As demand for IT skills in the UK shifts from having a predominantly technical focus to a more business-oriented one, it is becoming increasingly important for organisations to find ways of attracting, developing and retaining the appropriate expertise.

Continued budget restraints likewise mean that it is crucial to understand what skills are available so that CIOs can organise their workforce more efficiently in order to ensure that they have the right skills in the right place at the right time.

But such considerations need to go hand-in-hand with the growing drive at both industry and governmental level to professionalise the sector. The aim must be to both improve the ability of organisations to exploit IT more consistently and effectively and to create a body of recognised, proficient experts that operate in line with an accepted code of practice.

This ambition led to the creation of the Professionalism in IT alliance in May last year when the BCS, National Computing Centre, e-Skills UK – the government’s sector skills council for IT and telecoms – and Intellect – a merger between the Computing Services and Software Association with the Federation of the Electronics Industry – got together to push just that agenda.

To underpin the alliance’s work, however, it has also adopted the SFIA (SFIA). This is a competency framework that was first developed by e-Skills, the BCS, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institute for the Management of Information Systems in 2003. This enabled CIOs to describe, quantify and measure available IT skills against future requirements in an industry standard fashion, not least for recruitment purposes.

More specifically, it provides them with a means of assessing skills gaps across the organisation and to plan for future requirements, by ensuring that training budgets can be focused where needed.

Russell Cosway, ICT business manager at North Cornwall Borough Council, explains: “SFIA enables you to define and clarify job roles and the levels at which individuals operate. It also gives you a standard terminology to express this so everyone fits into a single framework and you get a good overview of the expertise available.”

In this way, SFIA supports ongoing professional development and can be used to underpin a comprehensive and coherent training strategy by ‘giving you clarity and something to measure against’.

Cosway has just been elected chair of the SFIA Foundation’s User Forum, which includes other founder members from BAE Systems, Norwich Union, Leeds City Council, IBM and Honda. Membership will be opened up to the Foundation’s other 500 members when the Forum is officially launched at the next SFIA conference in November.

Managing change: Norwich Union

Norwich Union first started looking at introducing SFIA as part of a wider cultural change initiative in early 2005 to try to enhance the professionalism of the IT department, which comprises 2,000 staff.

The aim was to attract, develop and retain personnel more effectively and to ensure that there were clear career progression pathways within the organisation to make the process more transparent and less subjective.

One of the first steps that the organisation took, however, was to reorganise the IT department into seven professional skills communities, including design and architecture, shared services and change management, to enable knowledge-sharing.

In consultation with staff and with help from IBM consultants, it then used the SFIA framework to define job roles within those communities and to work out which skills were fundamental to perform that role.

Allison Scarborough, capability consultant for Norwich Union’s ITS Capability Development Services and vice chair of the Foundation’s User Forum, says: “One of the biggest challenges is understanding what skills are in the organisation and describing them in a common language, which is why we went with SFIA rather than invent our own shaped wheel. It’s almost like starting with a blank piece of paper in order to build an organisation from scratch, except you have the SFIA framework around it to help.”

Norwich Union has just finished the skills capture exercise for its last group of staff, which involves them assessing themselves, rating their skills in line with SFIA’s five competency levels and discussing their evaluation on a one-to-one basis with managers before it is signed off.

The next step was to put the relevant data into a database that the company had developed itself because “otherwise it’s unmanageable”. But a “normalisation” process is now scheduled to follow “to ensure everyone knows what the SFIA definitions mean”, before the information is introduced into the appraisal process.

Its remit is to act as a networking organisation to disseminate learning and best practice, promote the SFIA standard and review new versions prior to release. The third version of the framework has already been published and the Foundation is currently working on the fourth.

Who is on board
As to which organisations are currently using SFIA, Ron McLaren, operations manager at the Foundation, says that it is mainly medium to large organisations so far, with an increasing number of local authorities signing up since the UK government declared it a standard.

Although adoption is still in its early days, there has also been relatively high take-up in heavily regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals and utilities and in sectors such as financial services and high-tech.

Leeds City Council’s corporate ICT services group is one body that has signed up. Joanne Miklo, ICT resources manager, generally agrees with Norwich Union’s Allison Scarborough (see box). But she also believes it is crucial to communicate the benefits and progress not only to staff, but also to stakeholders such as senior business managers, the unions and human resources to ensure acceptance and

“We didn’t want people to get twitchy around job roles if they changed because all we’d done was re-define them in terms of competencies. So we wanted to sort everything out upfront so that everyone would understand what we were doing,” Miklo explains.

While much of SFIA is “fairly common sense”, she believes that the real benefit it provides is that “you don’t have to spend time and money creating a skills framework because it’s already there”.

Nonetheless, it was still necessary to spend about 20 per cent of her time during the six months between January and June last year in defining what the organisation wanted to do and why and in working out its approach. This included developing training and other administrative documents and ensuring that the right communications were in place so that “once staff were told we were doing this, we were ready to run”.

Up until 1 April this year when the initiative was introduced into the appraisal process, Miklo subsequently spent between 80 and 90 per cent of her time facilitating the changes and communicating their value. The IT department employs 340 staff, which service the needs of more than 14,000 users.
But Malcolm Carrie, head of strategy and architecture at BAE Systems, warns that SFIA is “certainly not a silver bullet”. In fact, he advises that “there is a degree of false security in looking at a framework” because, in reality, “it’s just a set of definitions, a very good set of definitions, but nonetheless, definitions”.

This means that, while time is saved by having them available, “everything else that you’d have to undertake anyway, you still have to do.

“It’s a bit like ITIL in that to do IT service management, you’re advised to do this so it will hang together like that. It’s a great picture and it gives you a sense of security, but you still have to apply due process”.

BAE started going down the SFIA route a couple of years ago when it was “in the throws” of renegotiating its outsourcing arrangements with CSC. The aim was to ensure that the in-house team of 400 had the right skills in place to manage the contract and to fill any gaps that might exist.

Loose definitions
But one of the challenges, Carrie believes, is that, while IT staff tend to like “precision”, SFIA, despite its 78 skills “definitions, nice graduated levels and the like, gives the impression of being precise, but it’s not entirely so. It’s an awful lot better than saying you’re good at this, but many of the things referred to are ‘soft’ such as people skills, which by their nature are imprecise”.

Nonetheless, although such issues may take time to work through, Carrie believes that the benefit of SFIA comes from being “given a language to have a much more consistent and concrete conversation between managers and subordinates because you’re forced to be more definitive. It’s an objective framework with which to make relatively subjective decisions but in a much more channelled sense, which leads to greater consistency”.

Another challenge, however, is that because the standard is currently more aimed at running an in-house IT team than staff looking after outsourced operations, there are few SFIA-based training courses available that deal with management issues as opposed to technical skills.

Cosway agrees that some elements of SFIA still need work. The framework is “very targeted” at the private sector, he says, and is weighted to larger organisations that require more specialised rather than generic skills, but this is one of the things that “they’ll be plugging with SFIA in the future”.

Nevertheless, he believes that the time to start adopting the framework is now because it is only going to gain in importance.

“The whole professionalisation agenda is picking up, the government is getting behind this and some big organisations are also playing a really key role. The IT industry is currently perceived as having about the same level of professionalism as prostitution so there’s a lot of interest in moving this forward,” he concludes.