Developing your IT staff demands new thinking

The boundaries are blurring between formal education programs and innovative on-the-job learning environments

Forward-thinking IT leaders recognize how important it is for employees to have broad and deep technical and business knowledge, and not just a list of skills that looks good on a resume. They need employees who show good judgment as well as technical ability.

The best employees look for employers willing to invest in that knowledge. And that translates into improved employee retention. Everyone wins.

But in an era of “lean and mean,” IT leaders need to develop employees on increasingly tight budgets. So while traditional conferences, seminars, certifications, and degrees still have their place, the best managers are finding ways to substitute innovative education initiatives for formal education programs.

“Less than 20 percent of continuing education comes from structured programs,” says Brenda Gumbs, vice president of human resources at Perfetti Van Melle USA, a global confectionery company. “The rest comes from coaching, mentoring, and … hardships, which include challenging assignments and failures.”

IT executives are experimenting by leveraging temporary assignments, consulting relationships, vendor resources, and technology to

create learning environments rather than education programs.

Rising Above Tight Budgets

A major challenge facing business leaders -- especially those who have a strong desire to develop their employees -- is limited training budgets. There’s simply no money for traditional, classroom-oriented programs. As Sharon Link, chief administrative officer of Gander Mountain recreational retailers puts it, “In a high-growth, fast-paced company like ours, time and cash need to be carefully invested and leveraged. But our IT associates still need both technical skills and business savvy to drive and support growth.”

Gander Mountain has explored alternatives including knowledge-sharing among associates and consultants engaged in current projects, selecting associates to participate on cross-functional teams, creating an internal “business partner relationship program,” and encouraging participation in user and industry groups.

Executives emphasize the need for non-traditional thinking when structuring new learning environments. One of the least expensive alternatives begins by finding ways to better leverage their employees’ knowledge and experience.

Marv Richardson, currently managing director and co-founder of the Trexin Group and a member of InfoWorld’s CTO Advisory Board, has experimented with lunch-and-learn formats. What worked best were tag-team presentations that paired vendor experts (never, he insists, the sales representative) with internal employees who had used the technology in real applications.

According to Richardson, it was easy to get employee volunteers -- they saw it as an opportunity to raise their profile. And where some companies have found it difficult to maintain attendance at this type of event, he never had that problem. “Of course,” he jokes, “the free lunch helped … and what’s best is that the vendors generally bought the lunch.”

Persistent time constraints provide yet another incentive to be innovative. “The education budget is one of the first to go,” Richardson explains, “but that’s only half the story. Usually, it’s also the most underspent budget. The reason is that we keep employees so busy that they have no time for training. Too many companies provide a financial budget, but not a time budget.”

Click for larger view.

The Internet-Era Toolkit

Michael Dunn, vice president of Hearst Interactive Media and also a member of InfoWorld’s CTO Advisory Board, says he views education as tightly bound up with ongoing communication among employees. “For employees to progress individually, and for the company as a whole to benefit, continuing education should be a daily activity,” he says. “Leverage innovative tools for it. Don’t restrict yourself to only the traditional channels. Think outside the box for ways you can use some of the available tools.”

Dunn strives to take advantage of every communication tool in the Internet-era toolkit. “We’ve had a lot of success using blogs for internal use. They’re easily searchable, and allow for free-form communication once you’ve moved past the cultural boundaries.

“I’m a huge fan of wikis, too,” Dunn continues. “Working in this type of environment requires a different mind-set. They’re very easy to implement, though, and once people get the concept, they’re fantastic tools.”

Dunn says he also thinks highly of RSS, podcasting, and video technology. “However,” he cautions, “you can’t force people to use tools like these. You have to create a culture that encourages people to be innovative. Leaders have to be active participants at every level. If you think every day you should be learning, you set up an environment where you can learn from your peers and teach them, too.”

Richardson agrees that the boundaries with regard to continuing education are blurring. As an IT leader, he regularly brought in employees from the field organization on temporary six-month assignments, generally into an R&D or enterprise architecture function. His gain from an executive standpoint was two-fold: The centralized team ended up with a much better grounding in the challenges faced in the field, and he placed evangelists for what he was trying to achieve back into the field when each temporary assignment ended.

In each case, field employees had a chance to work on the latest and greatest stuff, and received a deeper knowledge of the company which helped them in their ongoing work. “Pulling people out of their general role, in a structured way, is the most valuable training you can give them,” Richardson says. “It provides more than skills -- it provides a whole new perspective on the organization.”

Beyond Technical Expertise

A lot of the focus on continuing education within the IT sector is on gaining business knowledge, because it addresses a common complaint among business managers who deal with IT: The IT staff knows technology, but not the business.

Knowledge of the business takes several forms. Some is internal -- recognition of the company’s strategy, plans, constraints, and compliance requirements, and specific knowledge of how different business functions operate. Some is broader -- managers want IT professionals to have more business acumen and judgment.

The question is whether businesses are willing to invest in their IT employees to make it happen.

“When you engage a contractor or consultant, you’re renting skills,” says Kelly Williams, CIO of First Franklin Financial. “When you hire an employee you’re entering into a longer-term, deeper relationship. One of the benefits employers hope to gain from their relationship with employees is deep knowledge about the business, and a commitment to it.”

Is that still the case in the era of at-will employment and offshore outsourcing?

“Absolutely,” Williams says. “Forward-looking companies will create a balanced IT training program that addresses industry knowledge and business-oriented leadership ability with the traditional focus on technical skill acquisition and refinement.

“This will ultimately pay off in two ways. First, it helps close the gap in IT and business alignment, which typically manifests itself as complaints that IT doesn’t know or understand the business. Second, I believe that when technologists become fully engaged in the business, it is much more likely that they’ll become emotionally invested in its long-term success,” Williams says. “That benefit will eventually show up in turnover ratio.”

Richardson reinforces this point. “Most companies are valuing their IT employees,” he says. “They’re finding the roles that are most important for their IT employees to play, and are focusing their continuing education on those roles. Insurance companies, for example, provide insurance training -- they’re pushing that kind of knowledge, more than .Net or J2EE.

“The classic challenge for IT in any organization has been alignment with the business,” Richardson continues. “The more the IT people can speak in the language of the business, the more alignment you have, from the bottom up.”

It’s this broader view that distinguishes continuing education from simple training. “Training is a short-term, structured event, to provide skills you need right now,” says Gumbs of Perfetti Van Melle. “It isn’t future-oriented. Continuing education refers to a number of components or pieces that prepare people for where we’re taking the organization. It’s about future growth.”

Gumbs spends much of her time and attention on leadership development. “There are very few leading indicators in business. Leadership ability is one of the most important,” she points out.

Nor is leadership the sole province of executives and managers, she adds. “You need all levels of employees to become thought leaders, expanding their thinking, looking at things in ways that aren’t as obvious, and that don’t exist today.”

Leadership ability comes from leadership training coupled with improved business knowledge and acumen. According to Gumbs, the biggest challenge to providing continuing education in some companies is that their leaders think they already know everything they need to know. When that’s the case, “it’s very difficult to get it on the leadership agenda.”

The Certification Question

Those leadership qualities are not readily gained through advanced certifications. “Too many employees are after the piece of paper,” explains Nick Corcodilos, author of Ask The Headhunter. “They have a point, too, because in too many companies the certification is what gets you past the HR screener.”

“But that’s the least important reason to continue learning,” Corcodilos says. “Companies don’t get any value from certifications, and if you can’t excel in a job once you land it, the certification won’t help you at all. That’s why, while companies are more than willing to invest in continuing education for their employees, it’s often in forms that don’t lead to pieces of paper, continuing education units, or any of the other detritus that goes along with formal programs.”

Dunn only partially agrees -- he values certifications in his staff. “A lot of people only see them as important when they’re changing jobs. I disagree, especially in a structured IT environment. The technologists you have working for you have tremendous expertise in specific verticals. The certifications make sure you have ‘horizontal’ knowledge. They require you to gain a broader spectrum of technical expertise.”

Dunn sees one other major benefit to certifications: “They put my staff on a level playing field when talking with the technologists they work with from the IT vendor community,” he says.

Although continuing education includes formal certifications and education programs, from the company’s perspective what matters is that employees continually grow, broadening and deepening their knowledge and judgment.

It takes a strong, progressive leader to recognize that while blogs, wikis, and Webinars are innovative and valuable, the ultimate in educational innovation is giving employees the opportunity to fail … and to then take advantage of what they learned in the process.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform