Skills and training

Chandan Mehta,
product manager at Fujitsu Technology Systems in the region

The Middle East has traditionally and for many years, suffered from an acute lack of well-trained IT personnel. This lack, and subsequent need for good people on the IT floors of organisations, has been well-documented over years.
Which is why it comes as quite a surprise when industry stakeholders still disagree on the nature of the skills that are found lacking.
“A quick search for vacancies in the Middle East reveals the demand and almost certainly, therefore, the lack of skills required to fulfil those roles – 27,772 vacancies in the IT/Telecoms category. That’s across a broad range of skills and knowledge levels, but in our experience the key skills lacking are ITS (Information Transport Systems) design, Project Management and, surprisingly, even basic installation skills in copper and optical fibre cable. Manufacturers and distributors are demanding these specific areas of knowledge, expertise and qualification to avoid poor performing solutions provision and, importantly, the delivery of those solutions,” says Andrew Stevens, group MD at CNet Training.
Juniper’s channel and general business sector director Taj El Khayat says, “The region is definitely witnessing a shortage in ‘specialised’ skills that could cater to the new ICT solutions underway such as virtualisation, cloud computing, etc. The skills sets available today are those of ‘generalist’ IT skills because IT training budgets have been cut. This lack of specialised skills creates a major expense on customers today.”
“IT architectural and mid to longterm planning skills are what we would identify where the gap between demand and supply is maximum. Additionally, generalist skills too need development for the region – companies need personnel who can understand the slew of technology, products, services, alternate delivery mechanisms being hurled at them, and take a balanced decision for their respective situations,” says Chandan Mehta, product manager at Fujitsu Technology Systems in the region.
If those are the statements from the vendor community, the enterprise end-user in the region almost always feels differently on the point of skills and training.
As Indranil Guha, manager of infrastructure management at the Roads and Transports Authority (RTA) in Dubai puts it, “The IT resources that are available in the market often lack the skills to connect to the real business requirement. Most of them come up with a too technical solution, unable to portray the same in a business language and hence business doesn’t understand. Thus, business often sees IT as inhibitor – too slow and lacking agility. IT hence fails to embark on an opportunity to show themselves as business drivers. It is also observed that the technical resources with deep technical ability in the region and enterprises often have to depend on resources outside the region for Level-3 support, causing delays in overall resolution timeframe when it comes to critical breakdowns.”

Juniper’s channel
and general business sector director Taj El Khayat

In the market
Just as much as the views on what is lacking in training differ, so does what the market offers enterprise end-users.
As Stevens puts it, “We therefore focus on the subject matter and qualification that is in demand. Our primary deliveries are BICSI RCDD (Registered Communications Distribution Design), TPMA (Telecommunications Project Management Association), and the CDCDP (Certified Data Centre Design Professional) and CDCMP (Certified Data Centre Management Professional) programmes. Depending upon your role and of course aspirations, one or all of these equips professionals with the knowledge, expertise and qualification to deliver first class solutions but, more importantly, to maintain and manage them.”
According to him, the newly developed CNCI (Certified Network Cable Installer) and CNCIPRO bring much needed attention to the all too easily forgotten basics of copper and optical fibre cable installation and testing; even today the most common cause of network failure is due to the poor installation of the infrastructure in the first place.
“We offer advanced courses in IT architecture, though this is limited to internal and Select Expert partner resources. We arrange bespoke training addressing most of the earlier mentioned topics for Large Enterprises in Europe or in-house,” says Mehta.
Apart from the regular set of classroom taught courses, which follow a set procedure and a pre-decided schedule, vendors also offer customised training options for large enterprises with specific requirements.
“The training choices we offer are very expansive. For companies that have tighter budgets and other restrictions on travel or attending our regular classes we offer remote classes – where they sit in their offices, the instructor sits abroad and delivers the same course. There are on-line video courses as well, which customers can buy and follow for a fraction of the normal cost of the courses,” says Hala Daboussy, principal, partner services manager at Symantec.
She adds, “We have two training centres in the region directly under Symantec – one in Dubai and the other in KSA. Whenever customers require training outside, we do bespoke and dedicated training sessions, tailored for the customer to get the most out of the course. We send out trainers to the onsite location, and we have noticed that this helps customers to open up; they believe that this is the best way to sort out the specific issues that they are facing.”
According to her, in the region around 50% of customers choose to send IT staff to Symantec’s training centres, while the rest opt for classes in-house. Most often, the latter is chosen by large enterprises, which have multiple projects and are sensitive to information specific to them being shared in a common classroom.

Sorting the chaff
The choices that are available in the region might seem like a lot at first glance. However, the truth is that they are limited in nature. Even the training offered by bigger vendors like Symantec is focused more towards their specific products and solutions. This means that while there is a whole lot of solution-specific curriculum out there, there is very little unbiased, agnostic options for enterprises.
Many regional enterprises also tend to shirk from sending their IT personnel on regular training courses. While really large organisations do invest regularly in constantly educating the IT teams, even slightly smaller ones think of training as an extra expenditure that can be, and often is, avoided.
Industry veterans like El Khayat are sharply aware of this problem. “I believe this is where the beginning of the challenge is. We have seen a slow adoption of regional enterprises allocating resource and time on staff training.  This could create un-committed and de-motivated IT staff as they could fall behind in new skills and knowledge that training courses can bring.  From our perspective, regional enterprises must allocate time and resource to ensure  IT staff are trained and continually learning to become more specialised and move away from simply being IT generalists.”
“It can be resisted and often perceived that training is a one-off exercise. The sign of a high quality organisation is a commitment not only to train and qualify employees, but to maintain that level of knowledge and to keep up to date with fast moving technology advances and international standards updates. The standard governing certification programmes (ANSI/ISO/IEC STANDARD 17024) makes this regular update process mandatory for the certification body. This is of course designed to encourage individuals and employers to keep up to date with their own industry,” states Stevens.
He continues, “It may seem like an unnecessary on-going cost, but imagine this; would you allow a technician who was trained ten years ago and who had never received any further training or update to install CAT 6A cable in your computer room or data centre? Updates and regular progression are vital to enable personal development and therefore the expertise, quality and reputation of the employer. Microsoft spends $9 billion on research and development every year. It doesn’t take very long to fall behind with what’s new at that rate of progress in an already fast moving industry.”
Fujitsu’s Mehta says, “We have both kinds, enterprises who have a structured IT training and development policy, as well as enterprises who restrict training to the solutions they deploy. Sending IT staff to regular training sessions is more pronounced in enterprises which view IT as critical to their operations.”

Keeping it in-house
“We regularly send our resources for technical and soft skills trainings. Such training needs are identified out of employee competency matrices and are jointly addressed by IT and HR Departments. We also tag requisite training as part of projects on specific skills which are required to sustain such projects in production. We also regularly do internal knowledge sharing sessions, both technical and soft skills which keeps the team abreast and honed. Collaboration and team work are the key not only for project management and execution but also for knowledge management. Last but not least, we regularly sends our staff to participate in seminars and workshops to keep up-to-date with technology and trends,” says Guha.
Not most organisations are like the RTA. Many in the Middle East still walk the thin line between choosing to train or not; however that does not mean that they are ignoring the need for the staff to be constantly updated. Interestingly, many organisations in the region actively encourage their staff to ‘self-train’.  This means largely doing research on the internet, talking to peers and attending conferences.
In fact, many CIOs in the region who are dabbling in virtualisation are doing so without any external vendor help with training. When the project is brought to the table, the IT team assigns responsibility and the person selected ‘trains’ himself or herself, keeping in mind the specific requirements of the enterprise.
However, vendors still believe that regular, structured training is essential for IT staff. They also advocate a mix of strategies – including research, training and sharing of thoughts of peers – to ensure they are up to speed on the latest developments in the most comprehensive manner.
“It is important for enterprises to understand that IT can easily move from being a support division to actually one which can drive financial and operational gains. As with any such division in an enterprise, better trained personnel can make better decisions and the company can derive maximum benefits,” points out Mehta.

Ten steps to increased productivity through effective training

What if there ware an easy way to increase employee productivity by 10% using the technology that is already in place?
What if there was an easy way to increase employee productivity by 10% using the technology that’s already in place? What would that do to the bottom line? Even a 1% gain would be significant for most large organisations. In this day and age when CIOs are competing for budget and every dollar of technology investment must be justified, CIOs should not overlook training as a means to boost employee productivity and the ROI of existing technology investments.
Unfortunately it seems that too few people really know how to use the applications they have available in an effective way. Take for example the proliferation of spreadsheets in the workplace. Tools like Microsoft Excel have amazing features that support some powerful analysis and reporting. Yet many people fail to utilize basic productivity features built into such applications. We probably all observe people misusing tools and completing work the hard way simply because they don’t know any better. And Excel is just one tool that many of us use day-in-day-out. Outlook has some amazing features to boost productivity but few people know how to take advantage of them.
Even where some level of training in core ERP applications is provided to new employees, we know that very little is actually absorbed in early training. And much of IT training is focused on what buttons to press in what sequence to get a job done; very little seems to focus on how to use all the technology together as part of a productive business process.
As IT budgets have been squeezed over the years some CIOs have moved technology training out of IT and into HR. However, HR departments are not directly impacted by untrained staff in the way IT is, often resulting in weak measurements of success such as how many employees have been trained, or employee satisfaction measures, and not actually measuring the change in the employee’s ability to use the technology.
While poor training lowers productivity, there are also direct costs to IT resulting from a poorly trained workforce. On any major IT project, inadequate training can result in complete failure that costs millions to repair. In addition, poor training increases the burden on IT support services and reduces overall employee satisfaction with technology as a support for getting their job done, putting the success of IT at risk.
One option is for CIOs to re-focus IT resources on technology training as a way of reducing support costs and increasing employee satisfaction with IT. At the risk of repeating things we all know, here are ten proven steps in developing an effective IT-led training programme:
1. Consider making technology training the responsibility of the senior manager in charge of the IT help desk/support team: the more effective training is, the fewer calls they receive. Also, the help desk is an excellent source of information about what applications cause the most problems; and they can identify which employees will benefit most from training.
2. Hire staff skilled in training delivery or partner with in-house training and development teams in HR to build out the training curriculum focused on how people do their jobs today and how existing technology/applications can help them be more productive.
3. Develop training programmes in partnership with centres-of-excellence inside business units, and seek business sponsorship of training offerings. By demonstrating increased employee productivity and satisfaction, business units will be willing to pay for effective training and development of their staff.
4. Use business relationship managers to help identify areas of business process where more training is needed to use the available applications effectively. They can also identify potential system modifications that may yield significant productivity benefits.
5. Make integrated training modules a requirement for all applications developed by IT and third-party service providers. Have developers spend time in end-user training sessions – it can transform how they view ease-of-use issues for future development projects. (It’s also a good idea to have developers rotate through the helpdesk).
6. Focus on how the applications / technology change the business processes and train the employees how to be productive with the new services. Measure employee skill levels in applications post-training to assess effectiveness and determine whether follow-up training is needed.
7. Offer open productivity classes in core enterprise applications and popular tools such as Outlook and Excel and collect and share testimonials on how the classes helped increase productivity. (These can be outsourced to competent third-party training professionals).
8. Develop supplemental training materials to provide ongoing advice, such as blogs with tips and tricks for each application that also encourage employee experts to share their own insights. Create YouTube-style videos to supplement training and explain common problems faced by most employees (remember people have different learning styles and it’s important to offer training in all formats).
9. Promote training through marketing efforts such as cafeteria “lunch and learn” outreach.
10. Avoid common training mistakes by making training and communications a core competency of the entire IT organisation.

Certified employable

For many years, IT management has preached standardisation — within IT and across the corporation. Yet at the same time, we have largely failed to standardise IT skills within our own organisations or across the industry. Certifications can help there, but for much of IT’s history, such credentials have often been overlooked or undervalued in the hiring process.
That’s changing.
Some employers are beginning to require certifications for a wide range of jobs, and they often adjust salaries accordingly. With so many job seekers to choose from, employers need to quickly identify those who have the skills they seek. Granted, technical certifications do not guarantee that applicants will have the people and political skills that it takes to succeed in a corporate environment, but they can help employers triage rsums. And they’re helpful in avoiding the costs and productivity losses associated with training new hires. For new college graduates, a certification in programming says, “I know about more than the theories and models we learned about in school.”
Outsourcers also favor certifications, since they add credibility to project proposals. So if your department gets outsourced, certs can influence whether you are offered a job with the outsourcer or become unemployed.
Nonetheless, many older employees eschew certifications, asserting that their college degrees and job experience are sufficient. That’s unfortunate, because even experienced IT professionals benefit from certs that demonstrate their understanding of the latest developments in a particular area. Because most certs are awarded for three to five years and require continuing education, being certified demonstrates that an employee has taken the initiative to stay current in an ever-changing field. That’s a trait that’s important to most employers. And as technology continues to proliferate, specialised technical expertise will become increasingly valued.
The question isn’t whether you should get a certification; it’s which certification you should pursue. Certifications have proliferated over the past five years. In 2005, Microsoft (MSFT) offered six technical certifications; today that number has increased to 46, and technical certification holders have nearly doubled, to 2.9 million. Other organisations, such as the Business Architects Association, the International Institute of Business Analysis and the Institute of Management Consultants, offer specialised certification programmes. Many universities are also beginning to offer certifications.
There are even certs in IT management. The Project Management Professional (PMP) and ITIL Service Manager certifications are widely recognized and have a significant impact on hiring decisions. In fact, most of the federal government’s RFPs for project managers list PMP certification as a requirement. Government contractors speculate that the PMP cert will soon be mandatory.
But all certifications are not created equal. The PMP, ITIL and Microsoft certifications will continue to be widely recognized. Over time, however, some of the lesser-known certs will likely be merged, making some obsolete. Meanwhile, when choosing between such certifications, select those that are ISO 17024-certified.
It’s natural for certifications to grow in prominence as an industry matures and places more importance on professionalism. And the trend will continue. Many current IT managers are unfamiliar with the broad range of certs available, but as younger employees rise to management positions, certification will likely become a basic requirement, especially for more senior positions.
How many certifications are on your resume? If the answer is none, you need to change that. The time is coming when the word certified will be a synonym for employable .

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