IT staffers are moving to business roles

IT employees at national retailer Sears, Roebuck and Co. are gearing up for more than just the holiday shopping season.

Within the next month or so, each of Sears’ 1,600 IT associates will be positioned within a role-based career framework that’s been more than a year in the making. Gone will be an old system that broke IT careers into 31 job titles, said Gael Hanauer, senior director of IT resource management at Sears in Rolling Meadows, Ill.

“The titling system, while it served as a way of recognition, was too confining. With role-based career planning, people will be able to move in many ways by filling different types of technical and managerial roles,” Hanauer said.

The new framework is the creation of a 30-member career management project team of representatives from IT groups serving each of Sears’ various lines of business. The framework comprises 16 roles, ranging from administrative assistant to strategic leader, and 18 job families.

Examples of the latter are application architecture, business consulting, data architecture, IT strategic planning, networking, technical architecture and telecommunications.

All IT associates have participated in a workshop explaining the new framework and are now completing data sheets on their jobs, responsibilities, skills, goals and other facets of their careers. The information found in these data sheets will be used to slot each associate within the role-based framework.

Sears’ career management project and resultant role-based career planning program are part of a growing trend to help IT employees better manage how their careers unfold. Behind the trend is a desire to let employees choose technical or managerial development paths or to move from one to the other and back again. The push for career development stems from the problems companies are having attracting and retaining IT workers, said Frank Gallo, New England practice leader at Watson Wyatt & Co., a global consulting firm with U.S. headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

“The concept of career development management has to do with giving more oomph to the business line – in this case, IT. Human resources might provide support, but the IT department is responsible for career development now.”

Some companies have appointed official career development managers, Gallo said. People who take on the career development manager title typically would hail from HR, as Hanauer does, or IT. An IT professional who has had a long, broad career and who is sincerely committed to employee development is the ideal candidate for the job.

John Maddox is just such a person at Caterpillar, a heavy machine manufacturer based in Peoria, Illinois. He worked at the company for more than 30 years in a range of technical and application development positions before becoming career development manager three years ago.

Since taking on that role, Maddox has met with all new IS employees and interns, discussed their career plans and led career-planning sessions for close to 2,000 IT staffers.

While Maddox holds the title, responsibility for career development does not rest with him alone. “The company has to focus on training supervisors so they realize the importance of their roles as development coaches,” he said.

Caterpillar actually created the career development manager position in 1991, in response to an employee satisfaction survey suggesting that Corporate Information Services (CIS) and the company’s IT community needed to pay more attention to career development. But in the past three years, CIS has formalized its technical, applications and managerial career paths and explained to employees what is expected of each of them, Maddox said.

A newly hired network administrator, for example, would discuss career goals and establish a development plan that would be reviewed periodically with a supervisor. That person could also take advantage of the job posting system and job catalogues, and work with Maddox to identify opportunities and skills required.

Each of Caterpillar’s 3,500 IT employees determines the extent of career development, Maddox said. “Everyone’s on a track. The length of that track depends on aspirations, skill sets and opportunity.”

Margaret Schweer, director of HR for IS at Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, has a similar career development philosophy. If you’re an IS employee at Kraft, “your job is to put together a string of development circumstances that build your career,” she said.

While no one at Kraft holds the official career development manager title, various people, including herself, act in that capacity, Schweer said. Especially important are good bosses – managers who can guide employees in their career choices, she adds.

Job postings are the start. “We ask managers to describe jobs in developmental terms, to tell someone what skill sets are required and what skill sets would be trained for,” Schweer said.

“The whole notion of career development is a core value of Kraft as a company, whether in systems or operations or sales or HR,” she said. “And IS people in particular are sophisticated consumers of their employment circumstances. We have to do a real good job of listening to them and responding to what they’re looking for.”