Training for the Information Age


by Matthew Burrows


Can you answer these two basic questions:

  1. What skills have you got?
  2. What skills do you need?

Whether you’re an individual answering for yourself or a C-level executive answering on behalf of your organization, the answer is most likely to be “no.” Even those who think they might know, aren’t always able to articulate it in a way anyone else would understand, or in a way which would identify the most appropriate actions to close the gaps.

When budgets are tight, it’s important that you spend money on the most appropriate training and other activities to help build the skills you need at the levels you need them.

Knowledge Isn't the End 

Knowledge isn’t always the issue—people can have knowledge and theoretical understanding, but lack experience. They can get it wrong a few times and learn from those mistakes. Or they can get it right a lot and increase the likelihood of being right every time? Battle scars are important—you're bound to earn a few the first few times you try anything.

When I was learning to fly a small plane, I was grateful to have an experienced instructor sitting next to me, not only to help me avoid making catastrophic mistakes but also to provide guidance on how to improve some of the things I could do better. I had to study at ground school, where I learned about meteorology, human performance factors, aerodynamics, radio procedures, and several other things. I was subjected to a strict medical exam, several paper-based exams, and lots of actually flying with an instructor. When I was ready, I had to fly solo, perform a qualifying cross-country trip to several airfields, and then take a skills test with an examiner over the course of several hours of flying. Then, and only then, could I take on passengers and be the captain of my aircraft.

Training can give you knowledge, techniques, and guidance, but don't expect to walk away with a skill.
Tweet: Training can give you knowledge, techniques, and guidance, but don't expect to walk away with a skill. @ThinkHDI http://ubm.io/1CXTbWq+

It's unreasonable—and often downright risky—to assume that things will go perfectly the first time. We certainly don’t make this assumption in most areas of our lives. After all, how many of you would be happy in the knowledge that your pilot had read the instruction manual but never flown the aircraft before? Me neither!

Training needs to be positioned appropriately. It can give you background knowledge, techniques, practice, and helpful guidance, but you should never expect to walk away from training with a skill. Rather, training provides you with knowledge that can be applied in order to develop a skill.

Skills vs. Competence

A few years ago, I was working on a large refresh project with a person who'd earned the unfortunate nickname of “Mr. Cut-and-Not-Paste.” He had the right certificate to be put in charge of the backup of the server we were using to hold the build images for the desktops and laptops, but his technique of opening up Explorer, selecting the files that needed backing up, clicking “Cut,” moving to the backup folder, and then hoping he remembered to click “Paste,” wasn’t exactly the stuff of legendary best practice. Needless to say, the nickname lasted for the short amount of time it took to phone the agency, terminate his contract, and have him escorted from the building.

If your certificate, accreditation, qualification, or credential rests on theory, knowledge, or memory, then it doesn't prove you have a skill, and certainly doesn't demonstrate competency.

So, what’s the difference between a skill and a competency? This is another topic that we could endlessly debate, and many will have differing views. My preferred way of look at this is that developing a skill proves you can do something, but the more you practice this skill, the more competent you become. In other words, the more you do it, the more likely it is that you will do it right more often (hopefully, every time). When you reach this point, you’ve developed a competency.

The line between skill and competency can be a little grey, a little subjective. However, the line between knowledge and skill is more solid. If anyone told me they had a skill, I would ask them to provide evidence that they'd achieved positive outcomes in real-life situations. I wouldn’t trust a pilot with my life if he'd only flown a simulator; they might be skilled at simulators, but that’s not the skill I’m looking for. Even if it is the right skill, it might not be at the right level. So, how does my pilot analogy translate to technical support?

Top Secret: SFIA

Our industry has a well-kept secret: SFIA, or the Skills Framework for the Information Age. It's been around since the 1990s, under various code names; you'll find mention of it tucked away in ITIL and COBIT, and traces of it can be found in countless job adverts, role profiles, process documents, professional development plans, training catalogs, procurement schemes and outsourcing contracts, resumes, and CVs. The people in the know are members of an underground secret society, spread across industries in 200 countries around the world.

You may not have heard of it, but the secret is out. So, what’s changed? Simply put, more people are using it and getting benefit from using it, so they're using it more and getting more benefits. More training providers are mapping their offerings to SFIA. More individuals and organizations are assessing their current skills and identifying their required skills using SFIA.

SFIA is a practical resource for people who manage or work in information systems-related roles of any type, and it has become the globally accepted common language for the skills and competencies required in the digital world.

A Common Language for Skills in the Digital World

SFIA gives individuals and organizations a common language to define skills, abilities and expertise in a consistent way, which can solve some of the common translation issues that hamper communication and effective partnerships within organizations and mixed teams.

Individuals can map their current skills and experience, identify their goals, and plan their professional development journey. Mapping higher-education courses, qualifications, professional memberships, and training courses helps individuals and their managers to choose the right actions and activities to support the development they need. SFIA can not only help organizations create job descriptions and advertise vacancies, it can also help individuals identify opportunities that match their skills and experience.

Organizations can use SFIA for overall resource management. It can be used to quickly provide a baseline of the capability of the organisation, specific departments, teams, professional communities or individuals, and to identify skills gaps. SFIA describes the skills and levels of competency needed to operate effectively, ensuring that individuals can do their jobs properly, supporting the achievement of business and customer outcomes. Organization structures, salary banding, and benchmarking can be aligned with SFIA, facilitating a link between skills and experience by focusing on the required capabilities and the value delivered. This helps move away from an over-reliance on certificates and qualifications that often only confirm a theoretical understanding of the relevant areas, and towards specifying competency based on having the right skills and an appropriate level of experience and responsibility.

Everyone wins when we speak the same language.

Standards-based role profiles and job descriptions reduce business risk, increasing the chances of recruiting and developing individuals with the optimum mix of skills, at the right level. This is good for the organization and good for the individual: it reduces the churn risk when individuals feel "the job is not what they thought it would be," or when the organization discovers employees haven’t got the right set of skills to do the job effectively. Everyone wins when we speak the same language.

To learn more about SFIA, click on the image above or visit www.sfia-online.org.


Matthew Burrows is the managing director at BSMimpact, where he leads a team of business service management and transformation consultants. He was also a design authority for the sixth version of the SFIA framework, released in June 2015.


Tag(s): workforce enablement, workforce enablement, training, supportworld, service desk, support center, framework and methodologies, framework

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