Volume 16, Number 14 -- April 9, 2007

A Trained IT Staff Is A Happy and Competitive One

Published: April 9, 2007

Hey, Brian:

I know that there have been many new and exciting capabilities added to the iSeries and System i platform, especially over the last five years. But I am at a loss to really know what they are in detail or how to use them. Along with the things IBM puts in the System i, there have been many other advances in technology from networking to e-commerce. Yet our management team does not find it worthwhile to encourage, authorize, and fund any of our team to attend any form of off-site professional or technical education. Are they just bad managers?

With all of the Windows stuff around here, I can see that our managers have no idea how worthwhile our 4-year-old iSeries Model 825 box actually is for the company. What prompts this note now instead of a month ago or a year ago is that our local user group got the names of all five programmer/analysts in our company and instead of writing to the company managers as they usually do, they sent their meeting notice to the five of us individually. It was a simple luncheon meeting that cost $10 to attend and I suppose that just covers the lunch. The topic was "Java as a Second Language," but it could have been about anything. Several of us asked our manager if we could go and we were all reminded of how busy we are and basically we were told to get back to work. There was no encouragement and there was no open door left to ask if we could make the time up after 5:30 p.m., when we typically end our day.

The pay is not bad and that keeps me here, but this seems to be a go-nowhere place. Sorry about the long note, but is there anything that you can tell me that would help convince our managers that it is OK for us to learn?


You are absolutely not alone. When innovation and its value to a company are poorly understood, it's difficult to utilize their advances effectively. Lack of knowledge is one of the major failures of many System i shops struggling to stay afloat with current technology and as a result, companies like yours do not reap the full benefits from their IT investment.

Recently quoted statistics indicate that more than 75 percent of AS/400 and iSeries shops are not yet on the current release and many are two or three or more releases behind. It's not just an epidemic; it is a pandemic. And it's a shame. One plausible explanation is that this is a product of people untrained in management who are appointed nonetheless as managers, solely due to seniority and rank in their organizations. In worst cases, these people become an IT director or chief information officer.

Good managers rise to the challenge of not only attracting the right people for the job, but also recognizing the work necessary to retain them after they learn the business and become productive. But by contrast, many System i shops are acutely aware of the "lack of available System i talent," yet they seem to ignore the idea of assisting their staff in ways that would engender a more positive feeling toward the organization.

Why might this be? The IT field is a competitive one. This has been an ongoing issue with IT since it was Data Processing. It hasn't significantly improved. In February 2007, taking aim at this long-standing management problem, Gartner noted that "stale and aging reward practices put companies at high risk of losing and failing to attract a high-caliber IT workforce." To do this, Gartner said that "they need effective reward programs in place to keep employees highly engaged and satisfied in performing and delivering desired results."

It sounds as though your company's discouragement of you and your colleagues' expanding and cultivating your knowledge base has left you dissatisfied. On point, "Although monetary rewards are very important, they are no longer the only important reward factor when it comes to developing a compelling employer value proposition," said Lily Mok, research director for Gartner human capital management group. "Non-monetary rewards, such as career development, recognition, and work/life balance, are increasingly effective in helping to create a more personally rewarding total work experience and contributing to a more engaged and satisfied IT workforce." Good managers know this. When advancement opportunities are stymied because of the nature of the firm or the fact that not many top positions exist in an IT shop, it takes some care and feeding of quality employees to assure that they continue feeling good about the company and that they are prepared for tomorrow.

Keeping employees happy is very important and it's easy to see that you are displeased with your management team. I am not suggesting you leave, but if you have an open conduit, it might benefit you to express your feelings directly. If that fails, consider that many companies do embrace the simple practices listed above and you may be surprised to find they receive you with the exact type of enthusiasm and encouragement you lack in your current environment. I regret that your company seems to be exhibiting an arrogance that blinds it from recognizing how stodgy practices and a static disposition de-motivate you as a valuable employee and risk losing you. This exemplifies the common notion that encouraging growth promotes good employee retention.

Additionally, besides employee retention issues, there are a number of other good business reasons for a company to stay current in technology. The more knowledgeable you are about life and your job, the more advantages you bring to your company. The same reasons that companies look for the best people with the best skills are the very reasons why smart companies invest in the development of their workforce. The company then gets to reap those benefits. But if there is now sowing, there can be no reaping.

In his never to be outdated BusinessWeek column from two years ago, Keith McFarland suggests that in the recruiting "game" far too many mangers use maxims like "getting the right people on the bus" as an excuse for failing to develop the employees they already have (see A Company's Long Road to Greatness). Isn't that what this is all about? Isn't it amazing with all that is written about the value of human capital, a term that nauseates me just a bit more than the term human resources, that managers remember the value of people to the organization only when they are about to hire someone. Ironically, the newest person in the door, for a fairly long while, is the one employee in the organization who knows the least about the business and consequently is the last person that management can count on to help the business--today. New hires are not instant solutions and they do not provide instant results, whereas happy, well adjusted, well developed employees can turn a problem into an opportunity because they know how and they feel like doing it.

Just today, not to name names, at a meeting in which I participated, a high ranking executive of a large location of a large insurance company offered his own frustration with the constant concern for no less than expected earnings. He said that as soon as things don't look good, "one of the first areas that goes is training. It is an easy takeout." What a shame, but it is true.

Across the globe, companies, especially small to medium size companies continue to ignore the obvious and instead of trying to increase their supply of human capital in the company, they try to drain every last ounce of it out from every employee every day--rather than helping their people prepare for the next day and the next and the next. Once in the door, due to daily pressures, managers forget how difficult it is to attract the best and they no longer try to replenish or add to their supply of human capital. However, as McFarland notes in a subsequent BusinessWeek column, the real game is won and lost after the people get on the bus, recruiting is only the starting point. When a valued employee walks out the door for an opportunity that he or she sees as being more attainable outside the company, the company's HR system has failed--especially when he or she has been on the bus for a good ride.

Of all the ways that may be considered to increase or augment the component attributes, there is little argument that education and training are the most important investments in human capital. Yet, company cultures often do not treat such investments as they do the maintenance of an important piece of machinery or equipment. Cynics of course would suggest that once on line, it is highly unlikely that a lathe for example, would get upset at the company one day, call a truck and be off to some other manufacturing floor. But, it is this very reason that companies need to provide more investment in their human capital than they do in their physical assets.

Other than some very unenlightened IT managers, nobody doubts for a minute that IT people out where the rubber meets the road are busy, yet none of us can do just for today and do without tomorrow. Many of us, such as you, Jen, have been accustomed to request after request for minimally expensive or even free personal development education - technical or otherwise, being denied by our managers for no apparent reason. Unless you are ready to hit the trail for greener pastures, you register it on the negative side of the "company capital" ledger and you move on to finish the task at hand.

Users group meetings surely do not constitute the beat-all and end-all of personal development opportunities. But, the opportunity to attend a users group meeting brings with it the opportunity to be introduced to opportunities of which you may not be aware and of which both you and your company can benefit. Just the interaction with our peers gives us a sense of what is going on and whether we and our companies are ahead or behind the curve. A few reasonably short meetings a year is a small price to pay for an industry perspective--and a happier employee.

Jen, I not only believe you should be able to attend the users group meeting but your managers should go with you. Please pass this response on to them along with a copy of the invitation to the next users group meeting and tell them to go if you can't go. Pass this response and the invitation to anybody in your department that has not received the invitation. Pass it on to human resources (HR) to find out where the company is on the issue. Additionally, pass it on to the new guy in the PC area who thinks the System i is a dinosaur that should be quickly replaced. None of us should have to miss the small opportunities in life or we will have a difficult time recognizing big opportunities. You and I and all professional employees should be permitted to take the steps necessary for a better and more rewarding career for ourselves certainly but also because it really does put the company in a better position to retain your even more valuable services.

It is an enigma that more people are not permitted or simply do not take advantage of small opportunities such as users group meetings as they arise. Once the meeting is held, and you are among the missing, the benefits of that meeting are lost forever since opportunities do not last forever.

I am sure you were hired because you offered great promise to the organization. Ironically now that you are able to regularly deliver on that promise, you are being denied the opportunity to increase the very tools that you need to continue to fulfill the promise in the future. IT does not stand still thus IT professionals cannot stand still--especially those like you want not just to survive but to be successful.

In today's competitive and uncertain times, the HR mantra is that you absolutely must find and retain the best people. The HR pitch to top management in some organizations may be that the company needs a chief human officer to do that. Of course, there would be more believability to this if they also were talking about upping the quality of the HR director and staff rather than merely moving her to a new office suite and getting her a better company car. Like a good employee, a good HR director and the HR team should be hired from the top of the class. How else can HR tell the difference between a 1 percentile engineer and a 99 percentile engineer?

Regardless of the quality of the HR team, good IT managers need to be asking themselves some questions, such as these:

  • Do our people have the skills needed to help our company profit from the challenges of tomorrow?
  • Are we doing everything we can to create a pipeline of qualified leaders from within our company?
  • Are we making it easy or difficult for our employees to grow as individuals?

And, of course, good HR people should be asking these same questions, too.

The Competitive Edge

In preparing this article, I searched the Internet hoping to find that somebody had already articulated the 25 reasons why companies should hire and fight to retain the best IT people in the business. Though I suspect that it is out there, I could not find the list. When I tried to create my own list, I came up with just one item. It's a big one, but it is only one.

Why is it desirable for an organization to have the very best IT people working for them? In light of the marginalization and commoditization of IT and the shifting of jobs to China and India, why is IT still important? Why should the best IT people (those with the best combination of human capital) be important to an organization?

Like I said, it comes down to just one item. There is only one core business reason why companies should hire the best that IT has to offer. It's actually the same reason why companies should use a System i for the most demanding parts of the business. It's called maintaining a competitive edge. If you take the most agile company that is continually looking for the cleverest ways to beat the competition, you can bet they have a System i doing the work, and they have the brightest IT and business people in the company making sure it happens--and that it happens quickly.

General George Patton is attributed many quotes. My most favorite Patton quote is, "When everybody's thinking the same thing, somebody's not thinking." To have a competitive advantage, a company must use marketing through the whole product, price, promotion, and place analysis cycle to devise and implement a plan that differentiate it and its wares from all other similar companies and products. Companies who want to succeed cannot wait for SAP or Oracle, or Microsoft to come up with the next unique idea, since immediately the competition has that idea. Companies cannot outsource their ability to implement innovation to their software vendors, nor can they depend on their software vendors to provide any unique competitive advantage in any way.

If "same" is what you desire, ask your software vendor so that feature can be in the package used by your 1,000 competitors the next release. Software vendors know how to deliver "same." They make much more money on same than different. Do you have to give up trade secrets (your ideas) to your software vendor in order to be in business, and able to use your trade secrets. To have a secret marketing campaign that requires technology do your first have to ask you technology vendor to build it for you? Will your company pay the premium so that your unique feature does not become part of the product? How can you be sure that your ideas and the implementation tricks you funded to your software company won't show up in the product a few releases hence? If it doesn't make sense, it's because it shouldn't. Using somebody else's people and somebody else's software keeps you the same as everybody else. An agile system such as the System i and HR practices and policies that create an agile workforce are a company's best competitive weapon.

Look at the toughest industries out there and look who the survivors are. Whenever money and keeping track of money really counts, you'll find the System i quietly doing its job. The rigors of the casino industry come to mind. This industry demands the most of any computer system in any industry and the System i and only the System i delivers the goods with precision--all the time. Stories run rampant of Las Vegas casinos that, choosing to use other platforms, had to deal with difficult to solve down situations that caused major disruptions forcing such drastic measures as hotel registration clerks assigning rooms using hit and miss backup paper methods. To be effective in the casino industry, IT professionals must stay at the top of their game, and I know from personal experience that casinos hire the best, they pay well, and they keep their workforce well informed.

Other businesses that have the luxury of sending out bills and processing the payments weeks later should take a look at the overwhelming system choice and the HR policies of an industry in which the next dollar is earned by an impulse purchase in which the amount of change the customer receives has nothing to do with the amount spent. It's probably the toughest industry around in which to have keep track of a buck.

Jen, not only does your System i provide the bread and butter back office transactions that are needed for the enterprise to survive, but it also can do the same for the front end. Many System i shops do not know how good the system is because they too cannot go to users group meetings and they can't even think of attending a COMMON conference. This lack of knowledge and worse yet, lack of perspective costs companies far more than the training costs.

Because even System i people do not get to know their system as well as they should, few understand how good it really is--top management included. Company after company continue to stumble with other systems and other methodologies requiring burdensome and cryptic techniques while leaving its most agile box sitting in the corner with lights out--merely preventing the company from going out-of business. They just didn't know it could do that! How can that be? It's because they do not invest in their people and their people do not have the time to find out about, let alone be able to learn the latest System i tools that can bring it all home for the company.

When IBM finally releases its Web-based, user-interface independent Business Programming Language (that's my term, not IBM's) as a superset of the RPG language, instead of being able to do the front-end Web the same as everybody else (but more reliably), IBM will have added agility big time to its already agile System i family--so much so that organizations will be able to respond 10 times more quickly than with any other Web technology to a change in their competitor's posture--on any issue.

Yes, you need good people to do that! But you can't let them sit around until they are awakened by the sound of the System i being displaced or they are awakened by a technology that lets your competitors get the edge on you--because your guys were asleep. Good IT managers need to get in front of the issues and send all their people to as many user and technical events as they can spare so that the company is ready to lead in its use of technology, rather than be defeated by it.

Business Agility is the Key to Competing

The most cited reason that System i users continue with the platform is its unprecedented reliability. The Casinos know this but that is not the only reason they choose System i to run their businesses. Most System i heritage shops claim no unplanned downtime whatsoever but that is not why they bought their system; they discovered that by trusting the system, using it, and not being disappointed. No matter how reliable a machine may be, nobody buys anything just because it is reliable. My pencil doesn't go down, either, but I would not pick a pencil as the main data processor to run my business. The reason why the System i gets such high marks is that it provides high-quality business solutions, which are more customizable than on any other platform.

Customizability brings agility to the company as long as the customizers, the humble IT staff, are fed and happy. Companies need well trained IT people to gain the competitive benefits awaiting the effective use of a System i. This people-machine combination allow businesses to react to change more rapidly than any other platform. That is the ultimate in agility. For an IT professional to understand the newest and the best tools of the trade, your management team ought to know they have to let you out of the house every now and then to learn.

The bottom line for businesses wanting the competitive edge is that there is no time to wait for the important functions and features to be rolled into the industry standard packages XE "industry standard packages." If you want to win, then to compete and win, you must build the edge yourself. The System i XE "AS/400" plays well in this arena. Properly developed, trained and happy programmers and analysts play well in this area. Now if your company falls behind its competition, there is just one set of folks to blame--management.


Brian Kelly is an assistant professor in the Business Information Technology program at Marywood University, where he also serves as the System i technical advisor to the IT faculty. Kelly has developed and taught a number of college courses in the IT and business areas and runs an IT consultancy, Kelly Consulting. He is the author of 27 books and he has written numerous magazine and newsletter articles about current IT topics.

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