Leverage Your Staff's Skill Sets

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A good leader knows his employees' strengths and plays to them!


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of JDEtips Journal and is reprinted with permission from Klee Associates, Inc.



Is your staff technically adept, non-technically adept, or a mixture of both? Leveraging your staff members' individual skill sets (and corresponding personalities) is often the key to improving your business health through technology...especially when you consider that all the hardware and software in the world is only as good as those who use it!



Companies can improve their business health by understanding the human part of human resources. See if you can identify your staff in these descriptions and then read my tips for successfully managing these greatly varying personalities!

Technology as an Accelerator

Jim Collins (researcher and author of the bestselling Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't) has found that information technology is an accelerator. Using technology properly can enable a business to improve employee satisfaction, enhance the quality of goods or services, and increase profits. Good information technology use is essential for business health.



But technology can also accelerate a business toward bankruptcy and death. It is important to not just use technology, but use it effectively and well.



Let's start with a definition. When most people hear the term "information technology," they think hardware and software. But that is only part of it. Information technology is "the people, processes, software, and hardware that make up the information flow in the operations of an organization."



People are first. Hardware is last. People are a much more critical element of information technology than the hardware and software. People are also much harder to quantify, organize, and manage. A good leader is one who knows how to motivate and assess the people as well as evaluate and choose systems.

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people in this world: people who are technically adept, and people who are not. Being able to tell the difference is essential to managing effectively. Recognize that training does not make a person technically adept; it can only teach a person how to use a single system effectively. Being technically adept means that a person can usually figure out how to use a system without too much training. Furthermore, a technically adept person can generalize knowledge from using one system and apply it to another system. Unfortunately, technically adept people are a minority population. Even an IT department will have a mixture of both adept and non-adept people (though probably there will be more adept than in any other department.) Furthermore, adept employees are sometimes difficult to work with because they focus more on solving technical problems than developing relationships with people.



Nonetheless, it is often rewarding for the overall business health to learn how to manage technology folk, especially those who have reached "guru" status.



Technically Adept People



If your company has been lucky enough to find a brilliant technology person, then you know what a big difference it makes in how productive your people can be when using technology. But if that same person has become a thorn in your side, don't despair. Don't make the mistake of letting her or him go. Smoothly running computer systems are often worth the risk of ruffling a few feathers. The question is, how do you manage technology people (i.e., "gurus") effectively? Here are some rules that will help.



1. Give the gurus recognition for their role.

2. Focus them on what they do best; supplement them on what they don't do well.

3. Prevent crises by rewarding them for smoothly operating systems.

4. Understand the technology wars in which gurus are involved, and be willing to live with the consequences of taking sides.

5. Give gurus leading-edge technology in isolated labs.



Let's define these thoughts better.



First, gurus thrive on recognition. They usually don't care much about money or status; they care about recognition among their peers for their knowledge. They want to give their opinions, and they want to be taken seriously. You don't have to follow every suggestion they make, but they will fume if they are not asked their opinion.



Second, gurus will work hard--harder than most other people--but they will not do what you want them to do (like plan and organize their work, write up documentation, or communicate with others). Instead, they work harder to further their own knowledge and push the limit of the technological capabilities of the systems. Don't expect them to understand the business needs or appreciate profitability as a reward. Establish guidelines so that they focus on what is helpful to the business, and minimize administrative functions for them as much as possible. Find other people to manage projects and write up documentation. Gurus will be happier if they can focus their intellect on furthering the technological limits of your company in the core business areas and keeping the systems running smoothly. If you aim them right, their happiness means more profits for you.



Third, build in measures that reward no-problem systems. Do not overly reward the knight in shining armor who comes into work in the middle of the night to solve a computer problem. Show more appreciation to the technologists who prevent such crises. Otherwise, the guru's quest for recognition will lead to constant crises that the guru is only too happy to solve.



Fourth, understand the current technological wars going on and understand which side of the battle your particular guru is on. It would be best to find a guru who doesn't strongly take sides in the current technology war, but that's rare. The next best thing is to know the technical direction of your business and choose a guru whose opinions are compatible with it. If your guru is on the opposite side from the technology direction of the company, find another guru.



Fifth and final, gurus will not be happy spending day after day maintaining older technologies. Businesses often stay away from bleeding-edge technology (except within their core competency) in order to minimize costs and maximize productivity. That presents a conflict: How do you attract and keep gurus while preventing them from doing research using the operational network as their personal lab? The answer is to provide your gurus with a separate budget and let them spend a portion of time investigating various options for the future. There is nothing gurus love more than playing with the latest and greatest technology. And if you focus them on investigating technologies related to the business's core competencies, they may return many times the value of the time and money.



Talented IT staff can easily fulfill a very valuable role that brings significant strategic value to your business--but only if you manage them well. By following these simple guidelines, you can maximize the skills and talents of your IT employees. They will be happier and do more for your business in return.



Non-Technically Adept People



As noted earlier, the majority of people are not gurus, are not technically adept, and do not easily pick up new technologies. Furthermore, specific jobs using a single system are often better suited to people who are not technically adept. For example, an Accounts Payable position entails using the same system over and over again in the same way. Another example would be someone who enters shipments into a sales order system every day. In these cases, high experience in the system used would be a bigger plus than general technical adeptness because the more adept a person is, the more likely he or she is to get bored with a single system. As a matter of fact, the combination of high experience in a single program and low general technology adeptness can be spectacular. When people get into a "groove" with a system, their personal productivity goes into a super-effective mode. It would be very hard for a competitor to match that level of productivity. As long as the systems don't change, the people are getting the maximum value from the system. (Of course, if you change the system, the value goes down again.)

Maximizing Business Health

Determining which of your staff are technically adept and which are not is the first step in maximizing business health. The next step is to plan new system implementation projects around the characteristics of your existing staff.


Project Implementation Guidelines

Developing people with a lot of experience in one system and supporting them in their knowledge is key. Usually, we want to start before the new system has even been chosen. The following guidelines are helpful when trying to implement a new system in order to achieve maximum productivity as quickly as possible:


1. Find a champion to talk about the benefits.

2. Bring in end users at a very early stage.

3. Ensure that the benefits are real and observable.

4. Give your best people intensive training and then "imbed" them among everyone else.

5. Make sure there is full technology support for a very long time before and after the implementation.

6. Make sure there is full training.

7. Be flexible; change the project as you learn more about the needs. Listen to the users.

8. Offer financial incentives for increasing knowledge and getting faster in the system.

Plenty of Live Training and Support


Notice the high level of support and training. Research shows that new system implementations that spend 20 percent of the project costs on training have a much higher rate of success than projects that spend less on training.



Furthermore, there is no substitute for live training with an experienced and talented teacher. Some might argue that providing an online tutorial for a new system is sufficient. I disagree.



In the early '80s, "computer-based instruction" was all the rage, and I was given an Apple IIe for use with my students. I also embarked on a Master's degree program at Temple University, focusing on computer-based instructional design. I authored dozens of computer-based tutorials. Most worked like this:



1. The tutorial presents information (written) for the trainee to read or follow.

2. The tutorial presents questions about the information.

3. The trainee answers the question either by typing a response or making a choice.

4. If the trainee answers correctly, the tutorial moves on to present the next topic.

5. If the trainee answers incorrectly, the tutorial returns to the current topic and presents it again.

6. If the trainee still has not learned, it presents the same topic again (and again).



Using instructional design terminology, this method of instruction was called the "buggy modeler" because information was presented until a "bug" was found in the thinking of the person being trained (shown by an incorrect answer), at which time corrective action was taken. However, I found that while occasionally trainees would do well with the tutorials that followed this model, more often they did not learn anything from them. They were still lost when they got back to their own systems. I started to delve into the research to figure out why.



The answer suddenly hit me one day like a ton of bricks. Live instructors did not use the "buggy modeler" to teach! Instead of presenting information until a trainee made a mistake, a live instructor would more often use the following method of instruction:



1. The instructor would ask (orally) a few test questions to assess the current knowledge level of the trainee.

2. Based upon the current knowledge level, the instructor would choose an appropriate topic to present.

3. While presenting the information, the instructor observes the attention and facial expression of the trainee to assess learning.

4. If the trainee has not learned, the instructor represents the material in a different way.

5. If the student still has not learned, the instructor chooses a different topic to present.

6. When the instructor is sure the student understands the material, the instructor would ask a few questions to affirm the level of knowledge.



I call this a "characteristic modeler" because the instruction is based upon a match between the characteristics of the person being trained and the material that the instructor chooses to present. Since it is the topic that changes, it cannot be done as a computer-based instruction. Further, because a computer cannot "see" the trainees in order to observe whether they understand the material, it cannot assess their level of knowledge.



High-quality training is based on the talents of a live trainer. A computer-based tutorial, unfortunately, cannot replace a live instructor. Therefore, in order to maximize staff knowledge and experience in order to assure business health, be sure to include lots of training from live instructors in the project implementation plan.

Using Accelerant

Even a strongly burning fire will go out if it is deprived of either fuel or oxygen. But too much of either will snuff it out as well. Recognizing the role of technology in helping employees do their jobs better will turn it into an accelerant that will increase the flames of business health. But allowing technology to overwhelm them will snuff them out. Don't make that mistake.