Climbing the corporate

In tough economic times, employees and employers expect different things from one another than when times are good. An economic downturn has the effect of highlighting the wasteful and wishful and focusing in on the essential. One topic that has remained high on the list for both employers and employees is training and certification.

Often seen as an employee incentive, training and certification is a win-win situation for both employers and employees. Employers realize that investing in their company’s intellectual capital is a wise move, while employees jump at the chance to enhance their value to their current company as well as to future potential employers.

According to Eric Hachmer, sales director for Oracle University in Mississauga, Ont., the importance of training and certifying employees was identified back when the economy was booming and has survived the corporate trimming that has occurred since.

“Before the economic slowdown, the training and certification market turned a corner,” Hachmer said. “Organizations see knowledge as an asset rather than an expense.”

While many initiatives have been put on hold, Hachmer pointed out that businesses still need to be run, and companies still need qualified people to do this.

“Our customers still have a responsibility to maintain and provide mission critical applications – they’re still running businesses, and while projects may have been downsized or cut back, mission-critical applications have not been. People need to continue to be trained to look after the mission-critical side of a business, and need to be trained in the most current versions of skill sets.”

John Berti, a senior manager of security business at Deloitte and Touche in Winnipeg, agrees that companies are continuing to see the value in training and certifying their employees.

“Certification is the one thing that companies are not cutting out. The growth has been tremendous even though the economy is down and companies have had to cut back,” he said.

Aside from keeping the wheels of business turning, up-to-date training and certification can be seen as a perk for employees, particularly where travel to a class or a seminar is involved, according to Carol Guzzo, Director of Worldwide Education at Citrix Systems in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Training and certification is often viewed as an employee benefit,” Guzzo said. “It’s a good way for companies to maintain and reward existing employees.”

Hachmer agreed, noting that sending an employee on a training trip is a nice perk at a time when other perks, including raises, might not be a possibility.

Hot topics

Berti, an instructor for the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) designation, has seen the number people seeking out the certification increase dramatically over the last number of years. And since the events of Sept. 11, more companies than ever are willing to spend money on training and certification when it comes to security.

“Companies are recognizing the certification as an important thing and are making sacrifices in order to train people,” he said.

Guzzo has also seen an increased demand for both training and certification in the area of security, but notes that it’s only one area among many that are catching the attention of corporate decision makers.

“Businesses are trying to get the most out of what they have, and are basically looking for solutions that can help them weather economic turmoil,” Guzzo said. “Security is very hot these days, but so is anything geared towards a more in-depth architectural level and mobility.”

According to Ottawa-based Richard Gordon, vice-president and managing director of Global Knowledge Canada, Guzzo’s perception of what’s hot is in line with his organization’s findings. The key trends span all industries, Gordon said, and include security, convergence, intranets and extranets. Thirty per cent of Global Knowledge’s revenue is based on classes on internetworking, Microsoft courses, Java, databases and telephony.

Learning options

Once a course is chosen, students are able to choose from a variety of options on how to take the training. Traditionally, most training has been classroom based, with companies sending employees to a training centre to attend a course. While mostly effective, this methodology is slowly being displaced with e-learning and virtual classroom e-learning (v-learning).

Global Knowledge Canada, a corporate IT training provider offers all of these training options to its customers, but has seen a significant increase its e-learning and v-learning offerings since late last year.

“There’s been a 40 per cent growth in e-learning since Sept. 11,” Gordon said, identifying a general reluctance to travel as a contributor to the growth. This brings the number of customers choosing e-learning options to ten per cent, however Gordon predicts that within a few years this method will make up at least 50 percent of the training offerings.

E-learning can take a number of forms, including self-paced modules . Gerarda Van Kirk, an associate partner at Accenture in Toronto, defines e-learning in its most basic sense as a Web-enabled tool used to try to guide people through a course. For clients who are interested in pursuing e-learning, Van Kirk recommends starting by determining what needs to be accomplished.

“At the lower end, if I want to get something out very quickly to 25,000 people worldwide within my organization, I can put the concepts into a Web-based portal tool,” Van Kirk said. “This is a very rapid method to get information out very quickly within an organization. On the other side of the spectrum, there is performance simulation.”

Performance simulation, she explained, is a game-like training methodology that allows the user to interact with the tools.

Rosa Marquez, director of Cogeco’s IP and transport engineering group in Burlington recently attended one of Global Knowledge Canada’s v-learning offerings, which featured a performance simulation portion in the training’s labs.

Marquez’s class – Building Scalable Cisco Internetworks – took place online, with an instructor, other students and a designated class time. Interactive tools allow students to message one another, raise a virtual hand for questions and use online white boards. The lab portion of the training was done on an individual basis, with students able to visit the virtual lab and complete tasks within a limited amount of time. This method of learning was suited to Marquez, who admitted that completing the labs in a timely manner required some discipline.

“Often in a classroom lab environment, you have to work with other people, and there’s usually one who takes ownership of the challenge. If you’re not the one to take ownership, you miss the experience, but in this case it’s your lab. You have to do the lab exercise yourself, but you have all the time you want to prepare for it,” she said.

Now a veteran of e-learning, v-learning and classroom learning, Marquez anticipates completing training via v-learning in the future. Part of her attraction to v-learning is the fact that it can be done without leaving her office – the training is scheduled into her calendar as if it were a meeting. The only downside to Marquez’s experience was that she found the course a little bit rushed – it clocks in at about eight hours less than the traditional classroom course – and said she did also occasionally miss the presence of a physical instructor.

“Of course in v-learning you don’t have body language, which is always good to have, but I think that as this technique or methodology evolves and you have more attendance from people that are attending classroom training today, it will become richer,” Marquez said.

Everybody’s doing it

While many people attending training or certification courses are there on behalf of their corporation, others are choosing to shell out the money themselves and enhance their knowledge base. There has been a fairly even split between people coming on their own and those who have been sent by their company.

“A lot of people who come through it on their own want to be recognized as CISSPs because they’re looking for better jobs. Companies send people for the certification because they recognize it as something that they need to have in order to compete in the security space,” Berti said.

Alexander Lester, an engineer and Java programmer decided to return to the classroom for further training when he found himself between jobs. Lester opted for a classroom-style training at Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre in its H@bitat program.

“Since I was in transition – and the job market was in a transition period – I thought that it would be a good opportunity to upgrade my technical skills and move beyond them. I wanted to do something that could be interesting for myself, but could also help me find a better job opportunity,” Lester said.

Ana Serrano, director of H@bitat admitted that most of its students are either IT professionals in a transitional employment situation or are looking for a different way to use their technical skills.

“There are a large number of technical people with a creative bent, and these are the types of people who come through our program. They have a balance between their right and left brain and find that they have nowhere to go to try to develop creative projects using their technical talents,” she said.

This type of individual pursuit of appropriate training or certification can be a differentiator when it comes to hiring practices, according to Hachmer.

“In this kind of economic slowdown, budgets are tighter and companies have less of an ability to take risks, so anything that an organization can do to ensure that they’re hiring the right person with the right skill sets makes the hiring process much easier,” he said. “Certifications can serve as a yardstick to effectively measure a person’s skills.”

Guzzo agreed. “Certification can definitely make a difference between an interview or a r