[ Originally published in August 2007 in HRM Review – The ICFAI University Press , Hyderabad ]
Learning and Development – Current Trends in IT
The IT and ITES sector is growing at around 30% per annum and, therefore, the learning and development function needs not only to keep pace but also proactively address the business needs effectively. The global dimension in a multi-cultural environment of this business calls for flexibility, scalability and reusability of various processes and techniques which exploit the power of Internet and Web technologies. This article attempts to describe the current trends in the technical, functional and behavioral skills as well as the leadership development aspects of the learning and development function as a business enabler.
The Information Technology (IT) and the IT-Enabled Services (ITES) sector is by now recognized as the sunrise industry worldwide and is generally growing at a rate of around 25%-30% every year. A growth rate of this dimension needs a very robust and flexible support in the learning and development function to keep the parameters for growth always above the curve. Most of the leading organizations worldwide have adopted a flexible and blended approach, using the advancement in technology and behavioral sciences to great advantage. Let’s look at current trends in learning and development as a business enabler.
Major Objectives of the Learning and Development Function
The learning and development function in the IT and ITES industry should meet the following objectives:
Scalability: The process should lend itself for scaling up proactively to meet the accelerating growth of an organization, in a multicultural global environment. Most of the growth in this industry is through increased staffing, generally from the base level. Organizations should continuously maintain the necessary talent pool to seize opportunities for expansion and diversification.
Reusability – It takes enormous time and investment to create learning assets. These assets should be dynamically updated and converted to repositories for reuse and customization where necessary.
Multi-modal Requirements – The learning and development function happens at three levels, viz., technical, functional and behavioral dimensions. Besides, at the middle and senior levels, this should also cater to leadership development and succession planning.
Virtual Modes – Organizations in the IT and ITES sector operate across geographies and time zones. Therefore, a major part of learning and development needs to be delivered in the virtual mode.
.Return on Investment (ROI) – The learning and impact to the business should be measurable over time and should lend itself to assess the ROI in financial terms.
Technical training at the basic level equips the associates to meet the immediate project / client requirements.However ,such training generally has a high rate of obsolescence and thus needs continuous enhancements.Besides, a judicious mix of breadth and depth of technology needs to be maintained.
The learning curve progressively addresses basic technical knowledge followed by domain knowledge and, thereafter, migrates to the basic tenets of project and program management.This generally spans anything up to five to eight years in the work life of a software professional. Technical training is delivered in a flexible and blended manner with in-house classroom training, through vendors and also through e-learning.
Every associate needs to gain functional expertise to manage teams and interfaces both within and outside the organization. Some of the major areas addressed are sales and marketing, corporate communications, infrastructure management, information security management, finance and accounts as well as legal and statutory compliance. This exposure is necessary for middle managers to graduate from technical experts to functional experts and thereafter to business experts.
The IT and ITES industry recognizes a small team as the most important brick for performance. Therefore, most of the behavioral skills training revolves around team-building competencies and skills like emotional intelligence, empowerment and management of societal interfaces outside the organizational domain. These skills are imparted through role-plays, experiential learning and Outbound Training (OBT).
For multinational organizations, the team building skills are also enhanced through cross-cultural sensitization and employee exchange programs exposing the professionals to various cultures, systems and methodologies where the organization is required to operate.
Maintaining a talent pool within an organization has become a differentiator for business success. This is a critical need especially in view of the short reaction time available to commence new projects which are available in the market. This calls for advanced planning, including maintenance of a reasonable size of “bench”, even at a cost all the time. Generally, firm orders/ commitments are visible for three to six months only and therefore the talent pool needs to be reviewed dynamically to address emerging business needs. Some of the organizations have, therefore, invested heavily to create this “talent factory” within the house.
Competency has three dimensions: knowledge, skill and process ability. Organizations who are leading players in the industry have developed their own competency models for all their roles and positions. It is necessary to keep the list of competencies within manageable levels and the current trend is to keep them within ten to twelve in number. Once a competency model is finalized, recruitment, training and development are oriented to address competency gaps at various levels proactively to meet the career path and business growth requirements. It is necessary to evolve a consensus approach to define competencies to enlist commitment and ownership from the line functionaries. The HR department has a major facilitation role to perform in this function.
The learning and development function has a close relationship with the knowledge function in any organization. Successful companies maintain exhaustive and up-to-date Knowledge Management (KM) portals for reference by their employees at all levels within the organization. These KM portals also provide links to external agencies at the company’s cost. In the case of product companies, this assumes much more importance for safeguarding Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and facilitating research and development and innovation. KM portals also facilitate redundancies and reusability.
Use of Technology
In the current scene, technology has become a great force multiplier and clever use of animation, digital gaming and special effects as well as the video format, enhances the effectiveness of training delivery both in the real and virtual modes. The power of the Internet and web technologies is growing very fast and the future will also facilitate delivery of training assets through mobile platforms using wireless technologies and hand-held devices.
While English is still the major business language for global operations, the phenomenal growth of business in China, Japan and Latin American countries has necessitated learning new languages by software professionals and also the need to write software in languages other than English. Language training itself has now become a great business opportunity.
A visible modern trend is in the area of training certifications by third party vendors. Many of the organizations have made it mandatory for professionals to acquire certifications in technical, functional and business domains to enhance their career options. Online certifications, including certificates on demand, are also widely prevalent in the industry.
As most of the professionals working in the software and BPO industry are either graduates in science, commerce or engineering, efforts are made with even partial reimbursement of cost to assist employees acquire postgraduate and doctorate-level qualifications both in technologies and business management. In some cases, especially in the BPO sector, freshers are recruited at undergraduate levels and permitted to pursue higher education while working with suppressed salaries to defray the cost of education. This is also used as a retention tool by many organizations.
Successful organizations maintain a leadership pipeline continuously to facilitate career aspirations of their leaders at middle and senior levels and also to facilitate succession planning. Leadership development programs are delivered through a blended approach using in-house programs, seminars, including webinars and also nominating leaders to attend prestigious leadership programs with reputed institutes, both in India and abroad. In addition to the learning opportunities, the outside programs also develop global competencies in managers to take up enterprise level assignments in the future. The concept of “teaching leaders” is also gaining currency in many organizations and a pool of trainers is created through a “train-the-trainer” concept.
Coaching and Mentoring
Coaching and mentoring has a very important place in employee development. While mentoring is institutionalized by many organizations right from the recruitment stage, through various transitions up to the middle management level, coaching methodologies are used to great advantage to address conflict situations and behavioral deficiencies. Some of the organizations also utilize the services of external experts from the industry as coaches and mentors.
The learning and development function in the IT and business process outsourcing organizations has graduated from a support HR function to a leading business enabler and high impact function to address business growth proactively. This calls for a change in mindset not only by the HR department but also by CEOs to invest cleverly. Many successful organizations are using chief learning officers with adequate staffing and fund support to address this requirement. In future, a flexible and blended approach with a clever use of technology and creative pedagogy will separate the winner from the loser in this game. Budgets allocated for this function should be treated as a long-term investment and the ROI should be measured at multiple levels for learning, behavior modification and business impact.
Brigadier K Harikumar [Retd] , Executive Director , Hyderabad Software Exporters Association [ HYSEA] .