IT Training Beyond Technical Skills

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 10-28-2009

IT Training Beyond Technical Skills

What's training really worth?

At the most basic level, it increases your employees' know-how and helps them better do their jobs. Yet, too often, CIOs train their workers on technologies that will benefit the IT operation, but not necessarily the overall business. Also too often, those IT pros take their certifications or newly acquired skills to a better job at another company.

To be truly successful, CIOs can build training programs that benefit the business--and don't just focus on the bits and bytes of some IT specialty. That's easier said than done, of course, and in trying economic times training is one of the first pieces of the IT budget to disappear. So CIOs need to be motivated to do it right--and that means to train the business on the importance of training.

"Productivity at the end of the day has a multiplier effect: If you hire good people and give them good training, and combine those with the right processes and training, it makes a difference," says Don Imholz, CIO of Centene.

Several CIOs have been able to build effective programs that the business values--and, in turn, they've held on to their training budgets. Many have had to do this in turbulent times.

Take Mykolas Rambus, CIO of Forbes Media, the publisher of the prestigious business magazine. The media industry--particularly print media--has taken a drastic hit this year, as advertising dollars have all but disappeared in the face of the recession. Couple that with a major IT transformation Rambus undertook in 2008, and the need for a sharp IT function has never been greater.

"With that much transformation, we need to have an IT organization that can move and shift with the industry and needs of the business," he says.

Last summer, following the transformation project, Rambus launched a training program to help workers adapt to the new operating environment--and to prepare for what was to come. His goal was singular and clear: "To build more effective managers," he says. "It's that simple."

He and his team began a series of 12-week training programs on a number of issues focusing on management. The trainees learned not only how to lead, but how to hire, terminate and rank their employees.

Rambus installed some typical training materials, such as case studies, but he didn't use any technology cases. He also armed his deputies with Harvard Business Essentials: Manager's Toolkit (a popular managerial guidebook), and bought iPod Shuffles that he loaded with Manager Tool podcasts (a weekly audio program focused on building management and leadership skills found at manager-tools.com).

The Forbes CIO recognizes that, beyond technical and managerial skills, he and his managers--most of whom haven't held top positions in tough times--need to consider the personal challenges workers encounter outside the office. This led him to focus heavily on the concept of emotional intelligence, forcing IT pros to think beyond the usual technological concerns and consider the emotional and cultural side effects of the downturn.

Another unusual touch: Rambus--who once took an acting class to hone his communication skills--likes to use a camcorder. He and his team record their presentations and provide instant peer reviews. "We use the camcorder here all the time," he says.

Team Building

Team Building

When the economy goes south, so, typically, do training budgets. This affects the entire company, but IT feels the pain more than most. Giving workers the opportunity to expand their skill sets and hone existing specialties helps keep them satisfied in good times, but can also help boost morale in bad times, when little else does the trick.

Imholz took the CIO job at Centene a year ago and knew one thing: He was a newcomer of sorts to the health care world, after working at Boeing and then as a consultant. So he had to rely strongly on his staff.

But what he quickly realized was that his IT staffers didn't have strong-enough relationships with the business. So in addition to some formal technical training, Imholz focused on communications.

"I was the new person on the block to the industry. People who worked for me certainly had the experience," he says. "With a little bit of prodding, they can put things in business terms."

But it wasn't about classroom training. Instead, Imholz put his workers through some on-the-job training. He assigned each of his direct reports to work with the business heads at one of Centene's health plans--and took on an Indiana himself. They attend staff meetings either in-person or virtually and have in-depths talks with the plan CEOs.

Imholz doesn't tell his people how their collaborations should go. If one of the plans is having problems, he and his team work together to find a remedy.

"If Indiana is having problems with apps or infra, it's on me to share that with the rest of the staff," he says. "If it's more of a long-term IT or business issue, we take time to go through it with each plan."

To get past the connotations of "training," though, CIOs must educate their people about certain cultural elements that enable collaboration and communication. Ahmed Mahmoud, CIO of AMD, puts heavy emphasis on redefining what "teams" actually consist of. Most CIOs tend to think of IT or project teams as including only badge-wearing employees, and not the contractors or consultants who are also deeply involved in the work.

"You have to communicate to everyone on the team--whether they're employees or not," Mahmoud says. "They need to be part of understanding your strategic vision, the direction you're going, because they're a major part of your work force."

Call it another aspect of emotional intelligence.

"It's critical to change the mindset from that of an exclusive relationship to that of an inclusive relationship," Mahmoud says. "Sometimes some of us in corporate America don't think like that, but I believe it's the way of the future."

Back to CIO Insight