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Issue Date: December 2006

Attracting and retaining ICT staff

December 2006
Haseena Parak, director at Human Capital Institute

Attracting and retaining scarce skills critical for sustainable business competitiveness.

Human capital is unquestionably a critical element that drives the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a company's bottom line. However, the pace of the digital revolution has perpetuated the severe shortage of quality ICT practitioners as companies push ahead with integrating technologies into business processes.
Although the digital revolution continues to be a mainstay the world over, human capital cannot be easily substituted. Retention strategies and programs must therefore become a top priority for human resource (HR) and executive management if they are to prevent a meltdown in the operational capacity and capability of the business due to a loss of skills.
In the high-demand ICT domain in particular, practitioners are often lured by attractive packages and benefits, resulting in a never-ending cycle that leads to dangerously excessive staff churn and a static talent pool. The problem is further exacerbated by the mission-critical and indispensable nature of ICT practitioners, with many companies threatened by productivity losses when these key practitioners resign.
The recruitment process, which generally constitutes profiling, advertising, interviewing, selecting and appointing such specialist skills, is costly and arduous with little guarantee of success. Many traditional recruitment firms focus on the goal of filling the position rather than searching for quality with proper attentiveness to their clients' needs.
South African companies are experiencing a dearth of specialist ICT practitioners coupled with a high degree of brain drain as developed countries continue to entice a growing number of local practitioners with attractive propositions. These include highly competitive remuneration structures and benefits, exposure to a diverse range of technologies, a wider choice of potential employers and the high adoption rate of new technologies by a larger base of companies.
To further compound matters, the quality of education offered by most universities and colleges in South Africa leaves much to be desired, tending to focus on old and frequently obsolete technologies. Quality and scarcity of good skills is a problem across the gamut of ICT and not necessarily confined to any one area.
Companies are inadvertently held hostage to disproportionate remuneration packages. Both country and companies have initiated many programs to mitigate and/or eliminate this problem yet some of these programs are unsuccessful, resulting in sunk investments. In addition, many of these programs are still in their infancy or are incapable of generating a quantifiable increase in the ICT skills pool in the short to medium term.
Retention strategies are paramount to resolving the challenge of losing skilled ICT practitioners yet many include the fatal flaws of offering ridiculously high remuneration packages, applying trial-and-error methodologies on new projects, remaining in maintenance mode on existing legacy systems, applying a 'band-aid' approach to solving problems, postponing decisions to procure new technologies or merely deciding against investing in new technologies. However, a few companies are adopting the correct approach - investing in developing and upgrading their core skills base while retrenching or redeploying their less critical ICT skills and contracting the balance on an ad-hoc basis.
In the mistaken belief that 'we can do it ourselves', most companies continue on a spiral of never-ending ICT budget extensions. Instead, businesses should consider investing in programmes that promote skills retention through skills development, delivering rewards that ultimately benefit these companies directly and the country as a whole.
Another common mistake is to freeze staff in positions where they are performing well. While this may be good for the business in the short term, it is potentially disastrous in the long term as ICT practitioners feel deprived of personal progression or stimulation. On the other hand, attractive remuneration structures are not guaranteed to buy loyalty, motivation or commitment.
Few companies in South Africa opt for any form of outsourced arrangements with ICT firms specialising in the development and recruitment of specialist ICT practitioners. This is the result of an historical self-sustenance belief or a misinterpretation of outsourcing and is not in keeping with developments in the rest of the world.
First and foremost, as a disaster management policy, companies need to limit their exposure to the loss of key practitioners by implementing procedures that enable the obligatory transfer of human knowledge to digital knowledge. This aspect of knowledge management automatically reduces risk to the company through better intellectual property management.
It is critical for ICT recruitment firms to establish and maintain a thorough understanding of their clients' business, the ICT environment, goals and objectives, organisational dynamics and culture, competitive strategy, progression opportunities and other critical business elements.
Employers should consider a 'partnership' arrangement with their recruitment provider that matures beyond the 'body-shop' approach.
It is therefore essential for a retention strategy checklist to include the identification of turnover hot spots, high risk groups, cost impact, trends and the perceptions of employees. In addition, management will gain considerable insight into attrition by conducting well structured exit interviews that identify weak spots. Retention of ICT practitioners is as a result of a combination of many factors. These include the quality and effectiveness of management; job satisfaction; recognition; skills development and training; enabling staff to 'own' their jobs; flexibility; challenges; exposure to new technologies; and rewards for achieving milestones. Innovative training and skills development programs may be considered unwarranted expenditure but are potentially rewarding for companies in terms of quality management and skills retention. Employers need to configure individual programs by determining the relevance of each of these factors for every practitioner.
For more information contact Haseena Parak, director at Human Capital Institute, a business unit within institute, +27 (0) 11 267 2426,

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