Working the learning curve

If professionals working in the ICT sector have had trouble shaking one negative stereotype over the last 25 years it is that while they may have great technical talent, their management skills are not yet up to scratch.

While there is evidence suggesting many IT professionals are diversifying their skills bases - not least record numbers in both the availability of in postgraduate courses and enrolments in them - there is still some way to go before IT professionals are regarded as well-rounded business practitioners.

One person who is more than familiar with criticism business units aim at IT about the management skills of technologists is Mary Ann Maxwell, former Westpac Bank CIO and now Meta Group Asia Pacific managing director. While Maxwell sees some positive change in corporate perceptions of IT professionals, she agues there is still a considerable way to go to win respect at the boardroom table.

Maxwell argues that there is still some justification to the stereotype that IT professionals need to brush up on their management and people skills if they are to get ahead - and this means gaining professional management qualifications that are relevant to other parts of the business.

"The business wants IT to think business and do IT. [Negative stereotypes are] still the case and sometimes still justified. I'm a firm believer that people in IT [management roles] need to do a degree in business. If people in IT are going to wind up in senior parts of the business, they need business qualifications," Maxwell says.

As for what business-sponsored postgraduate degrees offer both enterprises and employees, Maxwell is adamant companies investing in staff education gain both a competitive advantage and old-fashioned loyalty.

"I still hear the argument that if you train people, they will get another job. But they will get another job if you don't train them ... a job that offers them [opportunity to educate themselves]. I know it's a generation-X world, but I still believe you get a degree of [staff] loyalty [by sponsoring education]," Maxwell says.

One technology-based employer sold on postgraduate sponsorship is Eagle Datamation International, a wholly-Australian managed and owned software developer producing enterprise applications for the transport, logistics and supply chain industries.

With a core workforce of around 80 people, EDI managing director Richard White is evangelical about imbuing what he calls a "learning culture" and the competitive benefits educational sponsorship brings.

All employees at EDI are eligible to be sponsored to do any postgraduate studies based on two simple criteria: it must be relevant to the company and diversify the candidate's knowledge base and skills rather than merely reinforcing them.

"Most of employees are technical, so we want them to branch out," White says.

In terms of return on investment to his enterprise, White argues the benefits are many. Firstly, staff become more capable, motivated and driven - resulting in better across the board in management and improved productivity.

"If you can add even 1 to 2 percent productivity to a team of 50, that's a still big improvement," White says.

Fostering employee loyalty is another big incentive for White, who strongly believes in being able to recruit the best staff and then hang onto them. This means being able to offer opportunities for both career and personal development in addition to genuine job satisfaction and stability.

"It means we can attract the best candidates into the right jobs and keep them ... that really means a lot to us," White says.

To this end, Eagle's postgraduate sponsorship program is designed to motivate and reward employees who excel in their studies. While Eagle will not contribute money towards a student obtaining a pass mark for a course, those obtaining credits have half their course costs covered, while distinctions attract full funding of the course cost. For those obtaining high distinctions, EDI pays all associated costs of the degree including textbooks, course materials and student fees.

"It makes people take it seriously ... and we get very good results," White says.

Other IT companies getting good results from postgraduate education include some of the world's biggest technology players such as IBM and Microsoft. As multinational corporations which often require staff to take up positions overseas, players such as IBM maintain a strong focus on not only staff retention, but building a corporate knowledge base that extends back almost a century and precedes modern computing as it is known.

The company maintains a formal employee education and personal development scheme known as the Academic Learning Assistance Program whereby employees from all levels of the company are able to pursue further academic studies.

"IBM believes education is a life-long journey and is very supportive of postgraduate studies. [Our company's] most competitive advantage is its people, so it's essential to the success of the business that employees are continuously undertaking studies that enable them to compete in a highly competitive environment. Enabling employees to further their education is also an effective way of attracting and retaining high-value people," says IBM Australia's director of human resources Sandra Creaner.

To make sure studies remain relevant and of value to both employee and employer, individual IBM business unit managers also check approved courses are compatible with individual employee's career aspirations and roadmaps before approving reimbursement.

"Participation is voluntary, but conditional upon management approval prior to commencement of courses to be undertaken each year. Proof of successful completion of each course or unit of study is required when submitting claims for reimbursement," Creaner says.

In terms of the payoff on investment to IBM, a high proportion of employees stay with the company for at least a decade, with many serving their professional working lives with the employer.

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