Why IT staff training should always be a high priority

QAlogoBack in February, I read with surprise and disbelief that VMware’s “senior cloud infrastructure evangelist” Mike Laverick had written off employer supported training and continual professional development.  It seemed a very odd thing to say, and my first thought was to dismiss it as just a way of stimulating debate and generating some good press for VMWareThe quote came from a Register article and referred to Mike’s presentation about his self-built test lab at VMWare user groups in Sydney and Melbourne.  Mike said;

“The days of being sent on training courses is gone”

According to Mike, “The burden is now on you to get the skills and knowledge you need. It is assumed you will learn as you go.”

Now, to some extent you have to interpret this statement in the light of Mike’s role (in his own words “drone on about how you need get VMWare into your life”) and his perspective as an individual.  I wouldn’t say Mike is wrong to encourage IT systems people to run their own mini-lab at home; I have team members who do this, and reap the benefits.

Where I strongly disagree is that the burden is on the individual to ‘learn as they go’.

The costs and risks of not training your staff

I am lucky enough to work in an institution where job security is far better than most other employers, and the average time spent working here (in my department) is over 8 years.  There are obvious benefits to the employee in this scenario (they get financial security and the opportunity to progress within the organisation) and the employer (lower turnover means lower costs of recruitment, associated training and lower risks).  The downside, and one particular noticeable amongst IT staff at the University, is that the job can change around people, and they don’t change in response.  This often leads to performance issues as people’s competence in the ever changing environment of technology shrinks, until they are unable to perform effectively in their role.

The end result of neglecting staff development is risks and costs to the institution, from poor IT Service delivery to information security issues.

This is where the managers responsibility to ensure their staff continue to develop throughout their employment comes in.  You cannot expect staff to stay in the same role for year after year without giving them the opportunity to expand or refresh their professional skills.  You should challenge them, stretch them, allow them to explore new areas, and develop as a result.  Even good staff will suffer and under-perform if they are left to go stale.

Choosing the right training provider

This was uppermost on my mind at the beginning of the year when I was writing the training plan for my team, and needed to identify a supplier (or suppliers).  I was looking for excellent value, a wide range of courses, and a professional and easily accessible service.  Ideally I was looking for a voucher based system, which would give us a better price break, and reduce the administrative overheads of looking for competitively priced courses for 10 different staff.  After comparison of three vendors I purchased a training voucher from QA Training.  That voucher will satisfy the departments training needs over the next year to 18 months, and ensure that most, if not all members of the team will get to go on an external training course.

The benefits of investing in staff training

This investment wasn’t insignificant (over £1,000 p/person), which is why we explicitly set aside a proportion of our income from user charges towards training.  The pay off however is significant;

  1. Staff morale.  Knowing that your manager encourages you to develop your skills, and will invest time and money in enabling you to do that has a real positive impact.  It can be the difference between feeling like a drone, and feeling like a valued member of the team, with prospects.  This will obviously have an impact on your service as happy staff will generate happy users.
  2. Retention of staff.  The Clinical School Computing Service has an excellent staff retention record, with our Core Infrastructure Team largely made up of staff who started work as 1st and 2nd Line Support staff, answering the phones, and going out to users and resolving their problems.
  3. Quality of service. In our case retention of staff means the people looking after the infrastructure are keenly aware of the importance of uptime, performance and availability, which has a positive impact on the service.  It also means the team has a wealth of knowledge of our users, their requirements, and the environment they work in.  That is one reason why our service has generated a growing user base for the past 5 years.
  4. Quality of systems.  Now matter how good your email server, file server or application server implementation is, if you don’t refresh and renew it, it will gradually fall into decline until it’s unusable.  Keeping your team’s skills fresh means they will be motivated and enabled to keep the systems up to date.  They will also spot opportunities to develop new systems and services as new technology offers new functionality.

The policy at the Clinical School Computing Service over the past five years has been to reserve an fixed proportion of our income for staff support, primarily training.  This has without doubt been part of the reason why our service is so successful, and will continue to be successful.  In an economic environment where budgets may be tight, you still neglect training at your peril.  When times are tough, you have to perform even better to maintain your position.  Training helps you do that, not training sets you up for failure in the years to come.

Next month, I’ll be blogging about the other side of training; training for end users.  You might think, “why should the IT department care about end user training, that’s up to their managers”, but ill informed end users cost you money too.  I’ll try and explain why, what you can do about it, and how you can measure the benefits, next time.

Richard Bartlett

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