Experts: Don't skimp on SMS training

Sure times are tough, and money is tight. But don't shortchange your staff on training. Some experts say honing platform skills is as important as the platform itself -- maybe more so.

Though belt-tightening is the norm these days, getting the most out of today's complex manageability tools, such as Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS), is no place to skimp in the budget, particularly where training is concerned.

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  • Of course, the amount of money and time you need really depends on the individual organization and IT staff. But knowing the proper use of these platforms is so important that if a company is planning cutbacks, it is actually better off deferring the platform purchase altogether, rather than take training time away from its staff, said Mitch Tulloch, a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based consultant and author.

    "There is no use in buying an expensive and powerful tool if you're only going to use 5% of its functionality," Tulloch said.

    But whether you should take six days to train or six months depends on your company's approach to the technology. Steven Conley, an engineering manager at Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Va., said that his organization will probably take six months before it's fully trained on SMS.

    That seems like a long time, but Conley said that the hospital is combing through the features it chooses to roll out to ensure it brings the maximum benefit to its end users. His team is following the documentation to the letter -- sticking to all of Microsoft's recommendations because, he said, most of the problems that users run into seem to happen when they are forced -- for security or some other business reason -- to tweak their operating systems, which can cause problems with SMS.

    The average business may need to set aside only three or four weeks a year for customized classroom training, in which they send administrators off "out of the fire and into a safe environment where they don't feel dumb asking questions, and where they can interact with colleagues facing similar stresses," Tulloch said.

    Tulloch, who is a former Microsoft-certified trainer, says that classroom training is superior to online classrooms because online training tends to just get piled on top of the administrator's other work. Online training is recommended for help desk personnel, who because of their junior staff position often aren't sent on expensive off-site trips, and developers who are often skilled in self-learning.

    The cost of training

    Experts don't put a dollar figure on the value of training, but they say that companies should consider the expense a necessary investment in the professional development of their skilled employees. For that reason, companies should not think of the two weeks per year they send employees off for training as vacation time.

    Randy Hammer, an engineer at VeriSign Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., software company, agrees. By keeping his training budget high, his employees are not only more valuable but happier as well. "It's easy for me to prove return on training investments because of the quality of technicians I employ," he said.

    Tulloch recommends that, for Microsoft products, IT administrators seek out a company that is a Microsoft Certified Technical Education Center (CTEC), which will offer an official curriculum taught by Microsoft-certified trainers (MCTs). CTECs are independent companies that meet Microsoft's standards for offering training and which use the curriculum developed by Microsoft.

    Find a CTEC where the trainers split their time between training and consulting, he said, to ensure that trainers "have real-world experience using Microsoft products and not just book knowledge."

    Customers said they would like Microsoft to do a better job posting materials that would aid in SMS training on its Web site. Microsoft currently buries a lot of its information on SMS across its site, and not in a manner that is particularly easy to search. "I'd like to see them organize it according to feature sets," one SMS administrator said.

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