Train Your IT Workers — on the Cheap

Christina Hanger is chief operating officer at Worksoft Inc., a small, entrepreneurial software company in Addison, Texas. She has never had a big training budget, yet she acknowledges that a highly skilled technical staff is the lifeblood of Worksoft.

"We have to keep programmers and developers on the cutting edge," she says. "There's no way around that."

Hanger says ongoing education is important because it helps keep technical workers interested, innovative and motivated. But training programs and educational conferences can be pricey. And given the state of many corporate budgets today, CIOs report that such offerings are simply out of their financial reach.

"It's unfortunate that training is always the first thing to fall under the budget ax, because if you're not investing in your people, you fall behind. And your workers remember that. So when the good times are back, they'll be gone," says Robert Rosen, CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and a past president of Share, an IBM user group.

So, what's a CIO to do? Follow the lead of these executives who have found ways to stretch their training dollars through efficient, yet effective, arrangements.

1. Rotate Employees

Cross-training has long been an important way to help people learn new skills, but Hanger's company has taken it a step further. At Worksoft, IT employees rotate through assignments involving different technologies and projects.

"We don't want people to feel like they're only working on maintenance. So everyone works on new products, which keeps them moving into new technologies," Hanger says. "This way, people don't get stale. They don't stagnate."

Alan Stevenson Jr., senior staffing consultant at TreeTop Technologies Inc., an IT staffing and consulting firm in Newton, Mass., says he has seen rotations work equally well within IT departments. His firm worked with a life-sciences company where IT was divided into groups, with each group managing a specific business application. With the training budget squeezed, the manager encouraged employees to collaborate with people in other groups.

"It allows people to diversify their skill sets," Stevenson says, noting that such training can actually be more effective than a typical class. "You get to partner with someone who is hands-on with the application, so you can see what they do every day."

2. Set Up Forums

Two or three times a month, employees at Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Lexington, Mass., can spend their lunch breaks hearing from colleagues who have developed expertise in particular areas.

CIO Tony Murabito started the program several years ago, at first mandating participation to build interest in it. Now the program is popular enough that participation is voluntary. Today, about half the sessions focus on tech topics, with IT workers presenting; the other half delve into issues affecting other departments, with employees from those areas leading the discussions.

"This gives us more information, not just on technology, but also better insight into the business side," Murabito explains. He says a typical session will draw 25 to 30 people but costs only about $100 or so for pizza or sandwiches.

3. Borrow From Your Business Folks

Murabito isn't the only one who's drawing on the business side for training in tough economic times. Catherine Rodewald, a Dallas-based managing director at Prudential Mortgage Capital Co., says she's focused on giving her company's IT staff industry-specific education.

"We sit them in training that we use with all of our business folks. That training is much less expensive than IT training," Rodewald says. In her company's IT shop, as in many others, the technologists are expected to understand what the business units do and to learn business analyst skills.

For example, if the company's law firm comes in to talk to the accounting department about commercial real estate bankruptcies, the IT workers are encouraged to attend. Rodewald says she'll also tap executives on the business side to give presentations tailored to IT employees.

Karyl K. Innis, chairman and CEO of The Innis Co., a Dallas consulting firm, recommends thinking broadly when it comes to the topics for such sessions. If someone in marketing runs the best meetings, tap that person to teach IT how to replicate the success. The technologists can observe the marketing person in action and then have a follow-up session for questions.

4. Pair Up Workers

Rodewald also encourages IT workers to teach one another through "buddy learning."

"I can take an RPG coder who really wants to learn .Net, or a SQL coder who wants to be better at Cognos, and partner them so they learn from each other," she says, noting that these programs work within IT and across different departments.

Of course, employees could tap colleagues for one-on-one training on their own, but Rodewald says they often get tied up in their daily duties and let the opportunities slip away. That's why company support and an established structure are critical for the program to succeed, she says.

At Prudential, an IT worker can ask a colleague to spend two or three lunches sharing his expertise, and vice versa. Each side must develop a curriculum -- "so they're not just sitting and visiting," Rodewald says. She provides lunch for those sessions.

5. Borrow Expertise from Other Companies

Murabito meets monthly with his counterparts at four other Boston-area pharmaceutical companies to discuss key issues.

The group, dubbed the IT Strategy Forum, expanded that model of collaboration and sharing to their staffs, sending workers to one another's companies for brief stints to learn from what's happening there.

For instance, Murabito had a business analyst spend a couple of weeks at a company that was upgrading its product safety system, so they could see firsthand the challenges and successes of that project -- and then bring the lessons back to Cubist Pharmaceuticals.

The IT Strategy Forum recently expanded to include more companies. One of them hosted a session on laboratory information systems, during which its IT officials talked about key vendors, project challenges and pitfalls. Murabito, who wants to implement such a system at his company in 2010, sent two of his business analysts and two of his IT directors to the daylong session -- and he only had to pay for lunch and parking.

Murabito says the forum works because the companies don't compete directly, plus they have legal agreements that govern how they exchange information and prevent members from hiring one another's employees.

6. Formalize Mentoring Opportunities

Mentoring is another staple of career development that executive coaches often recommend yet many working professionals find hard to implement. Meanwhile, formal programs using outside consultants can cost companies $5,000 to $10,000 per person annually, Rodewald says.

But she notes that executives can start in-house versions for virtually no cost.

Rodewald recently did that in her organization. She picked 10 of the company's best leaders from among a group who had volunteered to be mentors. Then she asked employees to sign up if they were interested in being mentored, selecting 10 who showed potential and could be well matched with a mentor.

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To ensure that both sides commit adequate time, Rodewald set up a framework. Both parties must make a nine-month commitment. The pairs must meet off-site at least once a month for about two hours. (That discourages meeting in ineffective 15-minute chunks, she explains.) Those being mentored are responsible for establishing their own goals and objectives.

The pairings are diverse, she says, including some IT people matched with business leaders.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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