Improving the skills of your IT staff

Assessing your employees' abilities and identifying skills gaps require a less subjective approach.

Richard Spires

Richard A. Spires, formerly the CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, is now the CEO of Resilient Network Systems.

For those of us who manage others, our effectiveness is largely driven by the skills and motivation of those who report to us. So whether you are a CIO, IT division leader or frontline manager, you need to spend the time to assess your employees in terms of their currents skills, abilities and career aspirations, and then help them create the plans that can support their development.

And leaders must do all that in a way that supports the overall near-term objectives of the organization and that properly balances the need for professional development against the organization’s day-to-day operational needs.

Yet when it comes to skills assessment, particularly in terms of technical skills, I have always felt that we IT managers had one hand tied behind our backs. Sure, there are certifications for competence in many different products, and they can be helpful in giving you a sense of an individual’s skillset. But how do you assess someone as a journeyman programmer, tester or systems engineer, or perhaps as a master in one’s chosen discipline?

It has always struck me that such evaluations are overly subjective and place too much emphasis on “book knowledge” rather than practical applications of that knowledge to develop new, innovative solutions or approaches that the organization truly needs.

The concept of measuring someone’s ability to perform in a discipline is captured in Bloom’s Taxonomy. “Book knowledge” can only achieve the lowest two levels. However, “synthesis” and above are the only levels at which it is generally accepted that a worker can fully and effectively do the primary roles of their jobs — especially in IT.

This means the assessment problem is twofold. First, for a specific IT discipline, one needs a comprehensive framework by which to understand the types of skills and knowledge an employee should have at each level, from entry level through master.

Second, for each discipline, one also needs a way to accurately assess the current level of proficiency of one’s technical staff members, in order to create the baseline by which to develop their skills so they can move to higher levels of proficiency. That approach not only helps the individual develop a realistic and achievable plan, but it also gives the manager insights into where he or she has significant skills gaps in the organization.

Until recently, it was not easy to address either of those problems. Defining competencies on our own is time-consuming, expensive, frustrating and very likely to be full of inaccuracies.

Fortunately, in 2003 the nonprofit Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) Foundation established a comprehensive framework of skills in IT technologies and disciplines based on a broad industry “body of knowledge.”

The SFIA currently covers 96 professional IT skills organized into six categories:

  • Strategy and architecture
  • Business change
  • Solution development and implementation
  • Service management
  • Procurement and management support
  • Client interface creation

For each of the 96 skills, there are seven levels of attainment that map closely to Bloom’s Taxonomy.
The SFIA is updated regularly to account for the rapidly changing IT environment. It is available free of charge for organizations’ internal purposes, and it is now used in more than 100 countries. In the United States, the IEEE Computer Society and the Information Systems Audit and Control Association are partners of the SFIA Foundation.

The SFIA is the best way to ensure that the roles and competencies specified for your organization are accurate and complete. But although the framework helps define your needed competencies, it doesn’t tell you if your workers have the skills that match them. Therefore, we need to assess our employees against the framework and determine what level of attainment they have reached in the specific disciplines in which they work. Then we will be in a good position to help employees develop personal plans to reach higher levels of attainment.

A number of companies are certified to train and coach in the use of the SFIA, including BSMimpact and Learning Tree International in the United States.

The latter company has recently developed an online library of more than 100 skills assessments mapped to the SFIA where appropriate. (In the interests of full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors of Learning Tree International). Those assessments go beyond just asking questions to measure someone’s knowledge of a topic area to evaluate their ability to perform at the synthesis level. They do so by assessing the staff member’s ability to perform IT tasks similar to what you would expect them to be able to do on the job.

The SFIA and skills assessments can put IT managers in a much better position to understand the actual skills and abilities of their current employees and work with them to address skills gaps and develop individual professional development plans. Further, by using the framework and assessments throughout one’s organization, an IT manager will finally be in a good position to understand and then fill organizational skills gaps that are hindering overall organizational performance. And that’s important because as IT managers, we are only as good as the team we develop.

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