With the economy stumbling and layoff numbers the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dotcom purge of 2003, in many organizations talent management consists of repeatedly telling staff, “You’re lucky to have a job.” Developing your staff may seem low on your list of priorities when most employees are hunkered down and fearing being shown the door rather than job surfing, but how your organization manages talent during a recession will pay dividends or be an albatross around your neck when times improve.

Picture two scenarios. In the first, you make heart-wrenching and painstaking decisions on who stays and who goes, watching and waiting for times to improve. Staff development budgets are whacked early on, and any staff requests for development are met with a sad expression and some variation of the famed line: “It’s the economy, stupid.” No one has time for detailed staff evaluations, so staff are all told they’re doing fine, and to “just hold on.” When times do improve, you are left with a decimated organization: minimally staffed with people who have developed no new talents, have no idea where their career stands, and have been polishing their resumes and eyeing the door for months.

In the second scenario, a history of detailed and effective evaluations and appropriately ranking employees makes layoffs a bit easier, since those at the bottom of the ranks are aware of where they stand. Despite a nonexistent training budget, low-cost staff development opportunities have kept staff engaged and learning, and people know where their careers should be headed, having their eyes on internal opportunities as times improve and the organization shifts into expansion mode.

We obviously all want to be in the second group, and it is not only possible during a recession, but mandatory unless you want to spend 6-18 months rebuilding your IT talent pool while competitors are taking advantage of new opportunities afforded by better times.  Consider the following three tips to turbocharge talent management in your IT shop:

Guess what, hiring is hard

We’ve left the dirty deed of hiring new people to HR for too long, and built a culture of certification surfing where we mine resumes for buzzwords rather than seeking people who can learn, communicate, and manage themselves and their tasks. This can only be accomplished by extending your recruiting net outside the “usual suspects” of tech job Web sites, and actually interviewing people rather than keywording resumes. The two job descriptions in Figure A, both for entry level positions, both from companies with universally recognized brands, speak volumes about the problems with buzzword-based IT hiring. While it will cost more to do the appropriate interviewing, vetting of candidates and due diligence in the short term, it will pay vast dividends with adaptable, capable people in the long term, who need not be purged every few years when technology changes or when you need managers and thinkers rather than one-trick doers.

Figure A

Click to enlarge

Cheap staff development

The state of the economy is not an excuse for a dearth of staff development opportunities when there are so many available for little or no cost. While five-day vendor training classes in a far-flung city are likely out of the question, consider the following alternatives:

  • Hire a local trainer that can provide in-house, general business training on everything from public speaking to effective team management. These topics lend themselves to larger audiences, and can be had for hundreds of dollars for a group rather than thousands per individual.
  • Most medium and large cities have IT professional associations that provide monthly speaker sessions and outside experts, coupled with networking opportunities. Annual memberships cost next to nothing and volume rates can often be negotiated. Your local Chamber of Commerce can probably point you in the right direction.
  • Allow staff to allocate some portion of their time to independent research, and then have them present their findings. IT people are going to browse the Web anyway, why not couple it with exposure to presenting ideas in a formal setting and make it a staff development activity?
  • Coupled with the above, let staff form research teams to try off-the-wall or bleeding edge concepts in the corporate environment. See if that staffer with the iPhone can make it talk to SAP, or if the 1970’s vintage mainframe application could talk to Twitter. The worst case outcome is that staff have some fun and present a technically interesting “failure”; best case is you find something that could be leveraged across the organization and your people gain experience in a project environment with shifting or unclear objectives, skills applicable anywhere in the organization.

Provide guidance during the evaluation process

There is more to evaluations than doling out raises and bonus money. When there are none of the above due to the economic climate, we tend to give staff evaluations the short shrift. Rather than assuming evaluations have no value when there are no dollars at stake, use evaluations to really focus on an employee’s career progression. If someone is struggling, inform them of that fact, detail the observed behaviors that lead you to that assessment, and then provide them with areas to focus on to improve.

When evaluating your “rock stars” provide them with suggestions on how to maximize their innate talents. Detail what the next step in their career progression should be, whether that is tackling a leadership role in IT, heading to a project team, or even considering a role outside IT in a business unit. Providing detailed feedback lets people know where they stand, demonstrates that their success is important to you, and keeps them focused on their development within your organization, rather than sprinting for the exits as soon as the economy improves.

While it’s easy to “outsource” your talent management duties to HR, or ignore them altogether under the hackneyed excuses of the economy or lack of time, you do so at your organization’s peril. IT is all about knowledge, and the abilities of your people will always do far more to help or harm your organization than any other of its technical components.

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