Make Training Mandatory

Steve Hitzfelder, a technical fellow at insurance company USAA in San Antonio, is scheduled to take two formal classes during the next few months, one in Unix, the other in Windows 2000. His status as part of the company's technical elite depends on it.

"I've always been proactive about training, but now I have to be much more deliberate," says Hitzfelder, whose tenure at the company spans 26 years.

As a technical fellow, Hitzfelder is on par with USAA's IT executive management in terms of recognition, benefits and bonuses. With those privileges comes the responsibility of continuing his professional development and tying it to the company's objectives.

Taking specific classes is an integral part of Hitzfelder's yearly performance review at USAA; the company holds him accountable for maintaining top-notch technical skills.

Finding courses to take isn't difficult: USAA has a staff of 55 IT instructors and instructional designers and offers vendor-provided training on-site. The company also maintains a relationship with a local college to customize courses in new technologies.

USAA provides a number of alternative learning opportunities as well, such as benchmarking trips to other companies, a world-class lecture series featuring renowned IT experts and access to online courses via the corporate intranet. Training isn't an afterthought at USAA. It's part and parcel of its corporate culture.

"We have certain things to achieve by the end of each year, and we map into that the training people will need," says Steve Yates, president of USAA Information Technology Co. (ITCO), a wholly owned IT subsidiary of USAA. "Employees have to feel good about working here, and we need technical knowledge to deliver our products, so training is important to both employee satisfaction and getting the job done."

Tying Goals to Performance

Like USAA, the organizations that comprise Computerworld's 10 Best Places to Work in IT for training tie training goals to employee reviews and performance measurement, recruiting, hiring and retention and day-to-day work. Training isn't left to chance at these companies: It's deeply rooted in the overall IT culture. That includes having formal processes to ensure that employees establish and meet specific training and development goals.

Many IT organizations give only lip service to training. They set aside the funds for it, but all too often, class attendance falls through the cracks as IT staffers try to complete training in addition to going through the daily grind. By linking training objectives to annual reviews and holding managers accountable, Computerworld's 10 Best Places to Work in IT for training guarantee that their employees take advantage of available opportunities.

"You have to force [training] to happen," Yates says. "Everyone stays too busy except for the real self-starters, so you have to keep talking about it and enforce it in the management objectives. It doesn't come naturally."

USAA's IT managers are subject to the same level of accountability for training as individual staff members. To qualify for promotions and bonuses, managers must demonstrate that their direct reports have met their annual training goals. That ensures that USAA keeps up with the technical skills required to meet its business objectives, Yates says.

"We put training objectives at the departmental level, and then we dovetail those with management objectives," says Sally Grant, vice president of plans, programs and resource management at USAA ITCO, which spends $7,200 per IT employee each year on training. "And that begins the dialogue of what will go into each employee's personal development program."

Similarly, Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm in New York, has a formal process for establishing annual training agreements between managers and direct reports.

During the first two months of the year, employees log into an online assessment center, where they rate themselves in eight areas of competency. Managers contribute their own online rating of each employee, and then the employee and manager get together to analyze the evaluation, explains Wayne Guymon, divisional CIO at Towers Perrin's outsourcing unit.

"At the end of that process, we have an agreement that defines areas of weakness and a plan for improvement," says Peter Jessel, managing director and CIO at Towers Perrin. Employees spend an average of 10 days per year in training on those mutually agreed-upon areas.

The Needs of the Many

Key to creating buy-in for formal training agreements is balancing the needs of the organization with the personal aspirations of employees.

For example, at New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers, IT employees work with a coach who analyzes how their personal goals match up against corporate requirements.

"Our business is driven by having the right number of people with the right skills at the right time," explains Amy Wright, global leader of learning and professional development at the accounting firm's management consulting services division in Edison, N.J.

One advantage of embedding training in the IT culture is that it increases a company's flexibility in recruiting and hiring. For example, at The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta, recruiting and hiring are driven by talent, not by skill sets, says CIO Ron Griffin.

With a strong training program that's tightly integrated with annual reviews, the company can focus on hiring IT professionals who have the highest aptitude and then train them on a project-by-project basis, instead of being forced to find people with specific technical skills.

The result of Home Depot's approach is that over time, the company gains depth and breadth in both technical and functional expertise.

The wide variety of training that the project-based approach offers also improves retention. Charlie Lump, a senior software engineer at Home Depot, says he originally moved to Atlanta to take a permanent position just long enough to transition his skill set from Cobol to object-oriented development. He then planned to eventually strike out on his own as a consultant.

But the richness of Home Depot's culture and training persuaded him to stay on board, Lump says.

"Certainly, you can work hard, and have a job, and work on skills on your own time," he says. "But realistically, most people aren't that committed—I'm usually not. So my career has definitely been enhanced by the training partnership here."

Goff is a freelance writer in New York.

Top 10

Best Places to Work in IT for training



Average days

of training

Average cost

of training

Change in training

budget for 2001

1 The Home Depot Inc. 17 $9,200 Increase
2 Nationwide Insurance Cos. 15 $7,652 Increase
3 The Vanguard Group Inc. 15 $8,000 Increase
4 Forsythe Technology Inc. 15 $10,000 Remain the same
5 Avon Products Inc. 10 $11,000 Remain the same
6 FleetBoston Financial Corp. 7 $9,200 Remain the same
7 Towers Perrin 10 $10,000 Remain the same
8 PricewaterhouseCoopers 15 $7,907 Increase
9 Harrah's Entertainment Inc. 14 $7,000 Increase
10 USAA 8 $7,200 Remain the same

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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