The trends and paradoxes of IT education

While IT professionals are constantly reminded that they must upgrade their skills to stay current and move up the career ladder, training has become the Cinderella of IT corporate budgets. In the current economic climate, enterprises are finding they must cut costs — and IT costs are no exception. Training is often seen as more of a cost than an investment.

Instructor-led classroom education is expensive and the ROI is not always there: some studies show that only eight to 12 per cent of attendees can attribute measurable performance improvements to participating in these classes. Sometimes the ROI is not the greatest because of poor project planning. Consider this scenario: a company decides to rewrite a mission-critical system and tells its developers they have to retrain in Java — at the employer’s expense — or their jobs will be gone six months down the road. But as soon as the fresh Java converts return to their desks, the project is shelved because of performance problems. Sound familiar?E-learning, while a more evolved form of education, is not necessarily inexpensive or more effective than classroom training. Text The buddy system is a tried-and-true approach to training. Since everyday tasks often require only a minimal subset of a tool’s capabilities, it is possible to get by (at least for a while) with a minimal set of survival skills picked up from the internal expert on a language or package. A new twist to this is the Internet: Thanks to the availability of a wealth of information, forums and experts, some project managers believe most staff can pick up a new language on very short notice, for close to zero dollars. E-learning, while a more evolved form of education, is not necessarily inexpensive or more effective than classroom training.

Mentoring appears to be the new darling of many companies on the lookout for cheap and effective ways to train IT staff because it doesn’t cost much for a mentor to pass along specific technical and business-related knowledge to the mentored employee. Business savvy is becoming an increasingly desirable asset for IT staff, yet the training avenues for business are far fewer than those for purely technical skills. Many times, mentoring can transfer the skills essential to operating a business.

Another trend in IT training is the placement of responsibility squarely on the shoulders (and purse) of the employee, under the disguise of career empowerment. This approach may work for freelancers, but it is difficult to see how well it enables the alignment of the interests and efforts of employees with those of the company that employs them. The recent oversupply of e-commerce specialists, Web designers and Internet gurus is just one example of what can happen when employers encourage workers to take this training route.

It is indeed strange that while companies put a lot of effort in laying out strategic visions and making long-term plans, IT staff training is often not part of this effort. In fact, training is often treated as a discretionary activity left with the same IT employees who are expected to buy into and carry out the said vision. Again, the expectation – expressed or implied – is that on their own, employees should pick up the new skills needed to advance the company.

In the end, measuring the cost of not training is the real challenge. The expense is hidden in many places. How much time and productivity does a business lose because employees, not having been properly trained, do not know the full capabilities of a utility, or simply do not use the right tools?

Companies will pay a high price for not allocating time for training and performance reviews, or not fostering a culture in which people are expected to challenge themselves and their peers in order to find or share better ways of doing.

The most sophisticated training method cannot make up for mistakes in planning and timing, and for poor integration between the IT training and the company’s overall strategy. On the other hand, taking simple steps toward furthering employee education can help a business improve individual and corporate performance. Unless planned for carefully, IT professionals’ and employers’ training needs will not complement each other.

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— Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at

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