Deliver top-drawer training

Two years ago, Mark E. Yellen was in a huge bind. IT staffers were leaving his Buffalo, N.Y.-based company,, in droves, complaining that they weren’t being offered enough opportunities for professional growth. At the same time, managers were regularly firing other employees because they didn’t have any business knowledge to go along with their technical skills.

To stem the exodus, Yellen created University, an in-house training arm that offers at least one course each week, including, among other things, XML training for marketers and leadership courses for programmers. The university’s courses are designed to give staffers industry- and company-specific knowledge that can increase job satisfaction and drive revenue.

A year and a half after the training program started, it’s not unusual to find half the software company’s 70 employees in a seminar on any given day. And turnover has plummeted by 300 per cent.

“There are two sets of goals that every staff member has to have: They have to fill the company’s goals and their own,” says Yellen, who calls himself’s “chief evangelist” as well as its president. “If they fulfil their own goals and not the company’s, we’ll fire them. If they fulfil the company’s but not their own, they’ll quit.” The training program seeks to bring both sets of goals into alignment.

Companies that are much larger than have learned a similar lesson about IT workers: If employees aren’t learning, not only are they performing poorly, but they are also looking for other jobs.

“Good training satisfies the company’s and the employee’s objectives,” says Peter Jessel, CIO and a managing director at New York-based management consulting firm Towers Perrin. “If people feel like they have competitive skills and could easily leave and find another job, they are less prone to do it.”

The companies that rank as Computerworld (US)‘s best employers for training are indeed succeeding at meeting both their own and their employees’ needs giving the companies the best return on their training dollars and employees the most valued skills in the marketplace. At several companies, central to this goal are elaborate performance reviews that help employees set personal goals while advancing corporate priorities.

In addition, the best IT employers are putting greater emphasis on making sure that IT employees understand fundamental business principles not just technology. And to ease travel burdens and reduce costs, many companies with top-flight training are emphasizing customized in-house programs.

Draft Career Plans

Managers at American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio, are so focused on career development that it’s been taken out of the hands of project managers. Instead, each IT development team at the 23,000-employee company has both a project manager and a career coach.

“Coaches are responsible for helping employees with their development and skills enhancement,” says Velda E. Otey, director of IT career management for the utility’s 911-member IT staff. While project managers stay focused on the nuts and bolts of a project, coaches help IT employees craft yearly development plans that address what skills they need to enhance their careers and those the company needs for upcoming projects.

On average, American Electric earmarks approximately US$8,000 per IT employee annually for training. However, Otey says that number can go up or down for each employee. “We’ve stayed away from setting minimums and maximums, because it depends on the position you have and the project needs,” she says.

At OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, a library cooperative that, among other things, administers the Dewey Decimal System, employees and their managers also collaborate to create yearly professional development plans. Those plans dictate the training an employee will receive over the course of the year.

“[These plans] allow a dialogue between managers and employees,” says Joseph Marth, manager of organization development and learning at OCLC, which has 1,100 employees and an IT staff of 360. OCLC’s training focus is on identifying gaps in learning that hinder employees from completing a job. Then Marth, managers and a nine-member in-house training staff create a patchwork of formal and informal programs to fill in the gaps.

A majority of the staff already possess advanced degrees, so Marth knows that the training programs must combine depth, substance and opportunities for personal and career growth.

Typically, career development plans call for a combination of training methods, from computer-based programs to in-house classes that are offered almost daily. During one recent week, for example, OCLC offered seven classes that any employee could attend, including Understanding the Library’s Future, Group Facilitation, Effective Training Skills, Financials for Non-Financial Managers, and Oracle and Java development workshops. OCLC even offered classes on how to speak Dutch after it acquired a company in the Netherlands.

“We’re a very academically based company, and a huge portion of our population has advanced degrees,” says Marth, who himself has a Ph.D. in education psychology. “Our managers have to tell employees when they’re getting too much training. But that’s a great problem to have.”

OCLC earmarks 4.2 per cent of the money it sets aside for salary and wages for training expenses. That translates to approximately US$2.5 million per year.

Peppered throughout OCLC’s in-house offerings are many business-oriented courses that IT staff are encouraged to take, covering topics such as team-building and leadership development. Likewise, many companies are encouraging their IT staffs to hone their nontechnical skills.

“The fatal flaw in most IT training programs is that they provide many opportunities for IT-specific training, but they leave out the business-level training that is so important to the success of any IT professional,” says’s Yellen. He’s the instructor of several University classes, including Situational Ethics and Principles of Excellence in Productivity Management.

Teach the Business Side

At CenterBeam Inc., an IT services company in Santa Clara, Calif., all 170 employees approximately half of whom are in IT are encouraged to take an internal seminar on root-cause analysis.

“An understanding of root-cause analysis results in better service to our customers by helping people respond to underlying issues,” says CenterBeam’s executive vice-president and chief technology officer, Glenn Ricart. He stresses that the best training fosters three things: business skills, customer relations expertise and technical ability. Ricart says this type of training helps workers think better an asset they can take with them anywhere.

CenterBeam sets aside US$5,000 to US$10,000 per employee for training annually, with an eye toward each IT staff member receiving two weeks of training per year. The company puts particular emphasis on advanced industry certifications.

“Certifications help people look across the industry and see that they are knowledgeable compared to their peers,” says Ricart.

The certifications not only give CenterBeam a well-schooled workforce, but they also arm employees with solid credentials that can succinctly convey their expertise to new employers. With a stimulating environment and supportive management, however, Ricart says he isn’t worried about attrition.

“Our goal is to build and innovate the best IT organization in the world, and training is a part of that,” Ricart says. “We hire people who fit our corporate values: integrity, passion, teamwork, ownership and fun. And we add training on top of that.”

American Electric also puts an emphasis on developing both business skills and technical skills, especially communication and project management expertise.

“How you get the project done is as important as if you get it done. It’s no good if you get the project done and there are dead bodies all around,” says Otey. “We want to know: Did you work together in teams? Did you share the knowledge? Did you leave the team with more knowledge and experience so they will be better on future teams?”

To Otey, these intangible business skills help build a worker’s career as much as technical prowess.

Staying In or Going Out?

Many companies with a sharp focus on training have found ways to bring learning in-house. This serves both the company’s and employees’ needs by reducing the cost, burden and disruption of business travel. But getting out of the office has its advantages too.