May 05 2010

Stretching Your People Dollars

Despite ever-tighter IT budgets, it's possible to keep your technology team trained and to provide redundancy in staffing.

It is probably fairly obvious to most feds working in IT for the last decade that the surge in spending that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks would eventually begin to reverse itself. While that flattening trend in IT budgets has begun, it does not mean that agencies have to face a similar downward spiral in the ability of their technology staffs to meet current and future demands.

At the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS), we’ve implemented measures to ensure our staff maintains the ability to meet upcoming technical challenges. With the push for federal insourcing, we’re scrutinizing all staffing requests, making sure that we insource the right positions and hire the right people for the right jobs. We’re maximizing training opportunities and optimizing spending on personnel. Simply put, this comes down to right-sizing.

My office — like CIO and IT organizations throughout government — has new mandates and technology initiatives to carry out. How can IT departments make sure that their people are up to the challenge and that these initiatives don’t overwhelm them?

Here are a few practices that can help keep the skills of your IT team well-honed even when budgets are tight.

Keep Your People on the Move

A wise person once told me: People are like plants; every now and then, you need to repot them so they can grow. This is a good approach to take toward staff development. Adopting a “change is good” policy when it comes to staff development is an extremely beneficial and cost-effective way to grow your staff’s skills.

Make it an expectation that people will move around between projects, positions and organizations. It’s the simplest and least costly way for an organization to develop and broaden the experience base of its employees.

Most important, it gives your top performers the breadth they need to assume greater leadership positions, serve as coaches and mentors, and apply their talents to multiple projects. It’s “on-the-job training” that benefits not only your top people and projects, but also those junior people in the workforce. This practice prevents a “brain-drain” and enables employees to develop inside the greater organization.

Last year, we moved more than 10 percent of our civilian workforce to new assignments within the organization — that’s about 70 positions. When employees have a fresh challenge, they get rejuvenated. And when you’re doing this within your organization, there are fewer cultural adjustments that must be made; employees always have “reach-back” into their former internal organizations and personal professional networks.

Exchanges across agencies can also be very worthwhile, although they might require more planning, coordination and hands-on mentoring.

Get Recruits in the Door as Part-Timers

Leverage internship-type programs to attract new talent and then convert these folks into full-time, permanent employees.

Photo: Fish hook — Pier/Getty Images; box — Tetra Images/Getty Images

One program that we’ve found to be successful is the government Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) created by the Office of Personnel Management. Agencies work with local colleges and universities to identify and hire SCEP students. The students become government employees who work part-time while attending school. They are given federal employee benefits and work in fields directly related to their academic and career goals. After graduation, agencies can hire SCEP participants noncompetitively.

These young people then hit the ground running; they know the organization and have hands-on experience in real-world scenarios.

It has been very successful for us. We currently have about 30 students, and the retention rate after graduation is 90 percent.

In contrast to SCEP, it’s much harder to bring in fresh graduates through traditional hiring and recruiting practices. The SCEP initiative gives the government a competitive advantage, as an agency is getting experienced recruits with cutting-edge technical skills.

It’s really an inexpensive recruiting mechanism that provides a great return on investment to agencies and one that IT organizations should definitely tap.

Foster Continuous Learning

Every IT organization should have a plan for grooming and promoting its employees. My organization requires each employee to set up a five-year individual development plan, potentially including temporary developmental assignments. These assignments allow an employee to move to a position specifically to learn a skill so that he or she can return to a higher level position or their former position with a broader set of technical or management talents. This not only helps the employee professionally, but it also strengthens the organization and ensures a continuous pipeline of future leaders and talent.

Illustration: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"“A wise person once told me: People are like plants; every now and then, you need to repot them so they can grow.

— Gary Winkler

Obviously, this practice requires organizational and personal commitments to offer and take advantage of training, self-improvement courses and new assignments. For instance, employees at PEO EIS need to take enough training to amass 80 continuous learning points over every two-year period. It’s crucial to make training opportunities open-ended and look beyond what your own organization can offer.

Agencies should definitely promote online training that employees can participate in at their own pace.

The technology and opportunities are so readily available that the only missing ingredient required is an employee’s own personal initiative and positive attitude, which is easily supplied.

A continuous learning program helps keep staff current in the latest technologies. You can motivate employees by linking good assignments to training. Ul­­timately, these programs help an organization right-size staff, surge to meet periodic project demands and deadlines, and fill leadership positions through internal promotions — a definite morale booster.

Keep the Focus on Quality of Work

The work and mission always come first, of course. Collectively, these initiatives build bench strength for the IT organization while also ensuring mission accomplishment. By developing your staff with additional skills through training and developmental assignments, you significantly reduce the risk of not being able to successfully accomplish any task, project or mission. You also won’t have to scramble to recruit external talent for new projects or initiatives.

Just as IT organizations provide back-up and redundant systems to support their parent or customer organization, agencies must avoid single points of failure in personnel. We need redundancy, failover and continuity of operations in people. No one person should be so critical to a program or organization that it collapses if he or she takes leave for additional training, sickness or vacation, or leaves a job altogether.

IT shops need to bolster their personnel COOP strategies now. The looming federal deficit and debt may put pressure on hiring practices, and it is not out of the question that agencies could face a hiring freeze similar to that of the early 1990s, when there was a strong push to balance the federal budget.

That being said, organizations also need to be selective. Only fill jobs that need to be filled. Don’t just bring in somebody new; bring in somebody good. In the best organizations, everyone is a recruiter because we all have personal and professional networks. So, turn to your own IT stars when looking for talented people who can handle a variety of functions.

Photo: Comstock/Getty Images

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