Where Has All the Training Gone/?

If your employees aren't learning, you may be facing a double whammy: poor performance and, even worse, they may be looking for another job

If truth is the first casualty of war, training, it would seem, is the first casualty of an economic downturn. For while the ongoing training of one's IT professionals may seem like an investment in an organisation's future and even a strategic necessity given the pace of technological change, according to Gartner research director Steve Bittinger, education and training services are not a high priority for many organisations. Rather, spending on training is viewed as discretionary, and is consequently the first area to get cut in tough times, Bittinger says.

Other observers note Steve Ross, general manager of IT training company Dimension Data Learning Solutions (DDLS), goes even further: "Training is the most discretionary piece of budget because its impact is not immediately measurable." In fact, according to Ross, the IT training market (the training of IT personnel as opposed to end-user training on systems) has been down 40 per cent over the past 18 months. He concedes that this is partly due to IT turnover and recruitment also having slowed and that there is consequently less need to train, at least in order to maintain existing skills within organisations.

However, Richard Melouney, general manager of Spherion Education Australia, claims that research conducted by Spherion's Saratoga Institute shows lack of training and education opportunities makes employees four times as likely to look for another job within 12 months. "Training provides employees with the opportunity to develop and expand upon their existing skills, which is beneficial not just to the individual, but also to the company," Melouney says.

Scrimping on staff can prove costly in the long run. Employees who feel neglected will be the first ones out the door when opportunities arise elsewhere, leaving you with the headache of finding replacements. IT executives know that taking care of your employees now makes good business sense even in these cash-strapped times.

Training As a Reward

At the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), CIO Greg Carvouni views IT training as a two-way street. He says his staff have no formal training program as such, but for those who make a commitment to the organisation, show a bit of interest in their work and put in a bit of extra effort, the RTA will pick them to send to a course rather than someone else.

"Some training you absolutely must do. Microsoft comes up with a new product every year and our support people all have to know about Outlook [for example]. There are other areas like J2EE, where we've switched from one vendor to another, so naturally you send people on a course to pick up the technology. But some [training] is more advanced and people don't have to have it to do their job, and that's what we use more as a motivator and a reward," Carvouni says.

The RTA also sponsors selected people through formal certification programs, such as Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), which according to Carvouni, is both a carrot he dangles in front of those already in the organisation and an attraction when hiring IT staff. Again, there is value in it for the staff, for whom it is a formal qualification, and the RTA gets value by getting them to contribute through their work, he says.

Although it varies with different projects, each IT staff member at the RTA typically undertakes between five and 10 days training each year, which Carvouni believes is respectable. However, in addition to technical training courses, which usually take place offsite, the RTA has a leadership program that covers the whole organisation, including IT. This can take the form of short formal courses, sponsorship of MBAs and other part-time courses in people's own time, and job rotation and placement on projects to gain specific experience. There is also a mentoring program for graduate recruits.

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"I think we invest in people here as much as anywhere else," Carvouni says. "Training has to be relevant, though, to what you're doing or what you're likely to do in the next 12 months. I had one guy who was disappointed because he wanted to do an advanced course on designing large router networks. But we outsource the network, so if it's of no value to the organisation, we won't do it."

At the same time, and for various reasons of government employment and payment rates, half of the 200 or so people in Carvouni's department are contractors as opposed to RTA employees. This enables him to import specific skills when required instead of necessarily training his own staff. "If we make a generational change in technology, we use the contractors to actually seed the team and bring the skills in. Realistically, we might send some contractors on some courses [if there is specific value to the RTA], but contractors are pretty much expected to carry their own training," Carvouni says.

The RTA also has a number of outsourcing arrangements. Again, Carvouni says the outsourcing partner is responsible for training its own people. However, as part of his selection criteria, Carvouni naturally expects any outsourcer he deals with to keep its employees' skills up to date and have equally sympathetic training policies.

Carvouni says his spending on training, which comes out of his general IT budget, has remained pretty static over the past 12 months. He finds it very hard to measure the actual return on that expenditure, though, and tends to rely on the feedback of those returning from courses.

As a general observation, Carvouni believes that with the demise of the human resources department in many organisations there has been a corresponding reduction in the caring and nurturing of staff over the years. He consequently tells his people that they have to be self-sufficient and take the initiative when it comes to requesting training and determining their professional development needs. "I don't want to evade my line management responsibilities and it's not the organisation saying it won't pay for training. We have a budget but I don't have a whole army of people to help you," Carvouni says.

Training for Management Skills

Out west, Perth-based Water Corporation outsources much of its IT function to CSC and focuses its in-house IT efforts on the strategic aspects of IT and managing service delivery. Reflective of this model, Water Corporation's IT training requirements are relatively modest and centre more on management than technical skills, according to CIO Brian Kavanagh.

"I position training as part of a broader staff development and performance management process," Kavanagh says. "We look to develop general staff competencies, and training might be one solution along with project assignments and rotation through different positions to equip people with the competencies for present and future roles. From a business point of view, we put a lot of emphasis on staff being able to do their job.

Some staff may not attend any instructor-led training, for example, but they have found on-the-job training to be effective."

However, since 1998, following its corporatisation two years earlier, the organisation has invested heavily in SAP and is trying to reduce its dependence on external consultants in this area. There has therefore been an additional need for internal staff to keep their technical SAP skills up to date in order to deliver end-user education and support and provide ongoing system configuration.

IT training expenditure is managed within the overall IT budget, Kavanagh says, and is largely independent of other functions within the organisation. Although he declines to give actual figures, Kavanagh says that spending on training has been significantly higher in the past 12 months because of the SAP emphasis and the result of implementing new platforms, and is likely to remain at the same level for the next 12 months. As he points out, though, it accounts for only a small proportion of the overall cost of a staff member, and says that although difficult to measure its return, it can be leveraged to great benefit as long as it is targeted.

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Kavanagh agrees that training can be an incentive and most people in IT consider it important to maintain their marketability. However, he does not think that in itself it is critical to staff satisfaction or is a major attraction when recruiting people.

Under its outsourcing arrangement, Kavanagh expects CSC to maintain its own staff's skill sets and identify what training they require in order to provide the service Water Corporation requires, as well as to anticipate what is down the track and inform the organisation what the implications are. CSC's staff development, as regards Water Corporation's needs and projects, form one line item in the annual budgeting process between the two organisations, he says.

As regards contractors, Kavanagh also expects any contractors to be primarily responsible for their own training. However, if they were at Water Corporation for any length of time, he would expose them to generic training, such as the organisation's methodologies and other things they need to know in order to be able to work effectively in its space.

Kavanagh does not undertake much formal training himself, and none of it technical, and finds that industry briefings, research papers and magazine articles are adequate for his needs.

Formal and Structured Training

Accenture has historically taken a very formal and structured approach to training its people. Accenture's IT director, Geoff Hunter, is responsible for the company's internal IT needs across the Asia-Pacific region and says there are two angles that drive the training of his staff. First, there are the "hard" technical skills his people require to meet the needs of the organisation and where it is going in terms of its technology road map. Second, Accenture is a very position-based organisation, Hunter says. For every role in his department, including his own, there are formal requirements and a job description that includes an expectation of either current skills or skills to be acquired - both technical and "soft" skills such as management or report writing. In conjunction with this, as part of everyone's annual career assessment, a training plan for the following year is drawn up to address these skill requirements.

As part of his own such plan, Hunter says he is doing a lot of training around business transformational outsourcing and better use of IT as a business resource. As a result of Accenture having changed from a partnership to a company he is also undertaking a part-time (one night a week for three months) company director's course. And having a regional role, he recently attended a two-day in-house diversity training course to understand more about the cultures he deals with across the Asia-Pacific region.

According to Hunter, he works with Accenture's human resources department in formulating his budget for position-based training. HR then sets a framework, which he says he generally sticks to.

"We have a rough allocation of X dollars per person [for training], which varies each year, and for a person in finance may be different to IT or wherever. We won't necessarily spend that amount on each individual, though. One person's training needs may be met through internal training courses at no cost, whereas someone else may need to develop a skill that requires an airfare to the US, for example," Hunter says.

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As it is, Hunter says the investment in the non-technical skills of his people has not varied much in the past year. There has also been little movement in Accenture's IT infrastructure over the past 18 months, and so there has been no great need to upscale their general technical skills either. However, this is set to change over the next six to nine months as the company rolls out new infrastructure, which he says will involve a significant investment in training the technologists in the products.

"As part of the project budget for rolling out that platform, we would include the line item for training up our people. So it would be seen as an exception year, but the money required for training would be approved as part of that overall project," Hunter explains.

Back in 1998, a study jointly conducted by Global Knowledge Network and the Australian Graduate School of Management found that many organisations preferred not to train their own personnel, but rather to hire skilled and qualified IT staff. One of the reasons given was that they had an interest in their staff having less, rather than more, mobility that additional skills might give them. Times have certainly changed in terms of the demand for IT skills. However, Hunter thinks that while training is a double-edged sword, it ultimately makes good business sense.

"We've made some fairly large investments in our own people and that's great. You probably do make them very attractive to the market, though, and you have to hope that on balance they see Accenture as the place where they want to stay and where they'll continue to be developed in their careers," Hunter says. "People are attracted to Accenture because we do have the history of a strong focus on training and developing our people. And I think that flows through very much to the internal team as well. It's something I guess we believe in and probably get a lot of good value out of."

To E or Not to E

Executives are now demanding proof that e-learning will also improve employee learning, retention and satisfaction.

E-learning (Internet and technology-based training) may seem like the panacea for hard times given how it is touted as being able to reduce significantly the cost of training, enable people to learn at their own pace and minimise out-of-office disruptions. However, while e-learning and its predecessor, computer-based training, have long played a role in end-user education, opinions vary as to how appropriate it is for IT professionals themselves.

According to a 2002 Gartner Dataquest survey, the use of Internet delivery for IT learning is still low. The results show that of the total volume of training delivered, 58.6 per cent was by classroom-based, instructor-led delivery. Self-directed training by non-Internet means was next at 31 per cent, and Internet-based delivery was the least used method at 10.3 per cent.

Respondents did predict that over the next 12 months they would use less classroom-based, instructor-led training and more Internet-based training, but it should also be noted that IT training in the context of the survey includes both technical training of IT professionals and end-user training.

But companies are also requiring evidence that e-learning will deliver on its promise. "The pressure is on e-learning initiatives to prove their salt before any investment is made," says Julie Kaufman, research manager at IDC Canada. "Enterprises are demanding a business case before the purchase of an LMS [Learning Management System] or any other software or service behind e-learning initiatives."

Greg Carvouni, CIO at the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, thinks e-learning is very effective and especially good for IT people because they're naturally comfortable with the technology itself. Geoff Hunter, IT director, Accenture, also says he and his staff make extensive use of e-learning and virtual classrooms, among other methods of training. "Because we're technologists in a technology firm, we have access to a lot of very good internal material. So we can jump on those [online] courses when they're relevant for us, but we also recognise that some training just needs to be face to face," Hunter says.

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Succession Planning

Having a strong successor is a basic tenet of good leadership

Greg Carvouni, CIO at the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, thinks very few organisations and their CIOs plan for succession, and if they do, it is usually a poor effort. He says he has always tried to do it himself, but admits his current efforts are somewhat crude.

"I try to recruit people who have potential and I'm happy to say that at this point in time there are a couple who definitely have the potential to step into this job if I were to go, which is better than when I started when that number was zero. It's not part of a structured hierarchy, but it enables you to offload some work by giving assignments to people," Carvouni says.

On principle, says Geoff Hunter, IT director at Accenture, he likes to promote from within his team wherever possible, but agrees that succession planning is something that CIOs tend to talk about but never actually do. That now has to change, though, as one of the objectives he has been set for 2003 is to have a clearly articulated succession plan.

However, rather than formal training, Hunter believes in controlled exposure to the next level. "I have a handful of direct reports and I'm looking at who is probably more managerial than technical. I'm looking to expose them to more of what I'm currently doing, see how they go and coach them from there," he says

Brian Kavanagh, CIO at WA's Water Corporation, considers succession planning not only important but good business insurance and tries to address it through his staff's performance process. "I ask people if their knowledge and skills are adequate for their current job, to what do they aspire, how well their knowledge and skills fit those aspirations and what additional development they need. The objective is not to target individuals as such but to know that there are people available should roles become available," Kavanagh says.