Taking stock of skills

Insurance firm Travelers Property Casualty Corp. had a policy problem on its hands. The company's decentralized training strategy made it tough to effectively track course attendance and ensure curriculum was relevant for its 2,000 IT pros.

So two years ago, Travelers created its Learning Management System (LMS). Now workers can view and enroll in classes, and managers can use the data to better target offerings. And to let employees identify career paths, the insurer turned to skills assessment vendor SkillView to integrate its software with LMS.

Workers use the desktop application to learn their skills proficiencies and gaps. This information also helps managers pull together the best people for specific projects and develop their staff.

"Once the company knew what training courses were available on an organizational level, the next question was what training is needed. That was the catalyst for the skills assessment program," says Marc Berube, IS training manager at Travelers in Hartford, Conn.

The first step was for managers to develop a model skills profile for different jobs, such as network operations center technician and provisioning technician, and identify various levels, such as beginner, intermediate and senior.

Employees access the profile that reflects the skills and proficiency expectations for their positions. Users rate themselves against the criteria, from not proficient to expert. Managers also rate staffers and discuss discrepancies to determine agreed-upon scores. The SkillView application generates development plans, and LMS provides links to the relevant available training courses.

Rob McKinley, network operations manager at Travelers, says, "It gives everyone from management on down a strong assessment of where they are and what they need to improve."

Kazim Isfahani, principal analyst at Robert Frances Group, agrees that skills assessment can benefit organizations and employees. However, he says that some employees could fear the results would be used to help identify layoff candidates.

"At the start of the process you should communicate that the database would not be used to remove people, but to help make sure they have the right skills," Isfahani says.

At IBM Corp., techies use the firm's skills assessment program to put themselves in better reach for potential promotions to executive levels.

Since the early 1990s, IBM has run the IBM Professions Certification program to certify IT specialists, consultants, network architects and project managers. Of IBM's 15,000 IT workers in the U.S., 1,300 are IBM-certified IT Specialists.

To earn certification, individuals have to "defend" their experiences and qualifications, much as undergraduates would defend their theses, says Edge Nowlin, IBM Americas IT specialist discipline leader for networking and systems management.

Candidates must have a minimum of eight years' experience in their fields, be skilled in new technologies such as wireless, and create a 25- to 40-page document detailing their professional certifications and experience leading projects and writing contracts.

Although employees outline their technical knowledge in their applications, IBM wanted to recommend tests that would let candidates better demonstrate their skills. The company settled on using skills assessment tests from BrainBench and its own IBM Tivoli and Lotus certification exams.

Candidates aren't forced to take those tests, but the interviewers look favorably upon those who do and pass. Along with the IBM software exams, the vendor has made a range of BrainBench tests available on its intranet. Topics include project management and ATM.

Rather than awarding a pass or fail grade, BrainBench exams award a score ranging from 0 and 5. Candidates who score 2.75 are awarded a BrainBench certification, while those who get a 4.0 or higher achieve a master level certification.

Depending on their skill levels, the BrainBench system offers candidates a link to the top five books on Amazon.com that could help improve their knowledge. And by the end of the summer, IBM plans to begin building a database of staffers who achieve BrainBench's master level certification so that other candidates can contact them for mentoring opportunities.

"The self-analysis is extremely worthwhile. People can look back over their careers and realize that they are as strong as anyone in the industry," Nowlin says.

More about Amazon.comBrainbenchIBMRobert Frances GroupTivoliTravelers Property Casualty

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