Covering project skill gaps

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by Alan S. Horowitz

In a perfect world, all project teams would have every skill needed to complete projects successfully. This being a world considerably less than perfect, skill gaps are practically inevitable. Project managers must therefore know not just how to plan and manage a project, but how to make up for a team's skill shortcomings.

The more complex your project, the more likely it is that somewhere on the team there will be a skills shortage that you will have to work to fill, according to Robert Johnston, executive chair of the PMI® Program Management Office Specific Interest Group and a senior manager for Indianapolis, Ind., USA, project management consulting firm Bell Tech.logix. Based on an experience with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) project, Johnston stresses that skill gaps are not always technical. “I had a great technical team but needed to hire external resources for business capabilities, such as identifying a variety of different processes like order entry and manufacturing,” he says.

Paradoxically, though project teams frequently lack needed skills, many managers fail to incorporate training or hiring into their project plan, says Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., USA. “We often find that a team is put together but the skills of the people are not looked at until after schedules and estimates are done,” he says. “When training needs come up, there's no budget for it, no schedule for it and no value assigned to it.” If not properly planned, training and hiring needs can throw a project off budget and schedule.

How Much Training Do You Need?

By studying skill gaps on various projects, Gopal Kapur of the Center for Project Management, San Ramon, Calif., USA, has determined the effects of various levels of skill gaps. Using a scale of 1 to 4, he determines the skill level a project requires and compares that to the skill level of team members. The gap is the difference between which skills are needed and which the team possesses.

If the skill gap is less than 15 percent: A gap of this size typically does not hurt a project. In fact,motivated team members often are able to study or train enough on their own time to make up the gap.

If the skill gap is between 15 percent and 25 percent: At this level, team members work harder to keep on schedule, but the quality of deliverables suffers. Beware: Everybody is working hard, everything seems on-track and appearances suggest everything is on track. However, when it comes time to test or implement, an inordinate amount of defects and problems arise. Costs escalate, but only at the end of the project. The team needs training.

If the skill gap is between 25 percent and 30 percent: Here, there's a hit on functionality. Deadlines and the budget are missed because team members must expend much more effort than planned. The team under-delivers, and customers won't get what they were promised. The team needs training, and outsourcing is a solution.

If the skill gap exceeds 30 percent: “Don't let these people do this work,” warns Kapur. No amount of training is likely to make up for this gap.

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Bob Bozich, director of program management processes, tools and training at Honeywell International Inc., Morristown, N.J., USA, doesn't quite agree, saying that many project managers do, in fact, understand skill shortages prior to the start of a project. However, he recognizes the importance of meeting a skills gap by recommending all managers have a training budget in the project's overall cost estimate.

Project Goals

Planning for skill gaps requires an understanding of both the goals of the project and the organization. To make up for a shortage of needed skills, the manager has two options: Train those on the team or hire those with the needed skills. “If the goal is just to get the project done, bring in the best person from outside, if you can afford it,” says Karen Tate, president of MartinTate, a project management training and consulting firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. “If the goal [of the organization] is to develop its people, then you train or mentor them,” she says. Make the training-vs.-hiring choice part of the larger goals of the organization and not just part of a particular project.

When you plan a project, the project's goals become critical, notes Anthony Anderson, customer implementation lead at e-Business Commercial Operations, Nortel Networks Corporation, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “You must identify the skill sets required to accomplish your goals,” he says. “From there you would go into your resources pool and try to match individuals that could fulfill those needs of the project.”

If the goal of a project, for instance, is to develop a new financial product that helps the organization distinguish itself from its competition, it is not enough to have finance and accounting staff on the team to deal with technical issues. Also needed are creative types who can put a spin on a product to make it enticing to the marketplace and to help the organization stand out.

While the goals of a project remain constant, the training needed to reach those goals may evolve over time, which makes it difficult to characterize “must have” vs. “nonessential” skills. Priorities may, in fact, be a moving target. The team skills you “absolutely” need vary during a project's life cycle, says Dominick Soldano, vice president at Herndon, Va., USA-based Center for Systems Management.

Planning skills are required throughout a project, but they are especially critical during the time leading up to the project and in the project's early stages, and leadership skills also may be more critical early in a project than near the project's end. In the middle of a project, technical skills will likely gain priority. If a project team grows during the life of a project, communication skills may gain, too. Though, like planning, soft skills such as communications are always important. When setting priorities among skill sets, factor in the part of a project's life cycle being planned.

Train vs. Hire

From a high-level view, the goals of the organization can directly affect whether you choose to train or hire to make up for lacking skills. Johnston recently worked on a project with a financial services firm focused on growing through mergers and acquisitions.

It had a recurring set of projects relating to buying and merging with other companies, and, for this reason, Johnston suggested the firm choose to train its employees rather than bring in temporary consultants.

“Companies invest in their employees to drive value and expertise,” he notes. Had the firm not been frequently engaged in this growth activity, hiring expertise as needed would have been the better option.

When deciding whether to make a permanent or a short-term hire, future needs come into play. “Let's say you're looking for a COBOL programmer to fit a short-term need, but over time, there are other programming language skills you will need,” says Johnston. “If you find a person who has six or seven programming languages, it could be worthwhile to hire him for the long term.”

Sometimes, no matter what the organization's goals, circumstances dictate which direction to take. If the project is of a short duration or you need skills immediately, then you must hire—there's no time to train. If you're able to plan ahead and have training time, you can be more flexible and take a strategic view, such as whether to develop expertise in-house for the long term or just handle the demands of the project in question.

However, individual circumstances may force your hand. “When you have people who have 15 years experience in a particular field and who are subject matter experts (but that's all they know), their knowledge may not be the most up-to-date,” says Anderson. “It may be difficult for them to open up to new ideas. They may not be amenable to training, even when you offer it.” Anderson recommends face-to-face meetings to explain the value of their input as well as the need to explore new ideas.

Budget concerns also may limit options. Without a training budget, the project may need to be rescheduled or the existing team may have to work harder. Another option is to “borrow” from within the organization.

When someone on staff has the needed expertise, encourage that person to help out on your project with some incentives, recommends Larry Suda, president of consulting firm Management Worlds Consulting, headquartered in Summit, N.J., USA. Nonfinancial incentives, says Suda, could include recognition, such as a note sent to the person's supervisor or the company's head and the understanding that, by helping you, that person can expect assistance in return. Of course, if you “borrow” someone full-time, the project will be charged.

Economics also affect training strategies. Kapur thinks a soft economy is fertile ground for increasing training. Projects are being canceled, providing extra time and even money, he says. “Use this situation to invest in your future by training employees now, rather than waiting for the economy to heat up again and finding yourself short of valuable skill sets.”

Another route is cross-training, to which observers give mixed reviews. Cross-training, in which members of a team have been trained in more than one job, is essential, says Ray Piper, vice president of Slidell, La., USA- and Houston, Texas, USA-based training and consulting firm PMCC Inc. He likens cross-training to apprenticeships common prior to the 20th century that allowed novices to learn from a master over time and, along the way, provide useful services to the mentor. Bozich, however, thinks cross-training is useful only in smaller organizations.

Types of Training

Whichever training strategies you use, measure what has been learned or you won't know if the training is effective. Pat Galagan, a spokesperson and editor in chief of magazines at the American Society for Training & Development in Alexandria, Va., USA, describes a number of training strategies project managers can use:

■ On-the-job training—Designate those who are subject experts. Note that the experts may themselves need direction on how to be a trainer. Give them a checklist of skills they should be imparting to their students. Have them work with those being trained in a short time frame best suited for situations in which a relatively small amount of information is to be learned.

■ Mentoring—Assign a mentor to those being trained. Mentoring works best when the mentor is both highly knowledgeable about a subject and willing to spend time showing how things are done. Here, too, consider giving the mentor direction on how to accomplish this role. Work hard at matching up the mentor and the student in terms of personality, and have the trainer work up a plan for individual development that specifies what skills will be learned and what end result is expected. Mentoring is often used to move someone ahead in an organization over the long term.

■ Experiential activities—These involve case studies and role-playing. Use when you want students to test their skill training before using these skills in a real-world situation.

■ Individual learning assignments—This could be assigning readings in books, which is suitable when there's specific information that must be learned, such as how a particular piece of equipment works. Online training can be placed in this category, although it is more suitable for learning technical information and not as effective for soft skills, such as communications.

■ Classroom—Of course, this is classic, formal training. It's suitable for handling large and small amounts of information, but is limited because it is time-consuming, takes people away from a project and lacks an experiential component.

George Alwon, president of the Raleigh Consulting Group, a human resources consultancy in Raleigh, N.C., USA, says cross-training is “a noble idea, but not necessarily practical. If you cross-train where everyone has to be an expert, it is not doable.”

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Planning for skill gaps requires an understanding of both the goals of the project and the organization.

Training for more than one skill is effective when there is synergy between the job positions, says Soldano. For example, a systems engineer might make a good project manager because both positions require the ability to see the overall scope of a project and the vision of where it needs to go.

Alan S. Horowitz is a freelance writer specializing in small business, entrepreneurship and management. His articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, the Los Angeles Times, Small Business Success and Money Magazine's Your Company.

PM Network September 2001

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