How to help employee career development with staff rotation

Members from the CIO Executive Council weigh in on helping employee career development with staff rotation. Add your opinion and advice below.

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Brett Coryell, Emory University (See profile)

We are staying focused on IT staff development opportunities because we know that the ability to learn and grow is strongly correlated to high team morale. Career growth includes more than developing enhanced skills through conferences or coursework. I believe it also needs to include consistent job descriptions, clearly defined competencies, and the ability to provide guidance on how to move from one job to another throughout your career. We are just finishing a two-year redesign of these job families and are now ready to look at other support structures that help lock in both technical and soft skills. I have a variety of pilot mentorship programs and am starting two summer projects to develop a development activities guide and an improved onboarding program. The last piece in the puzzle is an experiential job rotation program for my 300 staff and managers. For staff, rotating to a different job for a set amount of time could let them practice new skills and get a realistic preview of what a new job would really entail. For managers, job rotations would give them greater appreciation for the challenges of other parts of IT and foster more efficiency when working across teams. My CIO, Rich Mendola, is strongly in favor of the job rotation idea, and sees it as the next good step in management training as well as increasing overall engagement. The rest of Emory is looking to IT to set the standard for this type of on-the-job training.

To keep things simple, I'm planning to keep the rotations within my IT department, which is still large enough to have dozens of different jobs. The many logistical considerations to making this kind of a program reality, such as back-filling positions, finding the optimal length of a rotation, and differentiating the staff and manager level programs, are the current sticking points. After we have an IT job rotation program in place, I want to consider additional experiential learning opportunities, including having a rotation program through other departments, such as having one of my central desktop support people trade roles with a desktop person in our College of Arts & Sciences.

Sounding Board's Discussion Points:

Rotation logistics – Staff vs. manager – Experiential learning – Business involvement

Use position transfers to encourage staff to try different roles

Julie Sokol, The Irvine Company (See profile)

Career paths are also top of mind for us; we just rolled out a Career Matrix that highlights every existing (and potential) position in IT. It maps to a competency model that defines skills that are required for each role in the Matrix. One way that staff can expand their skillsets is through position transfers to a different role on the Matrix than their own. Approximately three to five individuals participate annually. This model differs from job rotation in that it is not a formal rotation program and individuals are not required to return to their original position. If the new role is a good fit, they can remain there. However, if after an agreed to amount of position transfer time the staff member decides to return, their old job (or one that is similar) will be waiting. For example, a desktop technician may move into a business analyst position or a business analyst may opt for an internal audit role (this is an example of a position transfer outside of IT). The key thing to remember is that everyone is okay if the transfer doesn't work out. Nothing bad happens to anyone involved, and the individuals end up with the job that is a good fit for them. Most of our individuals who have transitioned to different roles outside of their current job family have stayed in the transitioned role and continued to advance their career in this direction. Our managers go out of their way to cover the “open” position until we know if the transition will work, either through temporary contractors or staff coverage, so we don't end up with additional headcount or backfill issues.

Brett, you raise a very good question about creating a staff-based and manager-level rotation program. I would focus on developing a staff program. I expect managers to proactively come to me if they want a new opportunity. Moving managers outside of their immediate role is much more specialized to the individual when they are executives thus we handle these individually rather than with a formal program. Having rotations at the staff level provides the team with another vehicle to think about development needs and cross-team learning. Other ways that I encourage learning opportunities is by sponsoring cross-team innovation days where the IT department self-selects into teams to innovate and improve business processes. It's interesting to watch how people identify the needed skills (e.g. developers, server engineers, data security) and build teams to reflect these needs. We also have IT staff co-locate with our business users during the onsite requirements gathering sessions and get closer to the business than they ever would from a conference room.

Rotate into the business to grow new skillsets

Mike Whitmer, Hudson Highland Group (See profile)

It's definitely the right time to be thinking about creative ways to invest in your team's development, given the economic environment. At Hudson, we use IT staff business rotations as an important tool in building strong relationships with our business peers. For example, a project or program manager would rotate into a business liaison role or into a business operations function. Rotation assignments last from one-to-two years, which gives them more than just a taste for the other function. This means that participants return to IT having a stronger understanding of what makes business tick and how to deliver IT solutions to further business goals. Two or three individuals participate annually. During our first year, handling backfill proved to be a challenge. I solved this by leveraging different staff skillsets to cover participants' responsibilities. Today, we have staff members returning back to IT after having gone through the rotation program, and they can cover when the new group leaves for the business.

My recommendation to you, Brett, is to start with a year-long rotation period; I've found this to be a good amount of time in the business rotation program for participants to acclimate to the new job, make an impact and then bring learnings back to IT. One thing to be aware of, though: you need to be cautious about disrupting any existing relationships with business stakeholders by moving their IT contact to a rotation. It can be potentially harmful if key relationships are continually changing on the IT side. I definitely see you running two distinct programs for staff and managers, since the skillsets and work expectations are so different. For example, one idea would be for you to have IT staff would rotate through peer-level positions, while managers could gain experience managing different functions within the IT group.

Tie rotation takeaways back to performance reviews

Joel Schwalbe, CNL Financial (See profile)

My biggest piece of advice to you is to expand the rotational program beyond IT positions. You need to incorporate the business and forge strong relationships. If you don't, you are going to be missing a lot of opportunities to be viewed as a solution-oriented shop. I have all of my staff participate in our business sensibility program – a yearlong mentorship with a business peer – as a required objective in their performance review. As a result of their experience, the IT participant is also required to identify and introduce a new process enhancement/solution. For example, one mentor had a manually-generated report that was taking him up to 90 minutes per day to run. The mentee brought the problem back to IT, and today it's an automated process that eliminates the manual time and effort, and needs no additional work on the business analyst's part. Talk about a huge efficiency gain!

IT staff identify their business mentor at their equivalent title or higher, get their manager's approval, and meet on a monthly basis. Each year, they rotate to a new business mentor to gain new experiences. I have great buy-in from the business unit leads for the program; one of the things that's really impressed me is the level to which mentors have driven the mentee experience: giving out reading assignments, asking specific follow-up questions and really taking it seriously. Mentors see the value of building strong relationships with IT staff and how technology can be used to meet business needs.

Brett, to address your questions about length, I would suggest trying a month. I don't think you need to be fully immersed in the role to bring back expertise to your original position. This would also help with your backfill questions, since it's much easier to cover a role with internal staff for a one-month interval. Staggering the staff-level and manager-level rotations may help logistically; it's important to have both programs available so you can have innovative ideas coming at you from all directions.

Interviews done by Carrie Mathews

CIO Executive Council

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