Opinion: Benefit from the transfer of knowledge and experience

Johann Botha gives us his views on management coaching in an IT environment.

July 22, 2011

By Johann Botha, Director at Marval South Africa

The South African IT environment is growing and changing rapidly, especially as we recover from a recession.   This rapid growth has highlighted a need for more managers with ‘business management’ skills.  IT Managers not only require technical skills but also broader businesses skills which are becoming more of a pre-requisite.

Individuals that become managers often begin their careers as technical resources, demonstrating competence and skill, and as a result are promoted to team leaders and then onto a management role.  For newly promoted technical managers, some of their responsibilities such as creating budgets and managing performance can be daunting.

These newly appointed managers with a high level of technical ability mean that they are very likely to continue to be promoted, until they reach a point where ‘general’ management skills are required for them to progress.

A manager’s role is to use the available resources in the best possible way to achieve the organisations goals and objectives.  IT managers don’t only manage technology but need to build the requisite skills around planning work; budgeting; people and performance management; goal setting and relationship management.

Addressing the challenge

Business and management courses are often seen as a solution to this management skills gap, however, they often prove ineffective as they simply provide the theory without contextualising it to a specific IT department within an organisation. The result is a failure in one crucial aspect – the importance of learning through experience that relates back to the specific environment. This is not to say that these courses do not have value, but it is important to understand the theoretical precepts in context and use training in conjunction with and practical experience and applicability.

In order to assist managers on a more practical level, many organisations seek the services  of what is known as a ‘consultant’ in the South African market; someone that is technically competent but does necessarily understand the context in which this knowledge should be applied to the company. This approach too has proved to be ineffective in bridging the skills gap, since consultants generally engage with an organisation to execute on behalf of the managers instead of teaching them the skills required to ‘do it themselves’ by transferring skills.

As a result, a pile of documentation is generated that simply becomes ‘shelf ware’.  Managers do not internalise the information or learn anything from it. The term ‘consultant’ is not an accurate one, since a person that engages with an organisation and executes the manager’s duties rather than assisting them to execute these duties themselves is actually a contractor.

Consultants in this sense of the word will leave behind information, but not knowledge, because the information still fails to be contextualised.


The management coaching approach – bridging the skills gap

Management coaching has evolved out of the need for both theory and context and the necessity of learning through experience. A management coach will not only deliver the theory and principles required, they will assist organisations’ to make sense of the context to which the theory is applied.

This aids staff to understand what the outcome of their decisions will be – in context – and is instrumental in assisting them to work through challenges. The management coach should not simply deliver ‘paperwork’ to the organisation but rather work through organisational challenges with the manager being coached, helping managers to process information, transforming this into organisational knowledge by offering sound advice and practical assistance sparingly and only when required. The role of the coach is to ask the right questions and to guide managers into correctly assessing and addressing situations, minimising the mistakes made while still enabling them to benefit from the value of learning through experience.

It is important to remember that some people are better suited to specific roles. A consultant (coach) should be able to identify the best environment for any particular person in which they can excel and add the most value to the organisation, help them to identify the areas they should be focusing on, and develop their natural abilities in these areas.

When the consultant (coach) departs, they should have provided the managers with the knowledge they require along with guidance on how to apply their new found knowledge, taking them through a process that make them better managers. The consultant also assists managers to fast track goal achievement by preventing them from making some of the common mistakes most new managers’ makes. If a consultant does not enable the skills transfer that makes a meaningful difference to the organisation, they have not done their job properly.

Not all consultants are equal

The traditional consulting approach is to create dependence for the organisation due to the role of executing on behalf of managers. This ultimately equates to managers that require somebody else to think for them.

This is a dangerous practice as the organisation will never see improvement in their managers, since there is little ownership and limited creation of knowledge. In addition, these consultants to not address the skills gap effectively within the organisation.

Organisations need to gear their managers for success, with the end result in mind that the managers should be equipped to reach their goals, and be effective and efficient with the additional skills obtained. A vast improvement should be seen in the managers once the consultant has left.

This underpins the principle of continuous improvement.  In order for it to succeed there needs to be ownership within the organisation.

It does not make sense for a company to source the skills of a consultant as a ‘stop gap’ for skills lacking in management.  It is far better to have the consultant train and coach management within the organisation, creating a more sustainable result.

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