Keeping IT skills sharp

One of the most common refrains you’ll hear in government circles is that the public sector is committed to training. And the Manitoba government is no exception.

“”Training is an investment in people, and we’re committed to getting the most from our people and giving them the skills to get the

most from our IT resources,”” says Manitoba CTO Dan Kerr.

During the high-tech growth years, training experienced a boom, along with anything else related to computers and networking. It was a priority in governments everywhere, and training budgets expanded along with the dot-com bubble. When the bubble burst, the training boom went with it.

“”Everyone felt that IT professionals needed the most up-to-date skills,”” says Julie Kaufman, IDC Canada’s manager of skills development research.

“”Then there was the implosion and people realized they didn’t need to train because they were going to get by with the technology they had.””

Indeed, Kaufman finds a lot of the talk about prioritizing training to be more than a little disingenuous.

“”In terms of saying that it’s important, it’s certainly a priority across the entire country,”” she says. “”In terms of actually providing the training, things are different because of the economic situation.””

Things are different because government IT training budgets are typically tied to new technology deployments.

“”Our training usually goes along with major changes,”” Kerr says. “”So when we contemplate major changes, training is always a consideration. A lot of planning goes into it, and we have to do training for changes that will occur, rather than training after a change””

Not just about raw IT skills anymore

To some extent, that reflects a shift in the focus of IT training across the board, says Richard Gordon, vice-president and managing director of Global Knowledge Canada, an IT training company based in Cary, N.C. Keeping employees’ skills up-to-date just isn’t a good enough justification for the expense anymore.

“”Just a couple of years ago, IT training was offered as professional enrichment,”” he says. “”You still see some of that kind of general training, but today, with the constraints on budgets, our clients are tying it to IT initiatives. If things go smoothly, the training starts when the project is launched.””

But what if no projects are actually being launched? According to Kaufman, with IT spending flat, IT training spending has actually been less than flat in some areas. “”Without all this spending on technology, you probably don’t have to spend a lot of money on training,”” she says. “”The knowledge and skills you need to use what you have are already there, and a lot of other strategies to share that knowledge within IT departments have taken the place of formal training. We’ve seen the amount of training actually fall.””

The slowdown in new technology investments doesn’t obviate the need to continue and even expand training initiatives, however. The bottom line, says Lesia Dubik, a human resources consultant with the Manitoba government, is that, if anything, economic realities have made IT training even more critical. That has meant a fair bit of budget “”repurposing,”” if not outright budget increases. “”The need is definitely there, and I think governments in general are committed to getting the most out of their IT investments,”” Dubik says. “”(Training) budgets need to rise.””

That seems unlikely right now, and in the absence of more money, IT training has had to become more flexible and efficient. That has meant oversight and regular reviews of goals and methods. Kerr’s department seeks input from IT staff and directors to regularly realign its priorities, and in that process, it has had to rethink what IT training is all about. Indeed, Manitoba’s IT Competency Development Program isn’t just about raw IT skills anymore.

“”We’re interested in developing our IT staff so they’re better at using the skills they have,”” he says. “”It’s not just IT skills, but soft skills such as program management.””

That has meant becoming more flexible in planning and more responsive to initiatives from within the IT community, Dubik says. It’s easy to plan for training when you’re deploying new technology; you have to keep your ear to the ground when it’s a question of getting the most out of the skill set you have.

“”We do have to be receptive to requests for training,”” Dubik says. “”Those requests come up in a number of ways; staff can initiate them, management in different departments can define their own priorities. We have found we have to be able to respond, and however a request comes up, we’ll consider it. The idea is to accommodate learning in the most effective manner.””

If anything, that kind of flexibility is beginning to define government IT training. For Derek Sparnaay, a PC technician for the City of Owen Sound, Ont., that meant developing his technical skills to match his management abilities. “”The city is very supportive in that way,”” he says. “”They’re interested in developing IT competencies from the inside. It’s sometimes hard to find people who have both the technical and people skills, though. I had the soft skills, so they agreed it would be a good idea for me to train on the technical side to match them.””

Case-by-case training costly

As enlightened as it might be, however, this kind of policy can be both difficult and expensive. Responding to internal initiatives on a case-by-case basis can mean training on a case-by-case basis, and without the economies of large-scale classroom training, that can get very expensive very quickly. It’s not the kind of expense constrained training budgets can easily accommodate. The trick is to find ways to accommodate flexibility while not breaking the bank, Kaufman says, and if IT training has an exciting new frontier, it’s on the Web. The word on everyone’s lips these days is e-learning. “”Everyone is really looking to e-learning as a growth strategy,”” Kaufman says. “”The classroom thing just isn’t working.””

The same budget pressures that have pushed training down the government agenda have begun to make e-learning look that much more appealing. In fact, according to Kaufman, while IT training as a whole remains flat, the Canadian e-learning market is really beginning to take off.

“”A lot of people in both the public and private sectors are looking at the possibility of extending their training budgets by doing it over the Web,”” she says. “”Cost is part of it; it can be very inexpensive — as low as $20 per course — but very customized training is still going to be quite costly.””

Flexibility the key point

The real selling point, however, is flexibility. Employees can attend classes without taking time out from work, and governments can farm out training on a case-by-case basis, rather than waiting until they have enough potential trainees to justify the expense. The Web lets trainers realize an economy of scale without having to maintain or rent physical facilities or concentrate bodies at one geographic location. At the very least, the Web promises to bring the training session to the trainee. “”The time management part of e-learning was a real advantage for me,”” says Owen Sound’s Sparnaay. “”I didn’t have to waste a lot of time travelling and staying in a hotel for an out-of-town session.””

Manitoba, though interested, is watching the e-learning revolution carefully without actually jumping in. “”We’re keeping an eye out,”” Dubik says. “”The tool is getting better and more cost-effective, but in terms of training our IT community, it doesn’t quite match our needs.””

With its IT community centralized in Winnipeg, Manitoba doesn’t have too much trouble getting everyone who needs training in one place for instructor-led sessions. However, the same isn’t true for the provincial government’s end-user community, which is spread out in offices from the 49th to the 60th parallel.

“”There are certainly opportunities in user training, for people to tap in at their own convenience, and we’re moving a lot closer to that,”” Dubik says. “”Online training could certainly be effective for people in places like Thompson and Churchill.””

And it’s not just point-and-click, either. E-learning companies are among the most enthusiastic users of bleeding-edge conferencing and IP telephony technologies. Gordon says Global Knowledge makes extensive use of voice over IP to create virtual simulacrum of an instructor-led course in a classroom.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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