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The Match Game

Companies are growing leaner by figuring out who is capable of what, and putting people where they can do the most good.

Training budgets are coming back, and IT departments are looking for the best places to invest dollars. Newly flush budgets mean CTOs and other bosses have an eye on which IT training avenues will be worth the investment in 2006–and how an effective IT training strategy can be developed for the future.

Not surprisingly, network security will continue to be a major IT training focus in 2006. Sarbanes-Oxley, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and other legislative and legal requirements continue to make network security a major concern-especially if you are an IT professional in a heavily regulated industry like financial services or healthcare.

A second training focus for IT results from continued corporate emphasis on integrating disparate systems on common reporting and transaction platforms. Training in contemporary application development and integration platforms like Websphere and Weblogic will continue to be in demand for application developers.

On the system side of application support, training emphasis will continue on middleware connector software from vendors like HP, IBM, Attachmate, NEON Systems and others.

“Certifications will also continue to be very important,” says Claire Schooley, senior industry analyst for Forrester Research. “IT uses certifications as a means of qualifying network personnel for advanced skills in network implementation and support. Primary certification vendors that IT will go to for professional certifications include Microsoft, Novell, Cisco and Oracle, but in 2006, these certifications will be changing to a more job-oriented focus–an evolution that is already under way in 2005.”

Schooley says Microsoft is doing a complete revamp of its certifications, “because it feels it now has too many of them, and that they are too general in nature.

“They are evolving a new set of certifications that will serve a first tier, a second tier and an architect level of training in the hope that this will meet the needs of IT people better,” she says. “This new training will be more targeted toward specific job codes.”

The Microsoft transition is evidenced by the recent appearance of targeted security certifications for the Windows platform. The Microsoft MCSA certification is designed for systems administrators who specialize in implementing, managing and maintaining security on Windows. The MCSE certification addresses the same topics, but is targeted instead to system engineers.

Others are following suit. Novell, for example, has responded to the demand for Linux expertise with targeted courses for a Linux Professional (first level) and a Certified Linux Engineer (advanced level).

Cisco has developed specific certifications for security and also for routing and switching, which has been transformed with the introduction of data-voice convergence technologies like VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). Cisco has also developed a comprehensive curriculum for its channel partners and integrators, who are playing larger roles in the initial deployments of Cisco technology in corporations.

Certifications will certainly be a key area of IT investment in 2006–but there are also other areas.

“There is a strong tendency for IT to invest its training dollars in technical education on new capabilities or applications that it purchases from vendors and must now support,” says Katherine Jones, research director for Aberdeen Group. “This could include a new development platform, or a particular software product or networking product. In this sense, training is very much specifically aligned to the procession of hardware and software that is coming in-house, and is part of the new platform support strategy. There is also a corresponding training for end-users.”

In many cases, the technologies and applications IT brings on board will come from outside vendors or integrators that do the initial installation. At this point, the longer term issue becomes effective technology handoffs to IT, so IT can continue to support and enhance the technology invested in.

“IT is investing in training that the vendor or integrator provides once a capability is installed,” says Schooley. “Since IT can spend a lot of money on retaining consultant assistance for long periods of time, there is a growing tendency during application installation to use consultants as trainers and mentors for staff, so that knowledge can be transferred and staff can eventually take over.”

In the end, IT will be making training choices in 2006 to equip staff with skills that are immediately transferable to the tasks at hand, and that contribute directly to improved department performance and results. With heavy workloads in a dynamic environment and growing expectations from the end business, there is no other way.

“Companies have also already been through a phase when they tried to ‘hire’ skills,” says Jones. “They found this didn’t always work because every company’s IT environment is unique–even if the companies are using similar hardware, software and networks.”

Training dollars are precious commodities even in “good” budget years. That’s why it’s imperative that IT optimize training for best results.

Here are five optimization strategies:

1. Establish a return-on-investment methodology

Training benefits can be intangible and hard to assess. IT management can do something about this by defining in advance a specific set of skill set improvements that it wants to see training deliver to its workforce-and a strategy on how the skills will be transferred to the workload tasks. Metrics can then be defined to determine if workload tasks are being mastered according to desired timelines.

With a methodology of “knowledge transfer” instead of just “training,” IT is in an excellent position to recognize the training that produces the best results–and to understand the best conditions for knowledge transfer.

For example, if your goal is to reduce an individual application development cycle from one month to two weeks and you are training new developers on Websphere, you should be able to see if you meet your two-weeks development goal.

2. Use a variety of training methods

“Overall, you’re going to see IT departments using “blended” training that involves informal on-the-job training, classroom training, online training and mentoring,” says Schooley. “Smaller IT organizations will be more informal in their training methods, leaning toward on-the-job training. Larger IT organizations will have assessed the skillsets of their employees, so they can understand exactly what the employees do and do not know, and then create a learning plan.

“Often,” Schooley continues, “these organizations have implemented an enterprise-wide learning management system that registers employees for courses, tracks training–that is, who has which certifications, and who has taken which classes–and provides reports on learning activity of employees”

3. Look at training through the eyes of the employee as well as from the standpoints of IT and the end business

“Companies need to make efforts to retain top talent, because of the insufficient labor force,” says Jones. “When companies make concerted and continuing investments in employee training, they are much more likely to retain employees. Retention rate is one way to gauge return on training/learning investment.”

Jones also notes that some corporations have an IT training philosophy that is organized around the employee’s career growth, and that actually spans the employee’s entire projected career at the company.

“IT professionals like to stay with organizations that respect them, and their right to a career path and career growth,” she says. “If the company also views training over the projected employed ‘lifetime’ of the employee, this boosts morale and improves educational results because employees value training and reward for performance. On the other hand, you do encounter some resistance in IT supervisor and managerial levels. The complaint seems to be, ‘Why should I train? They’ll just leave anyway!'”

4. Hire well

Many corporations and technology firms are forming partnerships with universities organized around on-the-job internships for students. The best and the brightest graduate into jobs at the sponsoring organizations.

If a program like this is not a practical consideration, corporate IT can still effect a strong hiring program by establishing interviewing techniques that screen for top skills through the use of technology testing and pre-hire assessments.

5. If you’re an IT staff member, take charge of your own training

When it’s all said and done, IT departments are under constant pressure to perform, and this makes management and staff alike keenly focused on immediate tasks and to-do lists.

Some organizations have formal, online training tracking and delivery systems that allow IT staff to take charge of their own training and careers within the company, decide on where they want to go and grow, and pursue that line of training and expertise development with the help of online courses and personal mentors. Unisys, with its Unisys University, is one example.

If you are in a shop that does not have a formal system or a large training budget, you can still take charge of you own career development by volunteering for projects in areas where you want to develop skills, by taking courses and reading books on your own, and by getting to know those who are in the area of skill you want to master.

“Because of the nature of IT, a lot of training gets done informally, on the job,” says Schooley. “People help each other, especially when they are performing R&D for new projects. There are some organizations that value just jumping in and learning, although we still see a lot of instructor training. An example is when an organization purchases a new server and sends everyone to a training class. Then the people come back and need to apply what they have learned.”

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

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