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Tue 12 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Back to school

Middle East enterprises are aware of the benefits that regular training can offer internal IT personnel as well as the organisation. But that knowledge is a far step from putting in place activities to draw the most productivity out of training programmes.

Middle East enterprises are aware of the benefits that regular training can offer internal IT personnel as well as the organisation. But that knowledge is a far step from putting in place activities to draw the most productivity out of training programmes.

In the Middle East, where companies continue to be constantly plagued by a shortage of well-skilled IT personnel, the value of training cannot be overstated.

Enterprises in the region are fast realising the benefits that they can get by training their internal IT staff on the latest technologies, rather than constantly looking outwards to hire talent.

"In the last four years I have seen an increase in enterprise interest in training their IT staff.

The idea of training is up on the agenda now. Four years before the mindset was that most of the labour force is transient - most of it will move we are not training it. That's different now. You have a more settled workforce and the general understanding is that they are all here to stay.

Therefore training has become an important part of the individual's development," says Andrew Stevens, managing director of CableNet Training.

A lot of research papers on training, point to the fact that not only does a company increase the staff's skillsets by training them regularly but that it also tends to keep its staff for longer because of the sense of loyalty and tie-in that employees feel when they are sent to schooling programmes.

Mohammed Thameem Rizvon, group IT manager of retail firm Kamal Osman Jamjoom, agrees stating, "It is essential that more organisations spend money and effort in keeping their IT staff trained and well equipped. Displaying interest and involvement in helping employees to gain additional knowledge establishes the organisation as a good place to work and grow."

Nevine El Kadi, regional manager MEA for Cisco's Networking Academy Program echoes him when she says, "You can identify whether an enterprise is good or not by assessing whether that enterprise is really keen on developing its people. All effective systems are related as much to human relations as they are to education programmes.

"And the point remains, how are companies and institutions going to attract the right calibre in the market?

The only carrot at the end of the road which we give executives that we are interviewing is that this company is really keen on developing its people and teams, giving them the proper training, developing their capabilities, focusing on their strengths and developing them," she adds.

But understanding the benefits of training IT staff regularly is still a far way from the ability to put in place a structured programme for them and providing them the most effective and relevant schooling.

Train them well

If you take all the regions in the world the Middle East is probably better at actually understanding that there are requirements for training but that's as far as it goes.

But I think quite often the training is misplaced. And is being done on the basis of we know we need some training, therefore we will train. Rather than we know we need some training in this area therefore we are going to get some training for the correct people in this area," points out Stevens.

Stevens also enforces the need for enterprises to understand individual needs and desires before sending personnel to training programmes.

"We don't believe in training for training's sake. But the problem with training programme analysis for individuals is that it can be a complex and confusing thing for most enterprises.

You can simplify it by saying the people at this level need to know this. You should set employees really very simple online assessment tests which are short and to the point; maybe not necessarily particularly scientific but they can create a benchmark," says Stevens.

He adds that with benchmarking enterprises can very quickly get a picture of who the leaders of the team are and who are the people that need assistance and specifically in which areas. Assessments would need to be done keeping in mind the company's overall objectives as well as an individual's career needs and desires.

"The company should assess based on their business needs. Is this person fulfilling the job function's accountabilities and responsibilities or not? If he is not fulfilling the accountabilities that need to be performed, is it because he is not doing a good job or because he was not qualified enough to handle this function?" asks El Kadi.
Enterprises should also take care not to underestimate the ability of people to educate themselves and should use that self-empowering capability while addressing training programmes for IT staff.

Stevens also warns that they should definitely not send any employee to a course that he does not want to go to or where he does not see the benefits of the course to him or his company, since this might result in the employee leaving the firm.

"There are a lot of processes in training needs analysis programmes but what I see here, and I come across it from time to time, is that people don't keep it human. It has to be kept human, has to be kept real," emphasises CableNet's Stevens.

Rizvon also emphasises for enterprises and IT managers to provide proper career paths to their team members so that they know where they are headed within the company with the next step in training.

Tying the loose ends

Training needs by no means are similar for enterprises and each firm in the Middle East will have to find the right equation of schooling for its IT personnel.

"All businesses now need ICT skilled people, but with different competencies.

This really depends on the organisation itself - is it an IT company, is it a large corporation with a wide network, a financial institution or a manufacturing concern that will require certain skills to design and install networks? It really depends on the nature of activity of the institution and the need for ICT skilled people," says El Kadi.

Some in the industry, like Stevens, advocate decisions on training programmes to be taken only after a review process which can happen across sections of any one year in an enterprise.

In fact, they are against deciding on a firm training structure for the whole year, since technologies change rapidly and training classes - the good ones - change to keep pace as well.

However, others like El Kadi believe that organisations do need at least the foundation of a structure on which to build a productive schooling programme for their IT personnel.

Whatever course an enterprise chooses, it is essential that it pay equal attention to the training academy that it picks as to the course the individual wants to attend. The increasing interest in training has resulted in the region playing host to a number of new schooling programmes offered often by fly-by-night firms, looking for a fast buck.

The number of academies offering similar programmes is driving down the cost of sending IT personnel back to school. However, the classes that come at sometimes half the price of competitors, offer not only lower-grade tutors and equipment but also tend to cancel classes without prior notice.

According to most vendors, not only are enterprises likely to benefit more with quality education and reliable classes by going with more well-established players, but they would be well advised to pick among best of breed for the programmes.

No IT training house can provide for all the needs of an enterprise. Even Cisco, with its Cisco networking academy programme, broad as the subject matter it covers is, cannot be the single answer to all problems," states El Kadi.

Enterprises often choose one IT training provider and that's a mistake as well. There are companies with different skill sets and they should be picking the best out there that fits their purpose and their budget. IT training can be very expensive and you need to get the best value you can get for your money," says Stevens.

The decision to send IT personnel to regular schooling sessions is easy. What firms need to realise is that it is the beginning of a process that requires effort, dedication and money to reap the benefits that it can provide in the long term.

Tips to training1. Start at home - understand your business and the IT skill sets that are required in house. Follow this by an assessment of your personnel to understand who would be the right people to take on these skill sets.

2. Make it personal - sit down with team members and get their view on what shortcomings they have and in what they would like to be trained.

3. Define career path - the best people in IT would most often like to move around in an organisation. Understand their career growth paths and plan programmes with that in mind.

4. Do research - look around in the market on the schools that offer the programmes you need to train your staff on. Talk to people who have taken the course to understand how flexible and effective it is.

5. Monitor - set up a regular review process to keep your fingers on the changes in your business and adapt your training programme to keep your staff truly up-to-date.

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