Offering the right IT training to staff

My company has a good reputation for providing IT staffers with high levels of training. It is one reason why we are able to attract quality staff in...

My company has a good reputation for providing IT staffers with high levels of training. It is one reason why we are able to attract quality staff in a market short of skills. However, everyone wants to learn new Web skills like Java and XML, whereas we still need people to hone more tradition skill sets. My question is - can you offer advice on how to get the balance between offering training that caters for skills I need and skills they want?

The solution

Roger Marshall
IT director at the Corporation of London

Business before training

If there is such a mismatch between training wants and needs, I'm afraid your duty is clear. You must concentrate on what the business needs. After all, nothing is likely to encourage people to look for a new job than being trained and not being given work that uses those skills. This applies whether the skills are highly marketable or not.

Skills shortages always seem to be with us in IT, but the problems are concentrated in latest the techniques and products. If you are recruiting for more traditional skills, think yourself lucky. There are some excellent people who won't cost a fortune to employ or re-train. If you already have people with skills but who are pressing to be retrained, you should negotiate a gradual transition process, where they get the opportunity for training and work while supporting older systems. It would be bad for business and morale, if you had no plans to modernise.

Robin Bloor
ceo, Bloor Research

Send them to evening classes

Lucky man! You have a meaningful training budget. Even so, there is no point in training people in skills they are not using. Actually, it's a silly suggestion. If anyone who doesn't need training asks, suggest they sign up for evening classes. Spend the budget according to need.

David Taylor

It needs to be a cultural change

The skills needed and those wanted have to be the same and a balance achieved. I know more companies which will train people in skills not needed. These organisations make commitments to skill people with a new area annually. Be aware of two things:

  • You do not want to lose people, so put in cultural transformation

  • I would be surprised if you were not needing some of these skills. If you are not, you may have difficulty attracting the right talent. So train people beyond what they need and they will stay (providing the culture is tight). But at some stage, people will want to use these skills as well!

    John Eary
    NCC Group

    Employability is key

    While an opportunity for staff to develop new skills is laudable, training must relate to your company's needs. Clearly, your staff will want to learn new, highly employable, Web skills like Java and XML. You are not in business to provide free education that could be used by other companies. Of course, if you do not provide training, then staff will leave for an employer that does. Employability is key. If staff believe they are can maintain career prospects by staying, then you will have a greater chance of retaining them.

    Prepare a skills continuity plan. Decide on the skills your company needs now and in the near future. Consider outsourcing the maintenance and development of legacy systems. This is attractive if these skills will only be required in the short term. Your own people can then concentrate on the new skills required.

    Where new skills are only a small proportion of the requirements, allocate training on a fair and effective basis. Select candidates on suitability for new job roles. Bear in mind that training is considered a perk. For those not selected, take time to explain why and devise a career development path so that they can see opportunities for training and progression later. Make sure you maintain a dialogue, otherwise accusations of favouritism and consequent resentment will fester.

    Chris Hemingway
    Cranfield School of Management

    Balance of skills

    Getting the right balance of skills in an IT department is difficult, as the pressures must be balanced. As your question suggests, offering the latest skills will attract potential employees but risks reducing your capability to maintain existing systems. Unfortunately, many companies recruit in this way, giving the impression that new skills are in greater demand and more valued than traditional skills.

    With business managers taking ownership of e-commerce, there is the added pressure of making sure the IT function has cutting edge skills, even though the skills required for integrated e-business solutions will be a mix of new and old.

    With a reputation for training, you are in a good position and need to build on this. Your main challenge is to strike a balance between developing in-depth expertise and ensuring everyone gets experience of new technologies. Developing XML and Cobol gurus may lead to bad feeling and loss of staff. But sending everyone on an introductory XML course will not give you a useful capability.

    Before a balance is achieved, you need to have an understanding of existing and future requirements. Your staff also need an opportunity to develop awareness of what new technologies are available. One approach is to divide staff into teams and ask them to list the activities in the department, the technologies involved and skills required. Use their results to initiate a dialogue about the fit between the current skills mix and the activities performed. This can be expanded to consider how skills requirements will change.

    At this stage, you might ask the teams to explore future problems and alternative solutions. Each team will report back on which technologies are most likely to add value. This will be useful in developing the future skills portfolio. The current and future portfolios can then be used as starting points for developing a training programme.

    Whilst it is inevitable that wants and needs will never match, your staff will have some ownership of the rationale for training. Consequently, they will be more likely to accept a combination of skills development.

    Having an opportunity to evaluate and discuss the value offered by new technologies will also help staff to make informed decisions about professional development.

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