A way through the skills crisis

Finding good people – and enough of them – is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector. Cath Everett reports on one initiative to help ensure a bright recruitment future

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As demand for IT skills in the UK shifts from having a predominantly technical focus to a more business-oriented one, it is becoming increasingly important for organisations to find ways of attracting, developing and retaining the appropriate expertise.

Managing change: Norwich Union

Norwich Union first started looking at introducing SFIA as part of a wider cultural change initiative in early 2005 to try to enhance the professionalism of the IT department, which comprises 2,000 staff.

The aim was to attract, develop and retain personnel more effectively and to ensure that there were clear career progression pathways within the organisation to make the process more transparent and less subjective.

One of the first steps that the organisation took, however, was to reorganise the IT department into seven professional skills communities, including design and architecture, shared services and change management, to enable knowledge-sharing.

In consultation with staff and with help from IBM consultants, it then used the SFIA framework to define job roles within those communities and to work out which skills were fundamental to perform that role.

Allison Scarborough, capability consultant for Norwich Union’s ITS Capability Development Services and vice chair of the Foundation’s User Forum, says: “One of the biggest challenges is understanding what skills are in the organisation and describing them in a common language, which is why we went with SFIA rather than invent our own shaped wheel. It’s almost like starting with a blank piece of paper in order to build an organisation from scratch, except you have the SFIA framework around it to help.”

Norwich Union has just finished the skills capture exercise for its last group of staff, which involves them assessing themselves, rating their skills in line with SFIA’s five competency levels and discussing their evaluation on a one-to-one basis with managers before it is signed off.

The next step was to put the relevant data into a database that the company had developed itself because “otherwise it’s unmanageable”. But a “normalisation” process is now scheduled to follow “to ensure everyone knows what the SFIA definitions mean”, before the information is introduced into the appraisal process.

Continued budget restraints likewise mean that it is crucial to understand what skills are available so that CIOs can organise their workforce more efficiently in order to ensure that they have the right skills in the right place at the right time.

But such considerations need to go hand-in-hand with the growing drive at both industry and governmental level to professionalise the sector. The aim must be to both improve the ability of organisations to exploit IT more consistently and effectively and to create a body of recognised, proficient experts that operate in line with an accepted code of practice.

This ambition led to the creation of the Professionalism in IT alliance in May last year when the BCS, National Computing Centre, e-Skills UK – the government’s sector skills council for IT and telecoms – and Intellect – a merger between the Computing Services and Software Association with the Federation of the Electronics Industry – got together to push just that agenda.

To underpin the alliance’s work, however, it has also adopted the SFIA (SFIA). This is a competency framework that was first developed by e-Skills, the BCS, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institute for the Management of Information Systems in 2003. This enabled CIOs to describe, quantify and measure available IT skills against future requirements in an industry standard fashion, not least for recruitment purposes.

More specifically, it provides them with a means of assessing skills gaps across the organisation and to plan for future requirements, by ensuring that training budgets can be focused where needed.

Russell Cosway, ICT business manager at North Cornwall Borough Council, explains: “SFIA enables you to define and clarify job roles and the levels at which individuals operate. It also gives you a standard terminology to express this so everyone fits into a single framework and you get a good overview of the expertise available.”

In this way, SFIA supports ongoing professional development and can be used to underpin a comprehensive and coherent training strategy by ‘giving you clarity and something to measure against’.

Cosway has just been elected chair of the SFIA Foundation’s User Forum, which includes other founder members from BAE Systems, Norwich Union, Leeds City Council, IBM and Honda. Membership will be opened up to the Foundation’s other 500 members when the Forum is officially launched at the next SFIA conference in November.

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