been under development for the past five years, aims to end the confusion that surrounds the way IT jobs and roles are defined.

More often than not, IT departments have only a partial picture of the IT skills at their disposal in the workforce. As a result:
  • Planning for future projects is difficult and staff may remain under-used for some time before they can be found suitable projects to work on

  • Companies tend to compensate for their lack of hard information by bringing in contractors with skills that may be already available in-house

  • It is harder for firms to plan their training needs, which can lead to money being wasted on inappropriate courses

  • Staff development can suffer when IT staff feel that they are not being sufficiently stretched or learning new skills - unhappy staff are more likely to leave.
Employers such as Fujitsu have tried to develop their own skills frameworks to address these problems internally. The SFIA, however, is an industry-wide attempt to make sure that all employers define their IT skills in a consistent way.

As more employers adopt the framework companies can be increasingly confident that the systems architect they hire from a rival firm will have the skill sets they require.

Rather than focusing on technical knowledge, such as C++, .net or Oracle database administrator skills, the framework aims to help companies to assess the underlying skills of their workforce.

Ron McLaren is the operations manager of the SFIA Foundation, a group set up this summer by the British Computer Society, E-Skills UK, the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers and the Institute for the Management of Information Systems to promote the framework. "The reason SFIA is successful is that it does not focus on job descriptions - it is skills-oriented. It is all about professional identity, what you are, and not what you happen to be doing this week," he said.

Experience has shown that line managers can use the framework to assess the skills of their staff through interviews and discussions and to work out what further training or project work they need to ensure their progress.

Norwich Union has used the scheme, for example, to redefine the way it rewards its employees. It can now promote IT staff who develop a broad range of skills, whereas previously staff came under pressure to specialise in one area.

"We tended to reward people in terms of expertise and personalities. There was a tendency for people to move up within the same specialisation. But the SFIA allowed us to reward people who have a breadth of skills, which is vital for us," said Gary Cannon, people development manager at Norwich Union life and pensions.

Rolling out the skills framework across an organisation requires time, effort and planning. Companies need to allow time to train their staff in how to use the framework and to map any existing frameworks to the SFIA.

McLaren recommends that a company employing 5,000 people based in the UK should allow a year. A company with 10,000 employees based in a number of countries would probably need two years.

"In every organisation there will be some stimulus to cause people to do this. Someone might be using it to straighten out their salary policy: they might have a problem with people leaving or it might be confusion about what people's jobs are or problems with skills development," he said.

Organisations that have taken up the framework say they have seen dramatic improvements. Norwich Union, for instance, said the framework has helped to cut its training cost by 20% by offering staff courses that better suit their needs and identifying project work that will help IT staff to develop their expertise. The SFIA has provided a complete audit of the company's IT skills and has allowed Cannon and his team to deploy staff more effectively, cutting by 98% the time staff spend waiting to be allocated to a project.

Norwich Union has also cut its reliance on contractors by identifying in-house staff with similar skills and training them to take over contractors' roles - in some cases the contractors themselves have provided the training.

High street retailer Woolworths has also used SFIA to streamline the structure of its IT department and reduce its dependence on contractors.

The Ministry of Defence is in the process of applying the SFIA to thousands of civilian and military IT staff. The MoD believes it will make it easier for managers to deploy staff where they are most needed, and easier for IT staff to pursue their career goals.

Interest in the framework has accelerated in the past year, according to McLaren. Hundreds of firms in the UK and a number of overseas organisations have downloaded copies of the framework from the SFIA website, and 2,000 have registered an interest.

The British Computer Society threw its weight behind the framework earlier this month, announcing that it would tailor its industry structure model, used by BCS members for professional development, to the SFIA.

A user group has also been formed that will provide advice to firms interested in taking up the SFIA: about 60 have already registered an interest in joining the group, which will allow members to offer feedback and share their experiences.

For more information or to download a free copy of the SFIA

How the SFIA works

The framework itself looks like a two-dimensional grid with columns that represent relevant skills for each job function, divided into categories ranging from development and implementation to strategy and planning or sales and marketing.

Personal skills could include factors such as the ability to work without supervision or to communicate well. Business skills vary from role to role but a systems developer, for instance, might be expected to have skills in varying degrees in business analysis, data analysis, systems design, database design and software development.

The rows on the grid represent seven levels of competence, where level one is the ability to follow instructions, ascending to seven, the ability to set strategy, inspire and mobilise.

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