Getting down to IT

Information technology is one of the fastest developing aspects of working life today. As such, the skill set required for IT specialists grows ever broader. While for many general users of computers in the workplace there remains an air of mystery about IT that can present a real challenge for planners of training provision.

As a result of the highly technical nature of the subject, responsibility for IT training historically has sat within the IT department. But well-documented skill shortages in IT today, combined with the growing capability of IT packages like SAP and CRM software to create more efficient processes across the entire business, mean employers are having to face up to the need to tackle IT training strategically.

At the heart of this shift is moving IT training from its isolated position within the IT department and giving it greater visibility under learning and development, says Alan Bellinger, business development director for the Institute of IT Training.

“Doing this gives much more political clout and increases buy-in from managers and stakeholders. The role of people within IT training then becomes a much more consultative approach rather than just a trainer approach,” he says.

Such an approach means understanding why a particular package is being used and putting the training in the context of the business’s specific processes and needs. “Floor walking and mentoring is becoming much more common,” says Bellinger. “The more the training load is on actual business processes rather than a mechanical ‘click-file click-open’ approach, the more being there helping people is going to be effective, rather than taking them out of the workplace to learn.”

Another emerging trend is what Bellinger calls the “merger of knowledge management and training” Ð the building up of intranets to provide information that can support IT training and be a substitute for e-learning. The idea here is, again, to put tips and guidance in the context of business needs rather than provide a generic learning programme.

IT specialists

A recent survey by managed IT services provider Synstar indicates that IT directors are increasingly isolated from the rest of the business, with nearly 80 per cent reporting that their IT strategy is not aligned to the wider picture and their opinions are not valued at board level Ð the same kinds of issues learning and development directors say they face. But the rapidly changing world of IT means the skill requirements of today’s IT specialists are evolving, too.

Demand now, says Bellinger, is not so much for software designers and programmers as it is for ‘technical architects’ Ð people who can combine technical knowledge of IT with business acumen in order to utilise technology to enhance the processes of their organisation.

A recent report by the British Computer Society into IT offshoring highlighted the need for IT professionals to be much more integrated with other aspects of the business Ð “and that applies to training”, says Elizabeth Sparrow, who chairs the British Computer Society working party, which compiled the report. “IT has had a role in giving companies a competitive edge,” she explains. “In the future it will be how well we package together, buy in and manage a range of IT services that will determine competitive advantage Ð and new skills are needed.”

Learning and development teams must collaborate with IT to draw up competence frameworks for IT staff that take into account the growing need for business knowledge. There are resources employers can use, such as the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), which is run jointly by bodies including the British Computer Society and E-skills UK. SFIA is a broad, overarching skills framework that explains the different roles IT professionals carry out. Employers can work it into something specific for themselves based on the particular hardware and software they use.

End users

If the skill set for IT professionals is changing, so, too, is that for general users of IT in the workplace. “A few years ago it was mainly about spreadsheets and databases,” says Margaret Sambell, director of strategy for
E-skills. “All of our survey work now is showing us that employers need increasingly higher levels of skills.”

The proportion of employers that require advanced level skills in the use of IT is on the increase, according to Sambell. Today, it is 8 per cent, but by 2006 that will have increased to 13 per cent, with some sectors having even greater needs. For example, the 2006 projection for financial services is 23 per cent of employees requiring advanced level skills. Says Sambell: “The challenge for employers is how to assess Ð across an entire workforce Ð what skills people have and need.”

Up-front assessment of employee need is particularly important when it comes to IT skills; planning training entirely according to the wizardry that packages can do will be more than just surplus to requirements, it could also put off employees who cannot relate it to their jobs.

“There is the classic argument that people are only using 20 per cent of the package and could be using 50 per cent,” says Bellinger. “There is a presumption that more functionality will give more productivity, but that is not necessarily true.”

To assist employers, E-skills UK has developed a ‘passport’, a self-assessment tool which rates competency on a level of one to five across 14 key areas. “You can overlay that with the profile of your job to see what you need,” says Sambell. “The passport helps them to identify what training they need to get to their desired state, and that can be done at an individual, departmental and company level.”

For most employees, their IT passport will reveal a ‘spiky profile’, meaning the level of competency varies between areas. Such a flexible approach is appropriate to today’s workplace, and the passport feeds directly in to another E-skills initiative launched earlier this year: the Information Technology Qualification. ITQ is a flexible qualification that enables learners to mix units from different levels based on their job roles and business needs.

Pete Leavy, campaign manager for British Computer Society qualifications, says it is important that employers be able to benchmark on IT skills. “The central manager must have a benchmark to see if people are at the same level [across the organisation]. The only way they can do that is to have a certification, a qualification to demonstrate that.”

Driving licence

To that end, the society implemented the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) five years ago, and more than one million candidates have qualified in the UK so far. “With ECDL we have been linking in more with learning and development than IT, says Leavy. “Individuals within organisations need to be seen to have their career developed.”

There are seven modules in the ECDL, including word processing, spreadsheets and e-mail. Aimed at people with no prior computing knowledge, the ECDL is a level 2 qualification. The level 3 ECDL is classified as Advanced. Nevertheless, the level 2 ECDL can be appropriate for managers as well as more junior staff, according to Leavy. “You generally find managers have greater skill gaps in these areas,” he says. “The nature of their role means they do not need to use these functions on a day-to-day basis, and they probably moved up the organisation before computer skills were an issue.”

Richard Hordern, a learning consultant for QA, agrees. “There are still a number of senior managers not fully utilising their technologies,” he says. “The most effective, IT-savvy senior managers are now working more on their own Ð because they can Ð and they’re using their teams in a more value-added way.”

Feedback from managers indicates that they recognise their IT shortcomings, and are even embarrassed about them, explains Leavy. “By doing the ECDL they feel more confident and feel they can communicate better with their administrative staff when handing out tasks. By understanding the technology, they know how to use it more efficiently.”

Whether it is the need to draw up competency frameworks for IT skills across the business or to plan technical training that is truly accessible to a general business audience, the starting point in addressing the IT skill gaps must be a more collaborative approach between the IT function and learning and development.

“The key is to be able to say training is all about linking development of people to a business benefit Ð it is not training for training’s sake,” says Matthew Payiadgi, regional director for CompTIA, a global trade association representing the IT industry.

CompTIA’s latest IT Directors Survey indicates that there is considerable progress yet to be made. Compared to two years ago, IT training budgets have remained static, despite the rapidly advancing technologies, and IT directors feel their staff lack crucial business and management skills.

“I do not think there is a people shortage at all, it is a skills shortage – having the right skills,” says Pay-iadgi. “Everyone deserves to learn more because the technology is moving forward so fast.”

What employers want

E-skills UK is currently consulting business on a sector skills agreement (SSA) for IT that sets out a suite of proposed interventions and collaborative solutions in relation to IT skills issues as they apply to specialist IT professionals, end users of IT in the workplace, and business managers and leaders. The aim is to enable UK plc to exploit new technologies for improved business performance and productivity. The SSA focuses on four areas of strategic intervention: preparing the future workforce; developing the existing workforce; improving the attractiveness of IT careers; and addressing infrastructure matters.

The agreement will be ready at the end of March 2005 and will set out a three-year plan of action, from April 2005 to March 2008.

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