Developing Top-Notch Talent

By Katherine Spencer Lee

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The success of your IT department depends on the capabilities of your staff. But even employees well versed in the latest technologies can see their skills grow obsolete over time.

Many executives recognize the value training provides but worry that budget limitations make implementing an effective program next to impossible. While that may have been true in the past, when professional development options were limited and costly, today there are less expensive ways to provide meaningful and effective training to IT staff.

Here are some ideas:

Apply technology to training. According to the latest research from the American Society for Training and Development, the use of technology-based training such as e-learning programs offered via the Internet or the company intranet doubled from 2002 to 2004.

The growing popularity and availability of this option make it an obvious starting point for training IT professionals given their comfort level with technology. Staff can master the intricacies of .NET or Linux, for example, at their own pace and on their own schedule.

The availability of 24/7 online training makes it a particularly beneficial choice for employees such as help desk professionals who may work non-standard work hours and have less access to other training solutions. And it can save the time and expense of sending staff to another location for instruction.

However, e-learning does require self-motivation and it is not always a good substitute for face-to-face interaction with educators.

Know when classes are better. Courses and seminars are often the most effective way to teach subjects that require interpretation or group input, rather than just memorization. You might find classes work well when training employees on managing end-users or conveying complex technical information during presentations, for instance.

As much as e-learning can teach the basics of a topic, it is often the classroom atmosphere that helps IT professionals master ways of applying their knowledge to real–world situations. Keep in mind you may not need to hire teachers from outside the organization to lead training sessions; managers within the firm or recently retired employees might be ideal candidates to step in.

Use internal resources. Mentoring programs, in which staff members are paired with others in the organization who are experts in a particular area, are an excellent method of training IT professionals. These programs can be used to supplement online or classroom instruction, or as the sole method of imparting knowledge on a topic.

You might, for example, assign a software engineer who has just completed e-learning courses in leadership to meet regularly with a director in the department about what it takes to move into management.

Mentoring can also be used to cross-train employees; for instance, pairing an applications developer with a technical support professional so both can learn how their work affects one other. The applications developer can better understand common problems with the product he or she is updating, and the technical support employee can gain a new respect for the development process.

Cross-training can also enhance relationships throughout a department or organization.

Maximize the investment. In the IT world, it’s easy to place too much focus on technology skills and overlook the value of professional development in other areas of value on the job. In fact, when Robert Half Technology asked 1,400 CIOs if they offered their IT staff training in non-technical areas such as leadership, communication, project management and business fundamentals, 47% said no.

Instruction in non-technical areas can greatly enhance the team’s productivity as well as its ability to solve everyday challenges such as improving efficiency and competitiveness. So, make sure whatever training method you choose, that you are considering all of the skills-gaps that exist in your department.

In addition, be sure to track the success of your professional development program to ensure the organization is receiving a quantifiable benefit. You might, for instance, have a staff member complete a test in an application prior to training and then retest him or her afterward.

Also ask employees what they think of the program offered. Are they satisfied with the quality of training? Do they feel it enhanced their knowledge or abilities?

Finally, make it as easy as possible for employees to follow through with training. If workers are expected to complete courses on personal time or allocate hours to learning a new subject during a major IT initiative, they may skip the training entirely. Be willing to make scheduling accommodations or adjust workloads when necessary.

Consider your training options carefully and make sure you are giving the program the greatest chance for achieving results. You will help ensure you have the right base of expertise in place to meet upcoming business challenges and expectations.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalftechnology.com.