Who's in the house?

If you're an IT manager, you need to know what skills your staffers possess. Without a proper skills assessment, how can you go about planning projects, changing strategy, outsourcing work, and training or downsizing staff?

"The IT field changes so rapidly that you need to know what skills you have compared to what you might need," says Betty Calhoun, director of special IT projects at DynCorp Systems and Solutions LLC, a federal contractor in Gaithersburg, Md.

Your human resources department may be able to help with the assessment, says Linda Pittenger, CEO of People3 Inc., a Bridgewater, N.J.-based IT human resources consulting unit of Gartner Inc. But the CIO should take the lead, because the IT workforce is ultimately his responsibility.

Before you start, know why you're doing it and focus your efforts to get the information you need. For example, if you're planning to build Web front ends on mainframe applications, be sure you use an assessment tool that covers all the bases around Web and mainframe skills.

Choose an Approach

There are three approaches you can take: You can hire a consulting firm to manage the skills assessment for you, purchase a software tool designed for the process or build one yourself. You can also track skills manually if your IT department is small enough, but if it's that small, you probably already know everyone's skills.

The CIO at a large Midwestern manufacturing company recently completed an assessment of 200 IT people using the services of a consulting firm. "We're looking at a very large .Net project and want to know who has what expertise so we can use that in our deployment schedule," says the CIO. She asked to remain anonymous because her employees are "kind of paranoid," fearing that the assessment may signal an impending layoff.

"This process is one that gets employees uncomfortable," says Gordon Lavalette, chief operating officer at People3, "so communicate before, during, after, early and often."

The CIO's workers had two weeks to complete online profiles of themselves, using a five-point grade on skills ranging from specific hardware and software expertise to project management experience. The information was automatically forwarded to their managers, who had a week to review it, clear up any discrepancies and sign off on it. If there were discrepancies, the managers and employees discussed them and worked them out. It was up to the managers to bring it all to closure.

Such skills ratings aren't tied to performance reviews or salary discussions, so there's really no need to embellish, experts say. If someone says he has a particular skill, he'll probably be called upon for an upcoming project.

Get buy-in from managers in advance, particularly for IT people who work in the business units, the CIO advises. And time the assessment carefully. "We did it right after midyear reviews, when we're focusing on project planning and training for the balance of the year," she explains. "We wouldn't have done it before reviews; people read too much into it."

The service cost about US$30,000, including the ability to slice and dice the data in various ways, she says. But it will provide only a fleeting glimpse of her workforce. "If you don't own the software, all you get is a snapshot," she says. "You don't have the ability to update it. We'll decide in a year or two whether we want to own the tool or if a snapshot is good enough. But if you're going to own it, you'll at least double the cost."

Filling Gaps

Jim Hughes, CIO at National City Corp. in Cleveland, uses a customized tool called PlanView Web Software from PlanView Inc. in Austin, Texas, to keep up with changing skills in his project-intensive culture. At $600,000, the package provides a variety of human resources management and project management tools, including an up-to-the-minute skills assessment of his 1,200-member IT workforce.

"Project staff are being constantly reassigned, and each project will need different combinations of skills," Hughes says. "To meet project demands without interruption, we need to track the capabilities of our staff."

When a project is completed, the manager reviews each team member's performance, noting any new skills acquired and assessing the levels of existing competencies. These updates feed into the resource management database, which Hughes consults when mapping out projects for the coming year. He compares existing skills among his staff with projected needs and plans training to close the gaps.

If you use a tool with which IT workers rate themselves, save time by having each employee complete only the sections that relate to his current work and career goals, Calhoun advises. For example, a Cobol programmer who's learning Java could ignore categories like database administration and routers.

If you choose to build your own assessment tool, be forewarned: It's a big job and probably not cost-effective. Instead, "find a package that makes sense and tweak it, but don't sit down with a blank piece of paper," Calhoun says.

Regardless of your method, remember that each result is like a snapshot. If you want an up-to-date picture, experts say you'll need to repeat the process every 12 to 18 months or use a package that can be continually updated.

Ask the Experts

How do you minimize paranoia in your IT staff when you do an IT skills assessment?

-- One word: communication. You can design the best program in the world, but if you don't spend the time and energy for communication, it falls apart. Your success may also depend on how you've used data in the past. In organizations where compensation is a black box, you're never going to get your employees past the paranoia, because if you haven't shared other information with them, they won't believe you now. - Georgine Young, Hewitt Associates LLC.

-- The key here is to begin discussing the need for a skills assessment in advance of the actual activity. Follow-up is also vital. Once the assessments are complete, the IT department must embark on a retraining process for those lacking skills, assign highfliers and highly skilled staff to major projects, and implement a continuing education and training program for all staff.

- Kazim Isfahani, Robert Frances Group.

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