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The right stuff 01042001

The right stuff 01042001

Training and recruiting IT staff cost time and money, but MIS shows how three enterprises are reaping high returns from their investments.

Training and recruitment: Made to measure

Information technology is more powerful than ever, but getting worthwhile benefits from any new system means ensuring the people using it really know what they are doing.

IT complexity often means general managers have only an overview of what software can do and not much knowledge of the functionality beneath the surface. It is up to the staff using the software daily to get the most out of the system, so it doesn't just pay for itself but becomes a way of gaining competitive advantage.

Apart from boosting return on investment (ROI), having staff skilled in using technology provides an added measure of security. With the move towards electronic information exchange and e-commerce, there is an international trend towards directors and owners being held legally accountable for the security of company information. This highlights the importance of having good people to manage the organisation's information resources.

Smart operators now measure the results of IT training, check help desk logs and survey business unit managers, team leaders and the users themselves. They are no longer willing to accept training that is a regurgitation of a course from the US and are demanding tutors with solid workplace experience.

Rather than send staff to endure half relevant, cookie-cutter training, some companies ask for smaller group sessions or one-on-one coaching, customised to the needs of individual staff. Not only does good training result in better knowledge retention, staff enjoyment of the job increases, morale is boosted and help desk calls drop dramatically. Workers feel more empowered and staff turnover is lowered.

For this special report, MIS looks at three companies that tried different approaches to staff training and recruitment: Sysmex Delphic, NZI and Westpac.

Sysmex Delphic: The right stuff

Bringing in new business is always great, but one of the pitfalls that can trip even astute entrepreneurs is not being able to keep up with demand. Finding the right staff to help fulfil customer expectations is of major importance to any company, especially one in expansion mode.

It is a challenge of which software developer Sysmex Delphic became acutely aware of 18 months ago, having successfully built a thriving global market for its medical information systems.

Originally known as Delphic Medical Systems, the company started out in the early 1980s as the data processing shop of a private diagnostic laboratory in Auckland. In 1982 it made the first sale of its product, Delphic LIS (Laboratory Information System) to a hospital in Brussels, Belgium.

It continued to export software through the 1980s and early 90s, gradually building a customer base that included seven of the largest public hospitals in Hong Kong, five in Canada, and clients in the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Kuwait, and Brunei. It also has a significant New Zealand market.

Further products were developed - an anatomical pathology system, a clinical data repository called Éclair, and an occupational safety and health product called Whoosh.

Sysmex Delphic CEO James Webster says the company was looking to take Éclair and Whoosh to the world and needed the right distribution channels. It met up with Sysmex Corporation, a Japanese healthcare company which had markets and distribution in Japan, Europe and the US. In September 2001, Delphic Medical Systems sold a 51 per cent shareholding of the company to Sysmex and became Sysmex Delphic.

Double or nothing

Since then the company has been gearing up to expand its operations. R&D is increasing to meet demand for the worldwide market and ensure products meet the rigorous requirements of US and European customers. Meanwhile, the operations division is also growing significantly on the back of successes in the local market.

Staff numbers have increased from around 38 when Delphic and Sysmex first began talks, to 70. Webster says the company expects to continue growing in the next two years, and recently doubled its office space to cope.

With all the growth forecasts, Sysmex Delphic realised it needed a recruitment strategy. Relying on ad hoc advertising or going through various agencies wasn't going to deliver.

The company already knew recruitment company Aacorn and liked the way it delivered personalised attention "rather than just finding a body to stick into a chair", says Webster. "It's easy for a recruitment company to pull out 10 CVs and throw them at firms like ourselves. It's a lot harder to get someone who will find people who fit in with our culture."

After 18 months, the relationship developed to the point where Sysmex Delphic decided to outsource the majority of its HR and recruitment to Aacorn. Webster knew, for a medium sized firm, it wasn't cost effective to have a permanent staff member undertake this role, so Sysmex Delphic put Aacorn on a retainer plus an hourly rate.

Under the partnership, Aacorn provides a combination of training and coaching for line managers, develops and manages a pool of potential talent, creates a market presence and image of the organisation as a desirable place to work, and conducts skills analysis and exit interviews.

Sysmex Delphic now works very closely with Aacorn and keeps the recruitment company informed of its plans six months out, so Aacorn will know what its recruitment and HR needs will be.

The rules of attraction

Sysmex Delphic needs people with a wide range of specialised skills - software development, QA testing, production of raw documentation, customer training and application implementation. Apart from the IT industry, it also draws staff from medical backgrounds such as laboratory assistants and nurses and employs accountants, project managers and administration staff.

"Success in finding people tended to be a matter of timing to market," says Webster. "On occasions we ended up with two brilliant candidates and employed both, even though we only had one position. Other times we went to market and weren't able to find anyone that fitted the combination of soft and hard skills we were looking for. That's why we have worked with Aacorn to build a recruitment campaign."

Aacorn organised advertising focusing on Sysmex Delphic as a company, and not on the job vacancies. "We want to be seen as a place where people would want to work. We recognise that you spend too much time at your place of work to not enjoy it."

Attracting the right candidates is one thing, choosing the best person from among them another. Most managers, while skilled in their area of competence, usually receive no training in the area of staffing. Most dislike that function of their portfolio and tend to approach it in a haphazard and arbitrary manner. At Sysmex Delphic, Aacorn introduced a recruitment methodology and coached managers on the process in a two-hour session.

Sysmex Delphic line managers were taken through a 12-point recruitment process, which Aacorn developed, including creating a list of hard and soft skills necessary in a candidate and how to use it to maximum effect.

"You never find someone who perfectly matches everything you want. There's always some give-and-take, and the danger is that you will allow personal feelings or biases to select someone you like rather than someone who meets the criteria," says Webster.

"Prioritisation is something you need to be certain of early on. When you look at people, you have to have it clear in your mind what is most important: Technical skills or a customer facing ability, and you should know to what degree these skills can be mixed. If a person doesn't have two of the six tech skills, does it matter if they can pick them up later and are good at soft skills?"

Webster says he now believes, with the new methodologies in place, recruitment is finely tuned so that all people hired by the company are the best available matches.

"We don't employ people that don't fall into that category. If we get a couple of candidates who don't quite fit, we don't go ahead with the appointment. In the past we just advertised and the vast majority of replies we got were inappropriate. There is now more filtering done at a high level, but the greater skill we've acquired is the ability to weed down the list of people who are good."

Recruiting the right people in the first place also keeps staff turnover low. "It's important to ensure that a candidate will fit with the team. Part of the recruitment process involves not only meeting the manager, but also the team they will work with."

When on a rare occasion someone does leave, the company uses Aacorn to conduct an exit interview.

"Typically, we look to involve someone external - either another manager who had nothing to do with the employee or someone from Aacorn. The person leaving can feel that they are able to open up more, and so they get more out of it. Because Aacorn specialises in HR, they can often dig a little deeper."

So does this approach to recruitment add to the company's bottom line? Yes, according to Webster who says outsourcing its staff and HR has ended Sysmex Delphic's reliance on the recruitment industry and definitely saved the company money. "Some agencies take a ridiculous percentage when they find someone, which in the case of an IT person on a salary of around $75,000 can be quite a lot of money.

"IT companies have a lot in common with other professionals and really their only resource is people. Without our people our software has zero value. If we don't have the people to install, support and develop it, it's useless. We regard recruitment as a huge responsibility."

IAG New Zealand: New system

When Australian-based insurance company IAG bought NZI at the start of 2003, the inevitable issues arose over which computer system the newly merged organisation would use.

The choice was between IAG New Zealand's new and at that time not-yet-installed insurance application Sirius or NZI's existing system Polisy. The decision came down on the side of the IAG New Zealand system, which meant NZI software developers had to retrain on new software technology and development tools.

IAG (Insurance Australia Group) New Zealand is now the country's largest general and fire insurer with 31 sales centres, 10 branches, seven district offices and eight call centres. The New Zealand operation generates about 20 per cent, or $1 billion of IAG's overall income of around $5.8 billion.

Twelve months before buying NZI from UK-based Aviva, IAG (then known as NRMA) had acquired State Insurance. At the time of the NZI acquisition, State (briefly renamed NRMZ New Zealand) had already embarked on a major project, dubbed Endeavour, to re-engineer its IT and business processes.

This included implementing a tailored version of a new core insurance application from the UK, called Sirius. Sirius was developed and run on Microsoft technology, while NZI's core insurance system Polisy was developed using competing Java software. Only one could prevail and, given that State had already taken on the mammoth task of re-engineering, it was decided to stick with Sirius and move NZI's business to the new system.

Retrain or recruit?

At the time of the acquisition, IAG New Zealand IT and T business solutions manager Paul Newman was in charge of NZI's Auckland-based software development unit. Until then, he says, the group had been a J2EE development shop and had no experience building applications using Microsoft technology. However, the whole new IAG New Zealand IT infrastructure was based on Microsoft products. Newman had a choice of either retraining his staff or finding new people.

"With the merger of the company, it was key to me to retain our staff and make sure they could work with the new direction the technology was taking. They told me that they wanted to stay and we wanted to put them in the position where they could still contribute."

Newman says he drove the training, because he felt it was necessary for IAG to continue to meet its expected service levels. "I had to make sure I had suitably skilled staff. As long as people have the right aptitude they can learn new skills, and it's much easier to achieve that with people you know. You have the benefit of their knowledge, you know how they work and how to work with them. It was a much better solution than saying, 'These people haven't got the skills so I'll go and recruit for them.'"

In particular, Newman wanted staff to learn software tools and development skills for Microsoft's newest technology Microsoft .Net. NZI had already been through a skills upgrade several years earlier when it had gone from legacy development tools to Java and he expected the jump from Java to Microsoft's .Net to be easier.

"They're two opposing camps but a lot of the skills you learn for J2EE are applicable to Microsoft .Net. Things such as object-oriented techniques, UML model-ing, and inheritance are the same. It's just the lower level infrastructure and programming languages that are different."

IAG looked around the training marketplace to see what was on offer in terms of Microsoft training and settled on Ace Training. "We felt that Ace offered the most comprehensive range of Microsoft .Net courses and we already had enjoyed good experiences with them for Lotus Notes and Domino training, as well as learning how to use Microsoft Office tools."

Newman and his team were looking for as much convenience as possible. Finding the time for people to attend wasn't easy and IAG had to reschedule a number of times, but Ace staff were very understanding regarding the insurance company's workload and deadlines.

"We had three or four people whom we wanted to put on one .Net course in particular but, with a major project going on at the same time, we ended up having to postpone on quite a few occasions. However, they were very flexible and tailored course times to fit around us."

The number of people attending courses was another area in which Ace was flexible. "This is quite different to when we were a J2E shop and we actually struggled to get decent training. It was difficult to get training companies to commit to holding courses when we only had three or four people who needed training. Training providers would often say to us that we had to have at least five people attending, whereas with Ace three was enough for them to hold a course for us."

Compared with some Java J2E training, Newman says he believes the .Net courses were reasonably priced. "Some training can be very expensive - up to $4000 for a week, plus the investment in time - so you really want to make sure you're getting top quality training."

But the amount of hours staff spent away from the office was more of a factor than the price. "It was all time people would otherwise have been doing on project work, so from my point of view it wasn't the dollar cost of the courses that was so important but the time taken."

Ace tutors remained contactable by email after the course, and Ace provided course material. A number of people continued to use this material as a guide when they began working with the technology in the workplace.

Newman says he measures whether the training was a success or not by asking the questions - can they do stuff now that they couldn't do before, and can they do it well?

"They can, so I would say the answer is yes, it has been successful. I needed to up-skill the staff to work with Microsoft technology, because if I hadn't done it they wouldn't have been able to deal with the new direction of the company.

"As a manager who has made an investment in time and money, I've been pleased with the topics covered and the results. The staff were also happy with it, particularly the course material which met their needs and which they were able to use afterwards. People don't like wasting their time on training if it's not going to meet their needs. They put a lot of their time into it and it has to be worth their while."

Newman says the Auckland-based development team now has a good grounding in Microsoft skills and it is time to get more experience and apply those skills to project work. In the future, needs will be evaluated to see if more training is needed.

Future proofing

Newman says people have started to apply their new skills to project work, mainly in developing new user interfaces. But, because the new insurance system is not based on Microsoft .Net technology, .Net skills were not immediately necessary for that project. However, Newman says it is likely future versions will be, and there are also supporting satellite systems the company is looking at building on .Net.

Newman says it eventually becomes more and more difficult to find the training to support old technology, so the move had to be made at some point. Also, using the latest technology helps when it comes to recruitment as the organisation looks more attractive to prospective employees, especially those who are highly skilled.

"Making sure you have people that are appropriately skilled is critical. Training is the key, but I have to balance formal training with hands-on experience, coaching and mentoring. Formal training is only one aspect."

Newman says because IAG's Wellington-based development team already had the necessary Microsoft skills, they are now working closely with the Auckland team to provide coaching and peer reviews.

He adds there is quite considerable up-skilling needed to be done in the analyst and design areas.

"That will be done through a similar approach of formal training with coaching, mentoring and on the job experience."

Westpac: Banking on a new approach

Databases are at the core of any banking system and, when Westpac upgraded to a new database platform, it wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible for its staff.

Westpac, New Zealand's largest bank with 1.3 million customers, has more than 6000 staff, 200 branches, and nearly 500 ATMs nationwide.

It runs a range of database platforms, by IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. They are an integral part of the organisation and touch every part of the business, including information management, transaction processing and data warehousing. As such, they are continually being enhanced and upgraded.

Like all large enterprises, Westpac employs a team of database administrators (DBAs) to ensure the databases are functioning at maximum potential at all times. It is critical these staff maintain the highest level of skill and competence.

In September 2002, the bank upgraded to the latest version of IBM DB2 Universal Database. Prior to this, Westpac had used conventional product-oriented IT training to keep its database administrators proficient and up-to-date. However, the bank - in particular staff training coordinator Trevor Forrest - was not satisfied with the high cost of conventional training or the results.

Forrest, who coordinates and administers all the bank's IT-related learning and development, constantly monitors what is happening in the IT world to ensure that staff's skills are up to play with the latest technology.

When it came to database training, the database administrators were having problems retaining knowledge and increasing their levels of skill and competence, he says.

Westpac's use of databases is highly specific to the organisation's environment, but traditional IT training had focused on the products, rather than how they are used within the bank's environment, says Forrest. The bank wanted a better ROI from training and a more targeted approach focusing on staff's needs and the needs of the business.

For the DB2 UDB project, Forrest abandoned traditional training methods in favour of something more informal and flexible, which would better suit the way the bank operates. Westpac chose IT consultancy Certus Consulting as its implementation partner. The new program combines a range of delivery methods, depending on what suited the individuals being trained.

"What I would call formal training is where the learner goes off-site, sits in a classroom-type environment, and undergoes a predetermined start-and-finish program with a set agenda," he says. "It is not specific to the learner and is usually centred on the tutor." Forrest says this approach now constitutes only about 10 per cent of how bank staff members learn.

"The learning method that we introduced with this project, and that we're using now, is what I call a multi-modal learning approach. Staff learn in a variety of ways and the training service provider undertakes a multiple number of roles in the overall delivery of the learning program."

Just-in-time learning

Multi-modal learning is conducted over short periods and on a part-time basis. It might take place in conjunction with an activity or job staff are involved in at that time, so they can come out and practice what they have learned straight away. Forrest says multi-modal training can be explained by the concept of 'just-in-time' learning. It is a very specific approach, based on each person's practical needs.

"It requires a purpose and is invariably associated directly with a person's work or job," he says. "It's results-based, and we can determine the degree to which content has been perceived and retained."

Some of it would be almost serendipitous. "Because a lot of it takes place while the person is working, they will often have an 'Aha!' moment when they suddenly get it because they are practicing it."

In the case of the database upgrade project, nine DBAs - each with unique requirements regarding what they needed to know and how it would be delivered - went through the training program.

There was a range of learning needs to be addressed and, before the commencement of training, each DBA was surveyed to assess his or her current skill-set and level of competency. Some were new to DB2 UDB, others had some experience, while others had worked on other database platforms and environments.

Training level requirements therefore ran from introductory via cross-skilling to upgrading. Forrest says after the learning needs assessment it was decided to stream people into learners, intermediates, and full-time practitioners.

Each session was customised according to the individual needs of each database administrator and the strengths of the Certus Consulting tutors. It sourced and offered a DB2 practitioner, someone who used the product professionally, to act as coach and mentor. He says this was preferable to a trainer who only had a theoretical knowledge of the product and how it worked in a real business environment.

"We find that traditional tutors teach by rote and practitioners teach by practice. Certus was able to locate a specialist who was capable of mentoring and delivering through practice."

Three Certus Consulting tutors worked onsite with the database administrators, who were responsible for gathering performance information from the back end mainframe.

Each DBA had to meet a common benchmark standard with regard to base topics, so initially there was some prerequisite training to ensure all people had a common foundation of knowledge.

Following this, staff underwent streamed training and coaching in sessions (three hours maximum), which were matched one-on-one according to individual needs.

Staff then returned to their work, which incorporated what they had learned. "After we'd done the streamed learning, we made the practitioner available for recapping and evaluation. They moved among the team as they worked and at other times were also available by phone and online as a mentor. If a staff member in the course of his or her daily work couldn't quite remember something, they were able to recap with the mentor straight away. This definitely reinforced and enhanced retention of the course."

Forrest says although initial staff reaction was mixed, once people started putting what they'd learned into practice and got used to having the coach/practitioner available, they inevitably ended up wanting more and the practitioner was called back several times.

There were also ongoing assessments for the duration of the training and extensive two-way interviews and evaluation by students and tutors at key stages. This ensured training remained targeted and adjustments were made as required.

"A lot of people go on a training program and come back with a set of foils which they stick somewhere on the top of a shelf and that's where they stay," says Forrest. "With this, the DBA practitioner stayed available by phone and online for two months afterwards and they also created a reference database for staff to look at if they need to recap something. It has been almost a year since training finished and people are still referring to the database."

Managing and measuring costs

Forrest agrees there is a lot of administration and co-ordination involved in this approach. However, the model does work out to be less costly - slightly more than one-third of the cost of conventional, formal training, he says. On top of the cost savings, staff members have demonstrated a marked improvement in the retention of what they have learned.

"The return-on-investment was phenomenal as it was tailored to the individual needs of the staff members and to our strategic needs."

In fact the project was such a success the bank has now applied the multi-modal approach to 18 other training programs on topics such as object-oriented languages, COBOL and mainframe languages.

Forrest says Westpac is also working with its traditional training providers so they can deliver multi-modal frameworks. This is particularly being extended to behavioural training which covers 'soft' skills such as leadership, empathy, diversity and business acumen as opposed to 'hard' technical skills.

"We're putting that into practice and we're turning the training culture at the bank on its head," says Forrest. "Because the accentuated half-life of IT products is about 12 months, IT skills need an entirely different training regime. You have to refresh them at least within that 12 months, so you can't call IT a conventional learning situation."

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