Where there's a skill, there's a course

Just keeping up with technology is a prime reason for ongoing training, but it also improves the bottom line and makes the task of retaining staff in a skills-starved market so much easier. Jacinta Thomler reportsRecruitment companies say that one of the major reasons IT staff give for leaving organisations is because they "aren't learning anything new".

In today's rapidly changing environment, it is easy to understand why IT staff feel the need to constantly learn. Job and career training has taken a prominent place alongside share options and bonuses in the battle to attract and retain IT staff. Retention rates in the IT field are low, with an industry average around 15 to 20 per cent.

There are too few bodies and an oversupply of jobs - a situation that looks set to continue for at least several years. Combine that with the type of person interested in an IT career, a curious self-starter, and it's no wonder training is important. At the individual level, Australian Information Industy Association's Michael Hedley believes that, "in terms of attracting and retaining staff, training services are one of the things high in employee minds". But there are also advantages at the organisational level too. A lack of training can have a substantial impact on an organisation's ability to meet new challenges. Kamalelh Goswami, divisional manager of education and training at NIIT (previously, National Institute of Information Technology), says that, "for every dollar not spent on training, you will spend at least $3 on upgrading and maintaining systems and outsourcing. That is simply the cost a company would incur to maintain existing systems; the cost of progression is even higher."

In a report on ERP Project Staff Retention Strategies, industry analyst Gartner found that inadequate training opportunities were a major contributor for companies facing retention issues up to 100 per cent higher than industry averages. The report found companies investing only 3 per cent of their payroll on training experienced twice the staff turnover as those investing 6 per cent.

Peter Scope, Cisco's marketing manager for education programs, believes that training is a core way of maintaining corporate knowledge and employee skills, "and as Cisco's policy is to employ the top 5 per cent of people, that skill enhancement is absolutely required".

Doug O'Hara, the education services manager of Aspect Computing, is another advocate of the importance of training: "If you haven't got it, you are severely disadvantaged." He maintains that IT staff training is increasingly critical for employees to remain effective and companies to remain competitive. "The rate of change occurring both in hardware and in software is very, very high. So just to stay level you must be constantly exposed to new ideas."

Michael Hedley agrees. "From our point of view training is extremely important. There is plenty of evidence around which shows that leading IT companies view training in the same light. If you look at companies like Dell and Cisco, they have substantial in-house training programs and it is part of the corporate philosophy to encourage people to train." He says that with the increasing speed of business it has become critical that companies bring new recruits up to speed fast. The shortage of skills in the market can often mean extensive upfront training and induction programs. "We see plenty of evidence that IT companies, from small to large, take induction and culturalisation very seriously. Depending on the job, the level and how long the person has been in the industry, these programs might last up to six months or longer."

Training has been recognised as a key area for business for a while now. In September 1998 Gartner released a report evaluating the influence of IT training on the corporate bottom line. The report found that, "like compensation, training guarantees neither recruitment nor retention. Its absence, however, makes an enterprise unattractive". By assessing information services clients, Gartner concluded that typically companies spent between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of IT payrolls on learning. However, best-of-breed companies spent between 7 per cent and 10 per cent and in situations where the organisation was facing great change this could rise as high as 15 per cent.

These figures are reflected in Australia. Hedley says "CEOs generally say they spend around 10 per cent of their revenue on corporate training. To a certain extent this gives a benchmark for employee remuneration of about 10 per cent based on training."

The amount of training per employee varies widely by company. Across the IT and Internet industries the average is 20 days, with technical staff generally experiencing higher levels of training versus administration and sales. Cisco averages more than 45 days. Each staff member has a required number of training days based on job function and manages their own training. Every year staff sit down one-on-one with their managers to structure a personal training map for their job and career. NIIT, on the other hand, allocates around 18 days per person. Goswami maintains "we spend 20 to 25 per cent of our revenue in the area; as a knowledge-based company if we don't invest in that, we would not be in the market".

Value of certification

But IT training doesn't end with the nuts and bolts of programming and hardware. Hedley says he believes: "What companies are really interested in is well-rounded people. Technical people have to have a good understanding of the technical products and knowledge within their sphere as well as some business acumen and customer service skills. Quite often training is provided in the latter areas."

Of the different companies interviewed for this article, most believed that certification was a key form of training and would remain so into the future.

Scope believes that more companies will be moving into the certification area as vendors to help set global standards in measuring different skill sets; "certification courses are absolutely imperative.

"Industry is requiring potential employees to prove their level of skill and competence. The only way this can be done is through certification."

Goswami agrees: "Organisations are looking for standard IT training which will lead to vendor certification and are also looking at wrapping up skills so they can stay state-of-art."

O'Hara approaches certification differently. The training course run at Aspect does train up to certification levels, but Aspect does not do certification itself. O'Hara believes it should be up to the individual to decide whether to sit the certification exams or not.

E-learning

The future of online training looks extremely bright and Peter Scope says e-learning has the potential to make "e-mail appear to be a rounding error".

In the US, Training Magazine reported that companies would spend $54 billion on formal training in 2000. Some 6.5 per cent of this training would be delivered via the Internet or intranet.

Forrester Research reported in August that companies find the Internet a cost-effective delivery channel for 'hard skills', but are still are frustrated by delivery and quality considerations. Of the companies Forrester surveyed, 51 per cent reported using online training to teach programming and application software skills, with a significant proportion, 26 per cent, using Web conferencing for interactive learning.

However, 77 per cent of the companies interviewed did not track the level of usage and 66 per cent the effectiveness of online training, or e-learning initiatives. Forrester found that there was both resistance from staff, who preferred traditional training mechanisms, and limited use of the Internet environment beyond static HTML pages. Forrester concluded that e-learning was particularly effective for knowledge acquisition; skills development had to be supplemented by in-person supervision and behavioural modification required an even higher level of face time.

Scope said: "Companies see the costs of live training. Not to say that live training is not valuable, but it is crucial to provide the right training solution. E-learning allows flexible learning - different ways of learning for different people."

Cisco is one of the leaders in using e-learning, using it extensively throughout the organisation. The company has implemented a complete Web-based training program that allows all staff, from the managing director to the receptionist to plan and maintain their own training throughout their entire career.

Scope says the system has been developed to "cover everything.

It allows staff to book training courses, book travel and accommodation if that is required. A lot of that training is video-on-demand. A lot of it is self-paced training and a lot of it is live."

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