A skilled IT staff can mark the difference between proficient operations and failure. Beware the warning signs of training programs that won’t create the IT expertise needed for long-term success.
By John Edwards
CIO | SEP 8, 2021
In today’s rapidly evolving IT world, having a highly trained staff is as important as taking advantage of the latest technologies and management practices. Yet despite the efficiency, productivity, and competitive benefits an expert team generates, many CIOs fail to pay sufficient attention to their organization’s training strategy, overseeing programs that, frankly… really kind of suck.
Leading a skills-deprived IT staff is like coaching a sports team that never bothers to study emerging tactics or rule changes. Such a squad is destined to be a guaranteed loser. To ensure that your organization fields a first-class IT team, pay attention to the seven warning signs that indicate an existing training approach could use a reboot.
1. Mistakes keep multiplying
Mistakes happen, but when errors mount, it’s time to consider whether teams are being trained well enough to meet project quality and completion goals.
“Many organizations provide a class to their teams and then assume everything is now good to go,” says Clyde Seepersad, senior vice president and general manager of training and certification at The Linux Foundation, a nonprofit technology and training consortium. The best way to address this problem, Seepersad suggests, is to evaluate whether current training programs are getting the job done, either by using industry-standard certification exams or the organization’s own evaluation processes.
Seepersad believes that strong management support is essential to achieve an effective training program. “Many organizations are looking at ways to cut costs and simply don’t provide training opportunities to their teams,” he says. “We often hear from professionals who say they truly need training in a particular technology to help their organization’s IT operations perform better, but they can’t get approval for the company to pay for the program.”
Seepersad adds that underfunding training is a critical mistake with potential long-term negative repercussions, leading to mistakes, diminished performance, and security issues.
2. Staff just keep complaining
Team members know when their training sucks, and when they begin to vocalize their concerns, it’s time to pay attention. “Listen to your employees, as they usually know which types of training might be best suited for their needs,” says Rob T. Lee, chief curriculum director and faculty lead at the SANS Institute, a cybersecurity training organization.
Staff feedback helps IT leaders understand whether the training skills being taught are actually useful to teams in their current jobs. “If not, it’s important to understand what courses employees might recommend,” Lee says. A strong dialogue, he states, will help management determine whether current instruction remains relevant or is no longer needed due to infrastructure or code upgrades. The niche skills required in day-to-day job tasks can evolve rapidly and change the training paradigm for an organization. “This is why having an open dialogue with employees is so critical to ensuring that training is timely and current,” Lee says.
Lee encourages organizations to take a blended training approach, giving staff access to key courses and sessions that map back to the core skills they’re applying in their everyday roles. “It’s important to have employees continually weigh in on whether the courses being offered are serving their needs,” he says. “Employee skills, job task requirements, and skills mapping to courses should be continually evaluated.”
3. Internal skills shortages become chronic
Perhaps the biggest indicator that IT training is coming up short is when managers have trouble staffing key projects simply because their teams lack the appropriate skills, says Robert Monroe, teaching professor of business technologies at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
Addressing this challenge requires performing an honest and candid assessment of how well staff members’ current abilities match the skills necessary to complete planned IT projects for the next several quarters, Monroe suggests. “Find and prioritize the gaps, then figure out how you’re going to help your team build the skills needed to meet your goals,” he advises.
In many cases, solving the skills shortage will require creating entirely new training priorities and processes. “If you truly have a failing program, it’s unlikely that incremental changes will fix it,” Monroe warns. “It’s time to consider re-engineering how you assess your skill needs and help your employees develop the skills your organization requires them to have.”
4. Established training goals aren’t being met
Whenever a staff training program fails to meet its established benchmarks, management’s first step should be to examine the project’s objectives, approach, and strategy. “If you don’t have the right tools and tactics in place to achieve your goals, it’s time to explore alternatives,” advises Jack Koziol, CEO and founder of the Infosec Institute, an IT training organization.
If the examination shows that all the right resources and practices appear to be firmly in place, yet training goals remain largely unmet, Koziol recommends seeking direct feedback from participating managers and trainers.
“Many of our clients have increased the effectiveness of their programs by simply asking employees and their managers questions about how, when, and what they prefer to learn,” he explains. “This includes employee preferences for content styles and formats.” Surveys and conversations conducted with managers, training personnel, and staff can also reveal major goal obstacles, such as a lack of time or management support.
Achieving long-term training success can be incredibly difficult, Koziol notes, without achieving internal alignment on what success actually looks like. “Working backward from your training program goals is a great way to establish leading and lagging key performance indicators to help you optimize your program along the way,” he says.
For some organizations, training success can be easily defined by reaching clear benchmarks, such as the percentage of trainees passing a certification exam. “In these cases, metrics like class attendance, engagement, and practice exam scores can help leaders forecast outcomes,” Koziol notes. Other types of training can be more challenging to assess, however, forcing management to rely on inputs such as surveys and measuring work performance rates achieved prior to and after training.
5. Training is outdated or too narrowly focused
Technologies in almost all IT areas are advancing rapidly, requiring training to become ever more flexible and adaptable. The skills needed to build and manage IT environments are also changing quickly and should be reassessed at a pace that equals technology change, observes Ola Chowning, partner with technology research and advisory firm ISG.
To keep team competencies up to date, Chowning advises IT leaders to perform periodic skill reviews, either through self-assessments or leader observations. “A key factor for success is refreshing the types of skills and competencies that are essential to the business,” she notes. When appropriate, IT training should also include building relevant business, relational, and behavioral capabilities. “Focusing solely on IT skills without addressing related nontechnical abilities can result in teams with a decreased ability to effectively apply technical skills to the actual business environment,” Chowning warns.
6. Ad-hoc and just-in-time training is becoming the norm
Flexible approaches, such as ad-hoc and just-in-time training, can help team members acquire the specific skills necessary to tackle projects that need to be addressed immediately, yet shouldn’t be relied on as a routine policy.
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“It won’t necessarily provide your organization with the skills needed to succeed at more strategic undertakings, or to take advantage of — or even be aware of — opportunities that new technologies might enable,” Monroe says. “Doing that requires a deliberate, ongoing, and coordinated effort across the organization to help your staff develop new skills.”
7. Training is treated as nothing more than a job requirement
When team members view training as a career-enhancing opportunity, not simply a necessary evil, eagerness to learn and willingness to explore new areas increase dramatically. Today’s cyber professional knows education is about much more than checking a box, Koziol says. “Our clients have a lot of success taking a learner-first approach to positioning their awareness and training programs,” he notes. “If you start with the ‘what’s in it for them,’ you’ll see success elsewhere.”