Ahead of the game

Many vendors unveil new products on a quarterly basis as they strive to stay ahead of the competition. The impact of this is that there is always something new to learn for local IT managers and administrators. However, constant learning and updating of qualifications is often not an option as IT professionals actually have to do their jobs. The secret to staying up to speed is effective planning and utilising the many learning methods available on today’s market.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  July 4, 2004

|~|books3.gif|~|The Middle East IT market is flooded with training options|~|IBM and Microsoft combined have already released a staggering 80 new products and upgrades into the market this year. Other vendors are not far behind, as companies around the globe attempt to tap into a resurgent technology market and increased end user IT spend. Although few IT managers in the Middle East will take every product introduced to the market by their preferred suppliers, those that are implemented have to be thoroughly understood and members of staff destined to operate them fully trained. While such a proposition would be fine if IT managers could afford to take countless days off to bring themselves up to speed on the latest solutions, they often cannot due to the pressures of running departments and adding value to businesses that are becoming increasingly reliant on technology. “The speed with which technology is moving forward is phenomenal and very tough to keep up with,” says Ayman Khaleel, managing director, Compubase. While it may be tough and time consuming for IT managers to keep up with the latest technology being introduced to the local market, technology teams have to keep up to speed otherwise the return on investment (ROI) promised as part of a successful implementation can fail to appear. It is, therefore, essential that IT managers build training requirements into their initial purchasing and deployment plans. “Having professionals properly trained on the latest technologies is critical to companies that are reinventing their business models, executing internet strategies and streamlining their supply chains,” says Michael Brennan, senior analyst for IDC’s corporate e-learning and IT education services research. The increased number of courses offered by local training houses suggests that local IT managers at least understand the need for new product training. For example, New Horizons in Saudi offers 25% more IT training courses than it did three years ago while Synergy changes 15 of its 30 courses every six months. Yet attending courses is not the only step IT managers need to take to ensure that they are their teams don’t lag behind the technology curve. One of the most basic things they can do is create a training schedule that maximises an IT team’s knowledge by stripping down training options. One simple way of doing this is for IT departments to use products from the same vendor wherever possible, as this means training will be more straightforward and cost-effective. “It’s important for IT managers to stay focused by using complementary, not competing products. Updating IT skills is simply a matter of working out a plan. It should never be done on an ad-hoc basis. ‘Focus’ is the key,” says Melad Gabriel, president & CEO of Synergy Professional Services. Another factor that contributes to IT managers establishing effective training programmes is awareness, and in particular ensuring that their teams know all about the new products and technology trends entering the Middle East market. This means turning to information resources such as newsletters from vendors, trade research newsletters from analysts, specialist updates from service companies and the media. “All of these resources are now available regionally for the Middle East. There is also the availability of white papers from a range of IT vendor websites and regular IT vendor conferences and product update seminars,” says Josef Miskulnig, managing director of Fast Lane. As well as being knowledgeable about the industry, it is important that IT managers are up-to-speed on the training history of their staff. Ideally each employee should have a solid foundation in terms of technical knowledge, which can then be built upon with specialist courses. Not only will this accelerate training, but it will avoid repetition of content and wasting the employee’s valuable time. “This way they will have the inherent capability to just look at new features or changes, rather taking all the basic training again from the start. For this purpose, Microsoft has launched ‘Workshop’ courses that introduce the IT professional to new technology quickly through hands-on training,” says Khaleel. “Longer courses should be only be for new entrants into the IT career, while experienced technology professionals don’t have the time, so they shouldn’t sit in lengthy, detailed classes but participate in short burst, hands-on, to-the-point sessions,” he adds. Another important way for IT managers to save time is to select the appropriate delivery model from the wide range of options currently available, which include instructor-led training, CD-ROMs, e-learning, web seminars (webinars) and blended learning. Accelerated learning models are particularly useful to staff when large volumes of products are being released. Additionally, the flexibility of methods such as e-learning means employees can more effectively utilise their training time. “E-learning is a very efficient learning tool for solving the problem of employee downtime for IT professionals. For IT people online training is easy because they are comfortable with it. Especially now that e-learning is available on the intranet and is more reliable,” says Nasser Zahran, manager of enterprise accounts at New Horizons, Saudi Arabia. “The best thing [about e-learning] is that it’s based on the trainee’s specific knowledge level – this personal tailoring means no time is wasted and an IT professional can come in at their exact certification level,” he adds. E-learning seems to be an ideal solution for Middle East IT managers as any place, any time learning enables them to train staff without sending them away for days at a time. Evidence from Madar Research suggests it is catching on as the local firm reports that Dubai’s e-learning market alone will top US$24million by 2008. But, in reality, the implementation of e-learning can sometimes be disappointing. “Firstly, buying e-modules can cost more money than paper-based training. Secondly, there’s the issue of bandwidth, users will need the right infrastructure to take up e-learning,” says Miskulnig. “Finally, discipline and tracking can be an issue: as convenient as it sounds, if the user doesn’t devote themselves they can get sidetracked without an instructor. The further away from the traditional training routine the students are, the more challenging the learning process,” he adds. In light of this, many training houses are pitching ‘blended’ learning solutions as the most effective learning method for staying up to date with new product releases. Blended learning incorporates various techniques, including instructor-led tasks and virtual learning. This mix means the speed-benefits of e-learning are retained, while learning remains scalable and end users can be motivated through face-to-face training. “Technology is fast-moving, so e-learning is great for sending updates to our IT customers. We’ll send them a lot of e-learning courses, maybe once a month, and over the year we’ll send them twice to the classroom too. So e-learning has dramatically changed the ease with which we can supply IT training,” says Zahran. Another popular element in blended training is web casts, as they also address the disadvantages of self-paced e-learning by providing engaging visuals and a human touch, while still offering the benefit of speed. Training houses appear to be aware of lack of time IT professionals have, which is good news because it means they are striving to provide tools such as web casts and abbreviated courses. “Compubase provides short-burst courses which target specific technology attributes, such as disaster recovery for exchange servers. It delivers intense knowledge in that area within a short time. It works well, provided the audience is well-educated and experienced IT professionals,” says Khaleel. Dubai Municipality has bought into the need for blended learning programmes that combine short bursts and longer, more intensive courses. The government body has received training from Fast Lane and continues to use the training house to stay up to speed. “The technical skill-set is one of the key assets for Dubai Municipality,” says Indranil Guha, head of Dubai Municipality’s network services unit. “It’s a challenge to keep up to date, and it’s essential that we employ a blended selection of learning methods: hands-on network training from Cisco and animated presentations, inhouse developed interactive CDs, and remote control assistance internally. This saves time and is vital to keep our skills hone,” he explains. Dubai Municipality has purchased approximately US$145,000 worth of face-to-face training from Fast Lane in the past three and a half years to train its seven core IT workers on the network applications that run across its 97 local area network (LAN) and wide area network (WAN) sites. However, the technology team also uses inhouse developed training media to add knowledge quickly when it has multiple projects on the go. “It becomes particularly challenging when we have to deliver two or three updates a month. We manage this with Enhanced Systems Manager from Tivoli, which rolls out the updates and provides users with remote control assistance. This allows end users to be guided through the new application on their screen remotely by one of the Municipality’s technical experts,” explains Guha. E-learning is certainly a valuable tool to add to the IT training box. However, in some cases, instructor-led training is unavoidable due the complexity of the subject matter. Though it may be tempting to enlist web casts or e-learning in every IT training case, it’s important not choose a remote effort if the subject really can’t be delivered effectively online. General Electric Medical Services (GEMS) recently bit the bullet and purchased face-to-face training from New Horizons. Having purchased instructor-led Windows 2000 and network app training, Ashraf Shokry, IT service leader at GEMS, testifies to the thoroughness of its offline learning components. “They [New Horizons] fulfilled our needs with flexible classroom training, at times that suited us. Because we work in the intensive care medical industry, I found it important that we were able to ask questions face-to-face to ensure we were all fully briefed in case of an emergency,” he says. The growing diversity of training delivery models certainly offers IT managers more control over their training schedules than ever before. But at the same time, it’s easier to get it wrong and get caught up in maelstrom of options. Compubase’s Khaleel insists that training vendors are aware of this challenge and are attempting to hone their training courses accordingly. “As often as the technology changes and new things are introduced, training houses are always at the front of the market and working closely with vendors to deliver what’s relevant to IT managers,” he says. However, IT managers also have to look out for themselves and ensure they combine market awareness and blended learning in a way that allows them to keep up with new product releases while carrying out their day-to-day activities and adding value across the board. ||**||

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