Network managers are facing a skills crisis. While automation is simplifying many existing network tasks, there are also a growing number of emerging technologies that require human knowledge and expertise for reliable deployment and management. In a historically tight labor market, a growing number of network managers are finding a solution by upskilling current team members.
There are two primary goals behind any training program, said Clyde Seepersad, senior vice president and general manager of training and certification at The Linux Foundation, a non-profit technology and training consortium. "The first is to ensure your employees possess the hard skills necessary to be successful in achieving organizational goals for network operations." The second goal, he noted, is improving team morale and loyalty by giving them the tools needed to continue advancing their careers.
Upskilling should always be an enterprise-level effort. "Every organization is feeling the pain of the current labor market, and you're not going to be able to hire enough talent unless you have an unlimited budget," warned Dan Kirsch, managing director and co-founder of its advisory and consulting service Techstrong Research. Upskilling makes both financial and practical sense.
When beginning an upskilling program, it's important to evaluate candidates' current skill levels. "Next, you need to determine what your needs are based on the technologies you're currently using and any new technologies you plan to implement in the future," Seepersad said. "Once you know these [facts], you can identify where skills gaps exist and determine what type of training is needed to close them."
Next, identify candidates with a strong interest in cross-training. "Cross-training may involve learning about adjacent technologies, but it might also include learning more about the business priorities of your organization," Kirsch explained. "Some employees might benefit from rotations within the business to truly understand how the IT organization impacts the business." Cross-training shouldn't be a mandate, however. "There are some employees that want to go as deep as they can into a discrete technology," he noted.
Network managers should always be thinking about which skills each team member should possess. "Particularly in technology, there's never a situation where someone is going to know absolutely everything they will encounter, so everyone is a candidate for upskilling," Seepersad observed. Still, it's often necessary to prioritize, so it's important to locate your organization's pain points and how new skills or technologies can help address them. "Then, focus on the team members closest to those [painpoints] and prioritize them for training programs," he suggested.
Many organizations find that staff certification carries weight both internally, as a sign of recognition for the effort an individual put into developing a skillset, and as a sign of credibility for external stakeholders, noted Doug Teachey, director, organizational change management, at global technology research and advisory firm ISG. "The important thing is to make sure the certification is based on actual demonstration of knowledge and skill attainment, " he said. "If it comes across as a gimmick, it will serve as a demotivating force."
Certification also shows that management is committed to putting employees first, Kirsch said. "The certification is theirs, no matter where they work later on." Additionally, if the organization is onboarding a new technology, or needs to train staff on a new platform, certification can be a great first step, he added.
Mentorship programs can be used to connect team members with senior co-workers, both within IT and various business units. "It's not just about improving current skillsets; it's extremely important that employees start to understand different parts of the IT organization as well as the business," Kirsch said. "Amazing technical skills are always highly valued within an IT organization, but IT leaders need to bridge the gap between technical and business skills."
Mentorship opportunities should be presented to team members as an employment benefit, Seepersad advised. "Especially in a technical field like network operations, your employees know better than anyone that technologies and processes change all the time," he said.
Keeping existing skills up to date while gaining new abilities is a benefit that provides an opportunity for career advancement. "Try to organize it so [team members] can use work hours to take training courses rather than forcing them to do training on their own time," Seepersad recommended. "It really does show that you're are investing in their development, which is positive for everyone."
"The Great Resignation" has created a talent vacuum in many tech areas, including networks. Yet many organizations still chose to starve their learning budgets. "If organizations do not invest in their people capabilities now, their talent brand will continue to erode, making it extremely difficult to build needed capabilities to succeed in a competitive marketplace," Teachey warned. “'Winging it' is no longer an acceptable strategy."