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From IT training delivery to IT skills management: Change – or be chopped


InfoBasis director and Learning Technologies Chairman Donald Taylor challenges IT training managers to seize the initiative and move their departments to a more strategic role.

Change – or Be Chopped

The world of IT training has changed, and is set to change even more. This process of transformation has affected much of training, but IT training – once treated as a special case – has been more affected than most. IT training is not special any more. No training is. It’s a cold world out there, and financial tightening has hit training hard.

Partly, we are ourselves to blame for this. As trainers, we have allowed training – and IT training in particular – to appear too divorced from business process. The initial premise of the early ’90s was pretty unassailable: “This person needs training on Excel or they won’t be able to move over from Supercalc.” Ten years later, we say: “Everyone needs a day’s training to move from Excel 97 to Excel 2000,” and it’s a lot less compelling.

Business now wants evidence of value. This isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s often a matter of the survival of the training department, and this has led many training managers to chase after the holy grail of training ROI (Return on Investment). The sad truth, though, is that training is so complex that running a true ROI study is almost impossible. There is, however, a solution: move the training department from being a re-active deliverer of training, to being a pro-active supplier of skills management (SM).

Skills Management

The most valuable resource a modern organisation has is its skills base. To deliver SM, a department needs to be interacting constantly with line managers to discover their skills needs. One way of providing these skills will be training. Others include recruitment, or moving personnel between departments. Whatever the method used, we have to accept that training is only one possible way of achieving the business goal: having the right skills to do the job.

The most important characteristic of SM is that it is pro-active, also its links with operational managers make it of strategic, rather than tactical, importance:

Training Delivery (TD)Skills Management (SM)
Delivery-focusedBusiness needs-focused
Reactive to requestsProactive
Admin-intensiveInteractive with organisation
Internal KPIsExternal KPIs

As an example: a department delivering SM will have Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that focus on measures of external effectiveness, such as how much help desk response times, or network downtime, have improved. A department focused on training delivery measures its success with Internal KPIs such as trainer utilization and fill rates – items which have no direct business result.
Getting There
An effective SM department rests on three pillars:

  • An agreed skills destination
  • A skills management process
  • Executive buy-in

  • An Agreed Skills Destination

    When discussing skills requirements with managers, you will need an agreed set of terms. In IT, the best tool to reference is a skills framework. For technical skills try the Skills Framework for the Information Age or CompTIA’s TechCareer Compass. For end-user skills, try the IT User Skills Framework.

    Skills should be assigned to particular roles within the manager’s teams – ideally as part of a job description. This enables the manager and the employee to understand where they need to focus their development. The National Occupation Standards for the IT sector could be useful here, as could the EU CareerSpace initiative.

    A Skills Management Process

    This is where the rubber meets the road. Without the active involvement of line mangers in skills management, an SM department will never fly – the key is to show them a direct, quick operational pay-back for their effort (see later).

    Managers should describe the skills required for each job in their team, and work with team members to assess against these. Comparing these with the desired skills for the role produces a skills gap analysis which can be filled by training, recruitment, or by re-assigning personnel. The actual Skill Management Process itself is a simple 3-step process, and should be done by managers sitting down individually with their personnel for twenty minutes:

    a) Individual assesses skill level against job requirements
    b) Manager confirms or queries these assessments
    c) Manager and individual agree skills objectives

    This should be repeated roughly every two months, and certainly after any training, so that the teams’ skills profiles are always up-to-date. After the initial 20 minute meeting, an update should take no more than 5 minutes.

    Short though this is, it still an extra administrative load, and managers will demand operational benefit before they commit themselves to it. There are two quick wins which should help. First, managers often need to find experts within the organisation with combinations of skills – e.g. they might need to find a customer-facing French speaker who knows SQL Server. Without a well-organised skills inventory such a search is impossible. With one, it is a matter of moments. The step beyond that is to help build better teams, faster. Given access to this skills inventory, project managers can search for, and find, people with the right skills for each team place, rather than using the people who happen to be to hand (which is so often the way teams are built).

    Executive Buy-In

    Top-level buy-in is the other way to persuade managers that SM is a good idea. Getting it calls for some persuasive skills, but is not as difficult as it might seem. You need to convince the highest possible level of some of the benefits of skills management:

  • training will meet business needs directly
  • project teams will be formed faster
  • staff expertise will be better used, reducing contractor costs
  • training will be better organised (because you’ll have an on-going, validated TNA to help you)
  • If you can get the buy-in to pilot SM in one area, you’re on the way to proving your case.

    Can You Make it Happen?

    Moving from training delivery to skills management means moving outside the comfort zone of most trainers. It means engaging pro-actively with managers, being persuasive, and setting procedures in place. It usually means working with the HR and other departments. However, it should also mean placing the training department and yourself in a vital, strategic position for the company – giving training the position which it truly deserves: driving business strategy.


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