Does Your Staff Have the Skills to Succeed?

When food and beverage maker Welch’s was preparing to deploy a complicated Oracle ERP system, the IT group responsible for the implementation wanted to make sure their staff had the right skills needed for the job. Wayne Lemmerhirt, former group manager of applications development at Welch’s, in Concord, Mass., held a series of meetings with his direct reports and identified four different sets of necessary skills, tools and languages. When matched against each IT employee, the resulting matrix clearly showed which staff member had which talents.

Next, the managers rated the people for each skill on a scale from one to five, says Lemmerhirt now a partner with OnDemand Services, a managed services consultancy in Burlington, Mass. The team also included such non-technical areas as leadership and project management skills. The result was a clear picture of each employee’s talents, enabling Lemmerhirt and his team to pinpoint which skills were missing and to decide whether to train existing employees or hire outside consultants.

What’s In Your Talent Warehouse?

Making sure you have the right talent in-house is important for several reasons. It ensures not only that project implementations will go smoother but that you can anticipate your long-term needs, manage any skills gap and reduce the enterprise risk associated with IT business initiatives.

“Knowing what you have in-house, who the people are and the skills they have is a terrific way of managing and mitigating enterprise-level risk associated with information technology,” says Diane Morello, a vice president and fellow at IT research and advisory firm Gartner, Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Morello recommends two approaches to streamlining IT talent management. Software competency models identify consistent behaviors and demonstrable practices to indicate if a person has particular skills and at what level. Automated resource management and portfolio management tools help track people’s skills, as well as their availability and project assignments. Which choice is best depends on how geographically dispersed the organization is.

“If you’re an organization that has 10 people and you know everyone sitting there, you can probably [manage skill sets] on an Excel spreadsheet,” Morello says. “But if your organization stretches across cities and continents and time zones, then the more automated the process is, the more visible it will be to people in different areas so you can capitalize on what skills exist in different locations.”

Brian Domenick, the director of IS and Technology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., begins to develop a clear understanding of the skills of each member of his 10-person staff during the interview/hiring process. “The key is communication from the start to figure out who is best suited for what tasks,” says Dominick. “Over time it becomes apparent who has what tasks and what skills match. When a project comes up, I have no question in my mind who should do it.”

Domenick gets very involved in the interview process. “Even though I have managers underneath me, I like to converse with people periodically. That keeps me abreast of who does what.”

In Search of the Right Skills

With technology expanding so rapidly, Domenick says it can be a real challenge to incorporate all the skills an organization needs on staff. One solution: powerful partnerships. FDU has formed collaborative relationships with other colleges and universities in New Jersey. If one institution doesn’t have an employee with a particular skill, the IT group can borrow a person with the necessary talent and pay them as a consultant.

For Welch’s Oracle implementation, Lemmerhirt didn’t have the budget to bring in consultants skilled in Java, Perl and XML. His team chose Java as their coding language and focused on training certain staff members.

“We looked at whether anyone with the older skills could easily transition to object-oriented programming or Java and Perl,” Lemmerhirt says. “We found some people who could pick up similar technologies,” such as programmers who could transition from RPG to Java. Because Lemmerhirt knew that other staffers wouldn’t learn the new skills as easily, he relied on the first wave to undergo the transition to mentor the others. This, he says, turned out to be a good strategy.

Any IT managers looking to get a handle on their staff’s capabilities, whether in preparation for a specific project or just in general, should follow these three steps:

  • Make an inventory of each employee’s skills.
  • Create a matrix that displays in-house skills — and skills gaps — at a glance.
  • Solicit opinions from others on staff to make sure the matrix is adequate and accurate.

“Decide where you want to go,” says Lemmerhirt. “Then work on a plan to get people there.”