Staff's hidden talent revealed

Multi-skilled staff can ensure your systems stay up when the expert is absent.Julia Vowler reports

Multi-skilled staff can ensure your systems stay up when the expert is absent.Julia Vowler reports

It's a problem just about every IT director is stuck with - an endemic, systemic IT skills shortage across the UK. There are simply not enough IT people in the market to give a comfort margin for those in charge of IT departments.

So, how do you ensure that you have enough expertise to keep you going? It is a quandary that exercised the minds of IT chiefs gathered at the IT Directors Forum organised by Cranfield School of Management.

As they were swift to point out, none of them would dream of running their departments without a disaster recovery or business continuity plan. But what about when people fail rather than machines or networks?

"We spend time and money on disaster recovery solutions for systems and processes, but pay lip service to contingency for people who are far more valuable than systems and more vulnerable to failure and unavailability," one pointed out.

The situation no-one wanted to find themselves in was having only one person in the department who knew any one system or proficiency. Ideally, you need triple redundancy for every skillset, warned one IT director.

But it's wasteful and expensive to have two back-ups who "idle" 90% of the time, which is where multi-skilling comes in. Having staff each of whom has their core ability, plus a skillset that backs up someone else's and which can be called on when things get rough.

"Multi-skilling shouldn't be a problem as IT people pick things up quickly," said one of the IT directors.

They will probably even relish the opportunity. Most IT professionals want to keep their capabilities refreshed and constantly extending, and welcome the opportunity to do so within their current job. Training alone is not the answer - to make it practicably valuable, it has to be accompanied by hands-on experience on the system itself (and not in an emergency situation).

Flexibility of culture and mind-set is important if multi-skilling is to work - a "muck in" ethos where no one (IT director included) is too proud to help out. Also important is a restructuring of the department to dissolve functional, skill-based concentration to create career paths based on multi-skilling.

That flexibility of mind-set has to extend beyond the IT department itself.

"Well trained users and IT 'buddies' in the business can help with simple things leaving the IT masses to multi-skill in the more complex areas," reminded one of the group.

Another said his organisation had a receptionist who could reboot the main database if called upon.

Multi-skilling may also mean a run-in with computer auditors keen on separation of duties on the grounds of security. As one IT director warned, if you know the root password for a Unix system, you can do anything you want to it.

It may also hit an impasse in those industries which are closely regulated, such as pharmaceuticals or nuclear, where only duly authorised staff are allowed to touch systems.

Location can also have an impact on the viability of the multi-skilling option.

Very fierce skills competition may make it impossible to have more than one scarce expert. Moving support for such systems to areas of lower skills competition may be a sensible choice if IT is already decentralised.

Not all staff will want to be multi-skilled. Often those whose skillset is at the top end of the market for rates may well regard having to learn anything else as a waste of their time.

"Our Cisco guys don't want to multi-skill," observed one IT director.

Multi-skilling can still be useful even when support is outsourced. Even the most expensive support contracts don't always mean you get instant attention. Having someone in-house with a back-up skillset while using another one in their day-job, to produce a temporary work-around can pay off when the system is highly business critical.

Matching scarce resources to requirements that vary at a price that's sustainable is one of the trickier tasks of management. A multi-skilled workforce can only help pull that trick off.

What to consider when multi-skilling

  • Ask which systems are business critical. Whereas the accounting department might be able to live without their financial package for a day or two, a production system out of action can start costing the company revenues straight away. This will guide skill requirements

  • Keep technology mainstream and avoid bespoke systems

  • The most difficult areas to multi-skill in are systems management and integration

  • Multi-skilling can help motivate staff keen to extend their skill sets and job satisfaction

  • If multi-skilling is to work, good system documentation is a must, as well as diagnostic cribs such as intranet-delivered FAQs provided by the primary support staffer

  • Keep track of abilities as people move on, so they can be held "on reserve"

  • Multi-skilling requires training and experience

  • If systems are highly business critical, or their technology is arcane, outsourcing support may make better sense

  • Don't expect multi-skillers, especially working out of hours, to produce anything more than a temporary work-around

  • Multi-skilling will require a degree of existing redundancy in resources (fully-stretched staff won't have room for multi-skilling) or a shift in responsibilities to free up time

  • Multi-skilling will only work if staff regard it as an opportunity. If it's seen as a burden they won't buy into it.

  • Read more on IT jobs and recruitment