No need to firefight on skills

A skills management framework can help retain staff and increase efficiency through a better understanding of the roles and skills in an IT department.


A skills management framework can help retain staff and increase efficiency through a better understanding of the roles and skills in an IT department.

Finding the right person for a particular job can be difficult in a project-driven environment like IT. Training people in the necessary skills is only one part of the puzzle; getting a clear picture of the skills portfolio that your IT department needs to match the direction of the business is another.

And if you do not keep on top of it all, you can end up constantly firefighting the skills gaps left by high staff turnover. For Angela Clements, head of information services at West Dunbartonshire Council, staff turnover was high because people felt that they had better career opportunities elsewhere.

Although Clements had contingency plans in place to minimise the problem, the IT department and its internal customers still suffered. "We have a helpdesk recording all the requests coming in and we had a backlog because there was a learning curve as we took someone else on and got them up to speed," she says.

A quick-fix solution to such problems in the IT industry has traditionally been to bring in contract workers to plug the gap, but Clements did not have the money to do this. Contractors can cost more than permanent staff and offer only a short-term solution to what, for many organisations, is an ongoing problem.

Instead, Clements used the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) to improve the situation. The SFIA is an IT skills framework put together by organisations including the British Computer Society and sector skills council E-Skills UK.

The SFIA is designed to enable managers to better align the skills of individuals within their IT departments to broad areas of work such as service delivery, strategy and planning, and development. The idea is to create a more structured definition of roles within IT, and the skills needed to fulfil them. IT managers can then use the framework to analyse the skills they have within the organisation and spot weak points.

Clements and her team used SFIAPlus, a framework that the BCS produced by marrying the SFIA with its own Industry Structure Model training and development standard. Using SFIAPlus, employees can manage and monitor their career development plans online and take it with them to different employers. It has drastically reduced staff turnover at West Dunbartonshire, meaning  the council no longer has to fight fires, but can instead concentrate on bolstering existing skills within the organisation, Clements says.

A critical part of Clements' repertoire is the Career Developer service, the online component of SFIAPlus that enables employees to monitor their skills development online. This database of skills was built using software from Infobasis, which specialises in skills management software.

According to Don Taylor, strategic alliances director at Infobasis, IT leaders should not underestimate the importance of feeding employee skills information into a structured database. It is the first step on the path to making smarter decisions about staff allocation.

"Let's say the Paris office phones up the London office asking someone to come and present some software to someone in France. They have to be an expert on the software, they have to speak fluent French and they have to have excellent presentational skills," Taylor says, arguing that it is unrealistic for this information to be kept in a manager's head or in a spreadsheet. "In an organisation of 400 people, you cannot know who that person is unless you have that information available to you," he says.

The other benefit of putting this information into a database and tying the whole thing together with a standard skills framework is that it can help you to manage your training more effectively, says Taylor.

This type of approach can help managers prepare their skills base to achieve long-term goals, says Richard Hordern, a managing consultant at training organisation QA. "Whatever your long-term strategy is, you have to be thinking about what skills you will need for the future. Then you have to assess yourself against those future skills and be developing those skills among your people," he says.

As an example, an organisation with a certain growth target in its business plan may plan on outsourcing certain IT functions in the future. Consequently, although third-party contract management may not be an appropriate skill now, two years down the line you may want to be prepared.

Third-party contract management is an example of a "softer" skill that will become increasingly important in the next few years, according to David Flint, research vice-president at analyst firm Gartner. He is convinced that detailed technical skills will become less important as IT departments attempt to engage with businesses at a more strategic level. As IT interacts more deeply with the business, he says, skills surrounding change management, teaming, organisational structure, incentives and corporate culture will take precedence over skills such as Java development and database administration. Some industry frameworks must bolster non-traditional roles to stay current, he warns.

"I have had some contact with the SFIA framework, and we are pushing to broaden that out to include a wider range of information professionals," says Flint, citing librarians and information officers as examples. "We need to take a broader view of these competencies."

Whether or not you focus on grooming employees with managerial or technical skills or both, training strategies must also evolve. Charles Jennings, global head of learning at information agency Reuters, has moved towards performance-related training as a new model within the company over the past three years. "We have been moving away from just providing a bespoke or generic training program to employees on a 'sheep dipping' or pick-and-mix model, and we are becoming more deterministic about it," he says.

Jennings identifies what he calls a "conspiracy of convenience" around conventional training models. Managers throw training courses at staff without properly analysing the necessary skill requirements. After the training occurs, the only metric is a reaction to the course - post-training performance is not a consideration. The manager feels that they did their job, the trainer says that they did their job, and the company does not benefit.

"They go into an immersive environment for a week, and quite a lot of what happens there is knowledge transfer and skills development. They come back and they lose the knowledge very quickly," says Jennings.

Although he continues to invest in training for staff, Jennings has also signed a contract with Skillsoft for access to its Books 24x7 resource - a searchable database of thousands of IT books. Having initially bought 1,250 access licences in late 2003, Jennings subsequently increased this to 4,000. The advantage is that employees learn specific skills related to a technology area while solving problems on the job, he says. This enables them to not only focus on the specific areas they need to learn to do the job, but also helps them to retain that information because they link it to real-world tasks.

Jennings also uses a skills framework within Reuters called the Global Role Framework, which defines every role in the company and categorises them into different families. Each employee is mapped on to a role, which helps managers to allocate job scope, key responsibilities and professional skills.

"If you are in one role and keen to get in to another, you can look on the database and decide what you need to close the gap to get in to the role you want," he says. Learning interventions are then linked to those role movements, a traditional classroom-based course, mentoring, or a job swap. Managers then monitor the employee's progress through traditional performance reviews.

The bottom line for IT departments wanting to manage employee competencies more effectively is to think in the long term. Tackling the issue strategically will enable you to build a more solid foundation of skills within your team, and avoid the short-term firefighting that can cause so many headaches. However, building the frameworks for those skills may require some customisation to suit your company's own particular personnel structure. Be prepared to invest some time and effort upfront for a payoff later on.

Case study: planning skills development in a disparate environment

The UK's E-Government Interoperability Framework (e-Gif) is an initiative designed to get the diverse array of incompatible governmental IT systems talking to each other. It is one of the foundations for the prime minister's vision of "joined-up government".

One of the biggest problems is keeping track of who has the relevant skills to design and implement the systems. e-Gif is the government's attempt to unify the vast, disparate base of IT systems across the public sector. One of the biggest IT revamps ever attempted, pulling it off requires a considerable amount of know-how.

"As organisations flatten and as IT skills become more specialist, managers' ability to define what skills people need is weakening," says Alan Bellinger, technical director for the e-Gif Accreditation Authority, a government unit set up by the Cabinet Office.

"In that environment, when people don't know what they don't know, the whole self-development approach is weak."

Bellinger's unit created a skills framework for e-Gif to help IT experts in local and central government understand gaps in their knowledge.

Software from Infobasis was used to provide an online management system for individuals to structure their own skills development.

The e-Gif Skills Tracker categorises e-Gif practitioners into three levels - basic, certified, and expert. As employees increase their skills level through a mixture of knowledge management systems and training, they can take internet-based exams to assess their abilities and increase the number of competency and experience points that they have on the system.

Different training company courses are mapped on to the Skills Tracker to help individuals and their managers plan their training strategies, Bellinger says.

"It creates a deliverable that if the performance plan and review takes a two- to three-hour meeting, this is probably a five-minute piece in the middle that gives some quality and depth," he says.

And for managers, it helps to reduce the exposure to risk among the 115 councils and most central government departments that are using it. The more that an organisation has gone down the e-Gif path, the better they can manage the ongoing interoperability of their systems, Bellinger says.

Understanding the capabilities of your staff is a key part of making that happen.

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