Crash Course

IT staff training: Assessing the need

Training is always an issue for managers. While they know that it's a perk that employees often enjoy and it improves employees' skills, they are also concerned about its cost, the employee being away from his full-time responsibilities, and the fear that the employee will use the newly acquired skill to seek another job elsewhere. On the other hand, a few days or a week at a training class can serve as a respite for a hard-working employee as well as increase his skill set.

However, because learning new skills is such a critical

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part of working in IT, providing training is an important part of managing an IT staff. There are so many IT classes offered that it wouldn't be difficult to have someone spend more time at training classes than they do at work. As a manager you have to balance a few items when doling out training:

  • Cost
  • Need
  • Employee morale
  • Scheduling demands

Cost

There are two issues involved with the cost of employee training:

  1. The cost of the training itself
  2. The cost of having the employee away from her full-time responsibilities

Often, the second issue far outweighs the first. The expenses for an employee to attend a training class vary greatly. Some classes are offered either locally or online, and may only be three hours in length. But many training options include cross-country travel, which requires hotel, rental car and travel expenses that can inflate the cost of the class by a factor of two or more.

Despite those variances, the real cost issue is often the expense of having an employee away from work for a period of time. Can you spare this individual for an entire week? Sometimes several people are sent to training together. Can you spare all of them?

Sometimes contractors can fill in for staff members who are at training, in which case the costs are fairly easily measured. But other times, some of your other employees or people from other departments need to fill in; the "cost" of these solutions, while not always visible, is often much higher than a week in a hotel.

Need

What is the short- and long-term value of this kind of training for an employee? Often the needs are well defined: Joe needs a Windows Administrator class because he will back up Maria while she is on vacation.

But other times, the issue gets cloudy: Mark wants to take an advanced Java programming class, but that isn't his exact responsibility right now and it isn't clear that the company is going to be using Java anyway.

"Need" may appear to be the clear deciding factor, but often the value of taking a training class is unclear. If that is the case, you need to use some of the other criteria listed in this section to help you decide whether or not to agree to have an employee take a training class.

Employee morale

Many employees view training as a reward. It provides them with concrete, resume-enhancing skills, sometimes lets them "get out of the house" by traveling to a warm spot in midwinter and often allows them to interact with professionals with the same interests and questions.

In addition, sending a staff member to a training course -- or even suggesting it for yourself -- can be an excellent way to motivate employees. Both you and your employees need to aggressively monitor their skill sets to make sure they are current and useful.

Also be aware that sending one person to training can occasionally cause a second person to feel resentment. One of the challenges any manager faces is how to juggle multiple responsibilities, such as how to manage multiple people. Make sure you spread the "wealth" around so that feelings like these have no basis in fact.

Scheduling demands

This is probably the most difficult issue to deal with. Many of your own staff will find the issue difficult, rightly recognizing that a week away from the office means a week of catching up when they get back. Who will cover for them? If they are overburdened right now (as many IT people are), how are they ever going to make up for a lost week's worth of work?

The answer is pretty simple: Evaluate the short-term costs versus the long-term gains. See the above three items; if the direct costs aren't overwhelming, if the employee (and your department) needs the training, and if their morale will be improved, go for -- and have them go for it.

How do you know when your employees need training?

There are three principal ways to identify when an employee needs training:

  1. They tell you. IT people are deluged by training class offers and by situations where they are aware of their technical shortcomings in one area or another. Asking the boss for a class or two is a common request. (Asking for a weeklong class on a cruise ship in the Bahamas is less common, but not unheard of.)

    You should consider an employee's request for training as a positive indication that they are interested in learning and doing more for the company. (It could also be an indication that they like being out of the office.) In addition, look at your employee's goals. Are they asking for the training to meet the performance goals you both set together?

  2. Your customers tell you. The IT department's customers can be a variety of groups: they can certainly be outside customers, but they can also be (sometimes exclusively) internal. In either case, if you solicit feedback from your customers about what their IT needs are, you may hear about specific technical services that your department can't provide without either (1) getting more training for current employees or (2) hiring someone else to do the job.
  3. You find out on your own because you are a proactive manager. Learn to address training needs before they become problems. If you do this, you'll save yourself tremendous time, money and effort over the long term. You'll anticipate your department's needs for Java developers and start running the ads months in advance, knowing that particular talent is hard to find.

    You'll budget for a new help desk support representative early in the cycle, before the seasonal sales cycle kicks in and all the calls come in. You'll also send your people for training in Windows network administration, for example, before the project to upgrade starts.

Certification

Most IT managers don't have the luxury of sending people to training just for the sake of training. As such, few IT departments are willing to sponsor their employees for training that leads to vendor or technology certification. This is simply because managers know that some of the classes in a certification program these days are fillers — they are of little or no use to a specific employee's job responsibilities. Of course, there are exceptions.

Some managers may use certification as a way of rewarding highly valued employees, or for those employees whose responsibilities are very specialized. Of course, sending an employee to the requisite classes doesn't guarantee certification; the employee still has to pass the exam. In fact, some companies won't even pay for the exam if the employee doesn't pass.

What if the employee takes a training class, and then uses his new-found skills to find another job?

Be honest about this problem

One effective technique is simply to address the issue with the employee beforehand, while you are still making a decision about whether or not they should go to training. As is often the case in business situations, bringing the topic out in the open can go a long way toward easing everyone's fears. Just discussing the issue doesn't create any legal arrangement, of course, but it should let both sides know where the other stands. As a manager, you should openly express your concern about the possibility of the employee "taking the training and running."

You hope the employee will reply that the job is much bigger than one skill set, they like the environment, they would work here for free they like it so much and so on. But if they don't, if they hedge or are evasive, or blurt out a series of negative statements, you've got a problem that a training class isn't going to solve.

Employee agreements

Many companies have a policy that says an employee has to sign an agreement to reimburse the cost of training if she resigns within X months of taking a class. Of course, many employers and employees are hesitant about even making such an agreement because it creates somewhat of a non-trusting, non-supportive relationship. Before asking your employees to agree to something like this, make sure you discuss the issue with your HR department — there is probably an existing policy about it.

Since the IT world is so fluid, this situation works the other way, too. Employees can spend months on certification programs for a company and then the company changes direction. For example, one IT manager had his entire Oracle database certification paid for but the company decided (at the last minute) to stay with Microsoft SQL. He eventually left to go to an Oracle shop.

Non-technical training

When you think about IT training, you generally think about technical training. It's important to remember that some of your staff may also benefit from non-technical training as a way of expanding their horizons, such as:

  • Time management -- for those who have trouble staying organized
  • Business writing -- for those who have to prepare memos and reports
  • Presentation skills -- for those who have to give presentations to groups
  • Interpersonal skills -- communications, conflict management
  • Supervisory skills -- for those who have a staff to manage
  • Project management -- for those responsible for keeping projects on
  • track
  • Leadership skills -- for those who have to manage others

Non-technical training can have tremendous value. Employees may not appreciate it as much as technical training, but you will value it. You can tell an employee that you're sending him to a non-technical training because you have plans to move him up in the organization, or you might tell him that his deficiencies in these areas are holding him back.

Your HR department can be the best source for non-technical training information. Training options are now more flexible and more accessible than ever before; in addition to the explosion of night and part-time schools, companies that provide on-site training, online courses and the myriad of different media-based educational options make getting trained a lot more convenient.

Maximizing the value of training

If you send an employee for training, it's because you see the need. It's then up to you as their manager to make sure that they're putting these skills to use. You should review the course curriculum to get a feel for what the employee should be able to do after completing the class. If an employee isn't using the skills learned in a class, it could be because the selection of that particular class was a poor one, or that you haven't challenged them to use their newly acquired skills.

In addition, consider the following training ideas:

  • Have the employee who went to training give an informal ("brown bag lunch") training session to the rest of the team. You can then see how much the employee learned and give your entire team some of the benefits of the training.
  • Have the employee formally train the employees who didn't attend the training; if the employee goes to the initial training with that goal in mind, it can add value to their experience as well as save the company money.
  • Consider on-site training where the content can be more contextually specific to your organization and your configuration.

 

  Printed with permission from Morgan Kaufmann, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2007. IT Managers Handbook: Getting your new job done, 2e by Bill Holtsnider and Brian Jaffe. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit www.mkp.com.

Click here for the chapter download.

 

 

This was first published in September 2010

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