Today’s business environment requires that IT managers rely on employees who are flexible, multiskilled, and dedicated team players. Employee development is not only important to the worker, it is also a key component of a successful company.

Creating an effective employee development plan requires an effective process, such as SWOT analysis, which means that you should review your organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

According to Fred Wiersema, co-author of The Discipline of Market Leaders, SWOT comes from an old term in the strategic planning field. I decided to modify the SWOT analysis format, reversing the procedure and adding an element to produce my TOWS method. Here’s how the process works and how I used it to develop my staff and support both organizational and departmental values. I have also included a spreadsheet you can download to guide you through the process.

TOWS download

John Sommer has also provided a downloadable spreadsheet that includes templates you can use during each step of the process. You may find it helpful to review the spreadsheet while reading this article.

Step 1: Dream
I believe that you need to visualize your dream department or company before you begin the TOWS process. While this step isn’t included in the TOWS analysis, I think it’s a critical prerequisite.

As a manager, you can help your employees by describing the dreams and vision held by your company and department. This step can include short- and long-range strategic objectives or a vision or mission statement.

Several years ago, I created a dream for my IT department. The IT department was going through a cultural change as we moved from sole controllers of the data and technology to an expanded and shared role within the organization.

I used a set of cartoons to illustrate my vision for the department. One cartoon depicted our current state, with a castle with a moat and the kingly IT manager ruling the information technology kingdom. The corresponding cartoon showed our desired state, a friendlier castle, no moat, many doors, and connections to the entire kingdom.

At the time, we were an all mainframe shop, and this helped my team members to think about expanding beyond a mainframe environment into local area networking, client-server development, rapid prototyping, change management, business knowledge, customer management, quality, and other business-focused goals.

Step 2: Threats
Instead of using the traditional SWOT sequence, I started by looking at threats to our dream. Why begin with threats? Because this approach allows my staff and me to access where we are now and identify potential risks, bottlenecks, significant changes, and self- or implicit expectations that might stop us from achieving our dreams.

To return to my example above, when my team examined the department dream, we discovered several threats to our dream, including the organization’s current perception of IT, resistance to change, current skill level of new technology in the department, budget constraints, and the narrow vision held by some.

Identification and recognition of threats increases your chances of success. In order to focus the threat discussion with the employees, I used four general categories:

Business: This is a great opportunity to link the employee’s job role to the business’s vision and objectives. Good employees want to be valued and add value. They need to understand how they can affect the business. Review the threats to your business and examine what is appropriate to add to the employee’s list.

One year, we had several issues with a key customer. Losing this customer posed a real threat to the company’s revenue. The IT staff and I discussed this threat to our business, its potential effect on them, and how they could help reduce or eliminate this threat.

Department: Follow the same process with this category as was done with business threats. It should be even easier to link the employee’s role to the department’s needs. Now would be a good time to fully discuss the image and or value the department has in the organization and what threatens the image.

For instance, we examined department projects addressing the key customer problem mentioned above. I asked what risks, bottlenecks, or impediments threatened the successful completion of the project. Other types of departmental threat can include team dynamics, budget constraints, quality, outsourcing, technology/employee skill levels, etc.

Employee’s Projects: Very few projects are completed without experiencing problems. Proactive project management utilizing risk management, scope management, quality management, and change management can lead to a successful project. What can go wrong, what are unexpected changes, what obstacles are in your way, and how high are the expectations?

Personal/Professional: Continuous self-improvement, especially for the IT professional, is a critical component to employee development. Some threats to consider are: What skills are needed in the department that the employee is lacking? What are the impediments to gaining more skills? How far away is the dream? What or who stands in the way?

To assist you with this process, the Threat Opportunity worksheet contained in the download includes a column to document your identified threats. The two other columns help to analyze and gather more information so you can address the threats. The format and analysis I’ve used is based on an engineering process called Failure Mode and Effect Analysis. This analysis is used for design concept, product design, and manufacturing processes.

Once the threats have been listed, you should then look at the potential effects of the threat and the potential causes or sources of the threat. This additional information is very useful for the next step, which looks at how to minimize the threats.

Optionally, the threats can be prioritized by using the rating columns in the spreadsheet to estimate the likelihood that the threat will occur, its level of severity, and how likely it is that you will be unaware it exists. The product of these three ratings can help you prioritize and address the most critical threats.

Step 3: Opportunities
The key to success in real estate is location, location, location. Similarly, we can say a key to success in personal and professional development is attitude, attitude, attitude.

Personal success is determined by how well employees handle the threats in their life. Attitude is often the determining factor.

The objective of this step is to turn threats into opportunities and not let the circumstances be the controller.

Let’s review the threat of losing a key customer. One approach is to criticize the customer for being picky, do as little as possible to get by, find a way to blame someone else, and put on a good show for the customer to win them back but not really make any change.

Another approach is to use this threat as a wake-up call. Ask the following questions:

  • What is the root cause for the degradation of the relationship with the customer?
  • How can we make fundamental changes to not only improve the relationship with this customer but also improve relationships with others?
  • Can this opportunity become a strategic advantage and be an enabler to gaining new business?
  • Can we create a quantum improvement as opposed to an incremental improvement?

This threat of losing significant business can become an opportunity to gain competitive advantage and increase market share along with revenue.

Step 4: Weaknesses and strengths
I have combined these two components of the TOWS analysis. Once you have identified your opportunities, you need to take a personal inventory to determine the best method to take advantage of these opportunities.

Included in the download are strength and weakness assessment templates for managers and one for nonmanagers. Add to or modify the list as appropriate. Select an appropriate rating scale for each characteristic/skill. The ratings will of course, identify which ones are strengths and which ones are weaknesses.

Once you have completed this step, you are ready to examine each of your opportunities. I’ve included a form that’s based on Force Field Analysis, invented by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social sciences. For each opportunity, identify the aiding and impeding forces to turn the threat into an opportunity.

Think of yourself as a general preparing for battle. You want to understand your strengths and how to use them. Also, you must know your weaknesses, which either need to be improved, supplemented, or relegated to a role that will not cause great risk to meeting your objective.

Step 5: Plans
Finally, we are ready to create our development plan. Many times this is the first step. When it is, the results are usually either not what was intended or of insignificant impact.

With the information from the previous steps, you now have significantly important opportunities to address and you have a good understanding of what it takes to be successful.

You can now document your plans using your company’s standard form with some confidence. There is one last step before you sign and turn in the document.

Step 6: Dream
I know, this has the same name as the first step. It is intended to take us full circle. Step back and take a look at your final product. Do the opportunities we are addressing and the plans we have created move us closer to our dreams? If they do, you have done a great job. If not, you had better reexamine your dreams and the process.

How this approach helped me
Since using this process, I have noticed an improved relationship with my employees. One of my employees was always complaining about what the company did or did not do for him.

We spent several days going through the TOWS process together. He was skeptical at first, but the process proved beneficial. For example, he wrote down what he viewed as threats to his job and his objectives (dream).

Finally, he began to see that he had more control than he thought. He also found ways to make changes in areas where he may not have complete control. By the end of the year, he was much happier and he was a better employee.

This isn’t an isolated example. Other staff members asked me to be their mentor, and I’ve found that their performance has improved.

In this busy, stressful work climate, it’s important for IT managers to take time to set goals and mentor their staff. Difficult assignments or issues become easier to resolve because of the knowledge of where each of us is headed and how we plan to get there.