Paradigm shift

Continued training is a must to ensure maximum competence in today’s rapidly changing IT environment. However, this need has led to a flux of training houses establishing themselves in the Middle East. Are end users are enjoying the expected ROI?

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By  Sarah Gain Published  May 26, 2005

|~|PHOTO-1---Virtanen-BODY.jpg|~|"Training is essential to give people the specialist skill sets required to keep ahead," says Jari Valvisto of Virtanen Consulting.|~|Corporate training is seen as a vital investment, essential for enterprises wishing to keep up-to-date with the latest IT trends, while at the same time maximising their return-on-investment (ROI).

In recent years, the attitude that training is an unnecessary and expensive luxury has started to give way to the understanding that, ultimately, expert training for the entire IT team can significantly contribute to an organisation’s bottom line, boosting profits and improving productivity.

Indeed, in the Middle East, there has been a noticeable shift in the way companies in both the public and private sectors are beginning to accept and adopt training. “IT training and education is one of the key growth areas in the UAE and we are seeing a lot of basic training for government departments. At the same time, [corporations] are realising that as they become more dependent on IT, they need to have experts that can handle mission-critical parts,” says IDC’s consulting manager for IT in Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Torben Pedersen.

Maintaining a competitive edge in the market place is synonymous with sustaining a high-technology infrastructure to manage business operations and as IT solutions become increasingly complex, enterprises are under pressure to ensure their IT departments are up to speed with the latest technology.

To keep abreast of the changes, verticals such financial institutions are investing heavily in providing education and training. “At the end of the day, business is all about profit margins and if a company is not operating efficiently, it cannot expect to maintain its competitive edge or maximise its profits. Training is essential to give people the specialist skill sets required to keep ahead,” says Jari Valvisto, a partner of Virtanen Consulting, a company that provides management training to high-tech companies, operating in fast-growing markets such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe. ||**|||~|PHOTO-2---Aslam-BODY.jpg|~|"Companies wishing to see long-term continuity of operations recognise the value of investing in the education of their employees," according to Mohammed Aslam of New Horizons.|~|A satisfied workforce is a productive workforce, according to Mohammed Aslam, regional general manager of New Horizons. Aslam says contrary to the common belief that highly skilled staff are likely to look for new jobs after the completion of their training, dedicating time and money to improving staff skills will improve staff retention and increasing job satisfaction by making employees feel valued.

“Companies wishing to see long-term continuity of operations recognise the value of investing in the education and the future of their employees. As well as boosting skills, training is a great motivator. It makes staff feel appreciated and this means that they are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. They will also be more productive in their current role,” he says.

New enterprises, particularly in emerging markets like the Middle East, are constantly trying to establish themselves and existing ones are always on the look out for opportunities to expand and grow their businesses. Maximising productivity in this way is, therefore, critical, and is the most tangible benefit that investment in training can provide.

By facilitating efficient ways of completing basic business functions, enterprises can ensure that operations remain efficient, and as a growing number of business systems become automated, it is employee training that ensures the successful adoption of new IT solutions. “New technology is becoming complex and when you look at the kind of solutions being implemented today, even in the simplest servers and networks, partners need solid knowledge and understanding. It therefore proves beneficial for CIOs, and indeed all staff, to be educated on the subject of business-critical technology,” explains Professor Sa'ad Medhat, chairman and CEO of Productivity4you.

This has certainly been the case for Emirates Media (EMI), which made a commitment to educating users when it implemented new financials and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software packages earlier this year. “Training is very important at EMI. We ensured that end users received hands-on training to familiarise themselves with the new system, along with technical training associated with the hardware platform supporting the application,” says Derek Holland, head of IT at EMI.

The investment that EMI has made in staff training will ensure the company has the skills to maximise on its ERP solution well into the future. The company plans to continue working closely with its implementation partners, Hyperlink Functional Consultants, a subsidiary of Emirates Computers, to ensure a long-term consistency in the skills of the user base.

“Knowledge transfer will be seen as a continuous and ongoing aspect of this project, enabling us to maximise both our financial profits and the skills and potential of our staff,” says Suleman Umer, finance director and project manager at Emirates Media. ||**|||~|PHOTO-3---saad-medhat-BODY.jpg|~|"It is beneficial for CIOs, and indeed all staff, to be educated on the subject of business-critical technology," explains Professor Sa'ad Medhat of Productivity4you. |~|In the past, training and education were often dismissed as buzz words used by vendors to build up hype around new technology releases, however today the true importance of the concepts is apparent. Knowledge is increasingly being defined as a valuable commodity, capable of impacting on an organisation’s profit margins.

Indeed, EMI witnessed an immediate ROI from its ERP implementation. “There have been improvements across the business — a reduction in the number of errors and an improved morale in staff are already evident. The investment in the acclimatisation of users means we are able to comfortably recoup our investment in the project,” states Umer.

Tier-one vendors have realised the practical importance that education holds for end users and are taking the initiative, either by opening their own training centres or by partnering with existing training establishments to provide IT courses for enterprise-level organisations.

The understanding that training and education can act as a significant differentiator between competitors means that vendors are keen to appear active and promote their superiority in this field. “Vendors are increasingly interested in training customers for their products and services. They realise that this can prove to be a powerful tool, enabling them to not only show off the capabilities of their products, but also make customers more inclined to work with them in the future,” says Aslam of New Horizons.

Furthermore, the demand for skilled employees remains strong in the Middle East because the recruitment pool is relatively small and the majority of businesses are forced to rely on imported talent to provide specialist skill sets. A proliferation of training centres exists to provide technical training and certification in specialised areas of IT and enterprises from all verticals are turning to these training houses for help.

One such company is Naizak, a subsidiary of the Abdulkarim Group, which has a network of offices in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE, catering to the specific IT needs of oil% gas clients.

Naizak has established a training centre at Dubai Knowledge Village, which boasts a large pool of certified trainers who provide customer-specific courses. “Companies that follow the Naizak training courses benefit from a clear win-win approach. We combine pragmatic and valuable business acumen with proven technical skills designed to specifically cater to the markets we serve,” says Khalid Al Abdulkarim, chairman of Naizak.||**|||~|PHOTO-5---Khalid-Abdulkarim.jpg|~|"Delegates from customer companies can profit from a variety of comprehensive courses accredited by several major vendors," says Khalid Al Abdulkarim of Naizak.|~|Amongst the corporations that have seen the benefits of investing in training is Al-Shamel International, which enrolled a group of travel and tourism employees in a training programme run by HumanSoft Learning Solutions in January. The program included 12 training courses with a customised curriculum for each individual to boost employees' abilities and IT competency by equipping them with the latest skills.

The employees were assessed on their annual general performance and skills were evaluated by measuring the improvement in employee productivity and job performance. “The HumanSoft syllabus is supplying our organisation's ongoing mission to offer our workforce an up-to-date and cost-effective programme that yields motivated, skilled, and knowledgeable workers,” says Abdul Rahim Al Awadi, chairman and managing director of Al-Shamel.

At the end of 2002, the Ministry of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in Jordan began a three-year scheme to improve IT skills of the public sector employees. The aim was that by 2005 approximately 20,000 government employees would have received training to not only increase productivity but also prepare staff for the implementation of e-government initiatives.

The training was provided by UNESCO Cairo office (UCO) and employees attended the course and sat for exams in ICT literacy. “The participation of nineteen governmental institutions in this project indicates how far reaching Jordan’s e-government programme is and how serious the commitment is to equip employees with the right skills for the new governmental practices,” notes Dr. Amr S. Azzouz, ICDL project director for UCO.

Government sectors in other Gulf States have also been keen to implement training programmes for employees. For example, staff at the Royal Commission for Jubail in KSA have received training to bring them up to speed on the new implementation of Sun Microsystems products. Also, government bodies such as the Lands Department and Dubai Dry Docks have enlisted the help of training providers to ensure the skills of their staff are maximised.

New Horizons provided training in Java programming and Sun Solaris administration for the Dubai e-government initiative. The Dubai Police Department also embarked on an education programme in order to support its members in the implementation of e-government strategies. The project lasted a year and included training on the Java SL 110, 275 and 285 architectures, as well as Oracle OO26 and the entire J Developer track.

“These projects often demand in-house training to ensure that the client has gained a complete command of the systems as they operate in the home environment. The ventures were entirely focused on fulfilling the customers needs and making certain that all the learners got to grips with these specialised skills,” explains Aslam.||**|||~|PHOTO-6--Al-Awadi-BODY.jpg|~|"It is our mission to offer our workforce an up-to-date and cost-effective training programme that yields motivated, skilled, and knowledgeable workers," explains Al-Shamel’s Abdul Rahim Al Awadi. |~|Since its launch in the Middle East by UNESCO Cairo Office in 2001, the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL), the global vendor-neutral end-user computer skills certification has become a popular qualification among learners in the Middle East.

The ICDL GCC Foundation, which is responsible for localised support for accredited training and testing centres, has teamed up with GCC academic institutions, education ministries and quasi-government organisations to establish ICDL as a benchmark for IT proficiency. Institutes such as the General Organisation for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVOT) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman Ministry of National Economy, Dubai e-Government, Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO), Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA) and Emirates Post, are among the list of organisations that have adopted the qualification.

“End-user computing needs are constantly changing as a result of advancements in technology. All users now have to become familiar with new concepts and innovations for the seamless use of computers,” explains Mr. Jamil Ezzo, director general of the ICDL GCC Foundation.

Having reached a crucial stage in the modernisation of its forces, the UAE Air Force Air Defence (AFAD), which supports ICDL, decided to adopt the training scheme to enhance the computer skills of its personnel. As IT becomes an integral part of all activities, Major General Khalid Bin Abdullah Al Bu Ainnain, the UAE AFAD general commander, believes it is imperative for the establishment to develop IT skills. “We are going through an era of qualitative change. With ICDL certification, we arm our personnel with the essential tools to tackle the field of IT, which forms the part and parcel of the battlefield of the future,” he says.

While the abundance of training centres in the region affords a great deal of choice to enterprise clients, with a wide variety of courses, qualifications and teaching methods on offer, not all training establishments are reliable or reputable. Some training houses rely on out-dated systems, employ under-qualified staff or even use pirated software, cheating companies into paying for below standard and unsatisfactory courses. For instance, in 2004, authorities in the UAE cracked down on the illegal use of software, with raids on untrustworthy training centres co-ordinated between the police, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information, netting over one hundred PCs uploaded with pirate software.

Enterprises have to be vigilant and thorough in their assessment of centres to ensure they are getting the best service available when they subscribe for courses. “Training companies can promise the world, but enterprises must take care not to be blinded by ideals. The end result, and the way the provider delivers this result, is the only thing that can be concretely defined,” says Vertanen’s Valvisto.

Since it is often difficult to identify a genuinely good training provider that can deliver effective training solutions, choosing the right establishment to partner with can prove to be a difficult decision for corporations. While there are no definitive criteria that can help businesses compare the overwhelming array of courses and trainers available, the decision essentially comes down to assessing the quality of training on offer.

The competence of the provider and brands continue to play a major role in influencing the choice that enterprises make. “Generally, companies look for an education provider that is well-established and is recommended by major vendors. They are usually prepared to pay a premium price to make sure they get the best quality of service. Reputation and recommendation go a long way,” says New Horizons’ Aslam.

It is also important for enterprises to evaluate the quality of the facilities, equipment and staff, to determine whether a particular establishment will meet the requirements and deliver the optimum results, according to New Horizons, which is part of the HumanSoft Group and was recently ranked as a leader in IT training provisioning by Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Ltd (GASCO) following a technical evaluation of the company. “Our strategy with corporate clients is to provide their employees with maximum on the job experience that will help them perform and develop efficiently and progressively,” states Nadeem Younis, country general manager for HumanSoft UAE.

In addition, the findings of investigations conducted by external evaluators can prove useful in verifying the standards of training institutions. However, it is unwise for companies to rely solely on this information. In order to get the full picture, enterprises need to actively involve themselves in the assessment process, scrutinising the level of experience of instructors and gauging their expertise within a specific area.

“It is essential the trainers are expert enough in the required field to be able to answer questions and give guidance, otherwise the service will not be of the standard necessary to make the training programme worthwhile. Instructors need to hold current vendor-certification in the technologies they are teaching. Real-world experience is also valuable," Aslam explains.

Teaching methods are also critical in ensuring that employees get the most out of a programme. Presentations may vary from instructor to instructor, however they must be clear, interesting and well organised, with adequate time dedicated to hands-on training. The training centre’s equipment needs to be up-to-date and in good condition, well above the absolute minimum configuration specified by instructor training manuals.

The learning environment and class size must also be considered. “It might be cheaper to train a large group of employees onsite, but will this really mean that they get the most from the experience? Sometimes smaller groups or specialised training facilities, while they may be more expensive, can provide the most effective environment,” says Productivity4you’s Medhat.

Cutting corners is not a shrewd option when it comes to IT training. The competitive nature of business means that training services must provide a substantial benefit in both financial and operational terms, according to Valvisto.
“While training can improve workers’ job satisfaction, productivity and efficiency, and enable the use of more streamlined automated processes, the main concern of company executives is ‘is this going to increase our profit margins, improve our bottom line, and provide substantial and swift ROI?’ The answer is simple: yes.”||**||

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