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The importance of IT staff training -- and cross-training

You need to expand your IT team members' skill sets. But with a limited budget and maybe some resistance, where do you start?

It's not uncommon for a CIO, hired from the outside, to come on board only to discover that most of the staff is lacking in broader skill sets (they either know A or B skills, e.g., Windows or Java, but not both). As a CIO, you understand the importance of a IT staff training, but as a newcomer, you wonder if it's wise to attempt cross-training, especially if you sense resistance. And with a limited training budget, you have to ask yourself: Is it worth the money?

Career expert Jean Fuller says more often than not, having a well-trained staff is worth the effort and money. But, there's a right way to go about with IT staff training and some things you'll want to consider.

To start, let's say just 10% of your IT staff is cross-trained in Windows and Java (or whatever your two main skill needs are). These are the "hotshots" you call when there is a complex problem or emergency situation. Start from here:

  • First, reconfirm in your own mind the value proposition for cross-training. What are the scenarios, business reasons and risk management needs -- and perhaps even retention needs -- that dictate cross-training? List the criteria for cross-training and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • Be clear in your own mind how important this criteria is and determine what percentage of resources should be devoted to each. Ask which divisions, applications and support areas require these skills and what, if any, risks you take by not cross-training.
  • Determine one or two of those divisions, applications and support areas that you think could benefit most from a team of cross-trained employees. Establish a formal "pilot team" and task the members to justify the cross-training in business terms. Are they able to increase productivity or reduce costs?
  • After that, it's time to put some cross-training "pull strategies" in place to influence the team to self-develop. Here are some starter ideas to consider:

  • Award and give visibility to staff members who are cross-trained and willing to evolve their skill sets. Make it cool to be the smartest person in the room. Ask the current cross-trained staff to comment and lead discussions in team meetings. You want to unleash the enormous peer influence in the group to reset the culture bar to the new level of aspiring to be cross-trained.
  • Establish a mentoring project to allow staff to expand the cross-domain skill set team. Maybe even form teams of three, with two less experienced members and one cross-trained experienced team lead.
  • Give a real but intangible award to the hotshots. Consider including the senior customer executive in the awards and recognition events.
  • Now the tricky budget question -- let's explore some IT staff training ideas you could consider:

  • For those who aspire to learn, experiment with one hotshot as lead who would attend classes and be responsible for cross-pollinating with the rest of the hotshots and teams. Though this is a productivity hit, it's also a limelight that can have other rewards and motivators.
  • Award class time to high-performing regular staff members and have them give cross-training reports (not burdening them with the training of all the others but giving them an opportunity to shine with their new knowledge).
  • Give each person a work-at-home day for the day after class to absorb and plan how to use the material in the most productive way. Let your team explore those ideas and keep the innovation fires lit. If they have new ideas, make sure your door is always open. Invite team member to come back and present three creative, cost-justified ideas of how to utilize the information to add more value to the organization and your clients. Ask to see how it can minimize cost, lower risk, increase customer satisfaction, show customer-driven value and even help make the team function more smoothly.
    • Make it cool to be the smartest person in the room.

      Good luck creating your own approach to cross training. And share the wealth -- send us your ideas and success stories, as well as what IT staff training ideas you tried and what didn't work. There's a learning curve either way that might be valuable to your community of CIOs.

      Jean Fuller is CEO of Fuller Coaching, an executive coaching firm working with technology companies in Silicon Valley. She helps senior executives drive their career success inside their current company and plan transitions that meet their success objectives. Write to her at [email protected].

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