Staff need to be offered the training and mentoring to develop in both technical and managerial skills, says Ben Booth
Anyone who has attempted to achieve excellence in their IT operation will know that an essential component is to recruit, develop and retain good staff.
Technology is important - and the strategic linkage to business strategy is necessary to ensure alignment - but good staff are always needed to guarantee delivery. And outsourcing does not lessen the need for IT talent. The outsourced provider will require direction and management, and in-house staff will have to do this.
With the current interest in "utility computing" and the misguided view that IT can be purchased off-the-shelf with little or no understanding of the business or technological environment, it is tempting to assume that staff can similarly be obtained in generic variants that can be applied anywhere.
The key to understanding whether this model applies to particular business sectors is to decide if the product or service is commoditised to the degree that differentiation is largely on cost, or if there are genuine differences between the offerings of suppliers. If there are differences, staff will be a key part of this differentiation. Even in commoditised areas good quality staff are essential to ensure efficient operations.
The IT market is notoriously cyclical: peaks are followed by long periods of depressed stability. Most commentators would say we are now leaving such a period of stability, with the market taking off and providing plenty of opportunities for job-seekers. One point of view is that during the periods of stability little needs to be done to retain staff, and there is a surplus of good people who can be recruited easily should any employees leave.
My experience is otherwise. During periods where the market is depressed, good staff will find a secure position to ride out the downturn. They do not move around and it is almost as difficult to recruit talent as when the market is booming. Although there are exceptions, it is mainly the less able workers who are on the market during a downturn.
As the IT market picks up there are more opportunities, and the best staff will start to look around. If they have been treated well during the downturn, they will remain with their employer unless their career development means they must move. If they have been treated badly they will leave.
So in all sectors, and whether IT is insourced or outsourced, good staff are the key to success. There is little difference in the ease of recruitment whether the market is flat or rising.
Retention and development are of paramount importance. Staff need to feel valued and respected, to feel that they can make a difference, and to be offered the necessary training and mentoring to develop in both technical and managerial capability. Increasingly business skills are needed for more senior roles.
Salary is a hygiene factor
Research suggests that salary remains a "hygiene factor". If you pay below the market norm, staff will become disaffected, but paying significantly above the norm has little effect on retention. In times of market instability salary rates need to be carefully tracked against benchmarks.
Flexible working is a hot topic for the IT department. We have to provide the technology to support people working remotely, and we have to accommodate staff who will need to take advantage of such flexibility.
High-quality staff will also want to see the performance issues of their less able colleagues addressed.
Company culture can be a great help to IT management in maintaining an environment that will help staff retention. Many organisations carry out regular staff opinion surveys to measure those factors which are important in staff retention. Absolute values are not so important here as comparisons with previous years' scores, with industry benchmarks, and with "best in class".
The maintenance of an environment which will encourage staff retention and development must be at the top of agenda for IT management.
A measure of your success will be when those staff who leave for career development reasons speak sufficiently highly of your business to encourage others to apply for vacancies in your organisation, and may even return when a suitable opportunity arises.
Ben Booth is chairman of the BCS Elite group and IT director at research group Mori