Bridging federal IT’s knowledge gap
Federal IT professionals spend a lot of time working on optimizing their IT infrastructures, so it can understandably be frustrating when agency policies or cultural issues get in the way. Unfortunately, responses to a recent SolarWinds North American Public Sector survey indicate that this is often the case. Forty-four percent of IT professionals surveyed who claimed their environments were not optimized cited inadequate organizational strategies as the primary culprit. This was followed closely by insufficient investment in training, which was mentioned by 43 percent of respondents.
Every agency has a strategy, but many of the team members may not understand that strategy or know what they should do to support it. As such, they may not know how to use the tools at their disposal to implement that strategy.
Managers and their teams must work together to bridge the knowledge divide that exists within agencies. Top-level managers must find ways to communicate their organizational strategies so that teams can map their activities toward those objectives. Simultaneously, agencies and individuals should consider ways to improve knowledge sharing and training so that everyone has the skills to do their jobs well.
Let’s take a look at two approaches that can help close this perceived knowledge gap.
Don’t let communication be a one-time event
Organizational strategy may start at the top, but too often it gets lost in translation or diluted as it is passed down through the ranks — if it even gets passed down at all. As such, IT managers might be doing their daily jobs, but they may not be working with an eye toward their agencies’ primary objectives.
Town hall meetings or emails declaring an organizational change or new priorities are fine, but are rarely sufficient on their own. Agency IT leaders should consider implementing systematic methods for communicating and disseminating information to ensure that everyone understands the challenges and opportunities and can work toward strategic goals. The strategy must be sold by the leadership, bought into by middle management and actively and appropriately pursued by the overall workforce.
Messages must be continually reinforced. This can be done through weekly meetings, quarterly check-ins, frequent email communications, reports and other methods. The key is to make sure that the organizational strategy remains top-of-mind for everyone involved and is clearly and constantly articulated from the top down.
Understand that training is everyone’s responsibility
A busy environment encourages a “check the box” mentality when it comes to training. People will often do the minimum required to learn new material, skipping any extra steps that could immerse them in new technologies or trends like operational assurance and security. There is often little support from agencies and government contractors since, in some cases, training can even be perceived as hurting, rather than helping, the organization’s bottom line. Travel to seminars and class tuition fees cost money that agencies may not have.
Offsetting those costs is the fact that training can have a remarkably positive impact on efficiency. In addition to easing the introduction of new technologies, well-trained employees will also know how to better respond in the case of a crisis, such as a network outage or security breach. Their expertise can save precious time and be an effective bulwark against intruders.
That’s not to say that agencies do not recognize the value of education. In fact, many already allocate education allowances to their employees and have programs in place that support knowledge growth.
The Defense Department Directive 8570 certification is a good example of an agency initiative that puts a premium on the importance of training and expertise. The certification requires a baseline level of knowledge of computer systems and cybersecurity, and continuous education units must be learned and submitted on a regular basis. DOD 8570 certification requires all employees with access to DOD information systems maintain a basic level of knowledge, helping ensure they will be up to speed on the technologies that impact those systems.
Self-training, however, can be just as important as agency-sanctioned programs. It should be incumbent on all IT professionals to hold themselves accountable for learning about agency objectives and how tools can help them meet those goals. People do not learn through osmosis, but through action, and they all learn at different levels. For instance, it may take one person only a few hours to gain the knowledge needed to ace the 8570 certification exam, while others may require a three-week boot camp.
For this, and other education initiatives, IT professionals should use the educational allowances allocated to them by their agencies, which can sometimes run into thousands of dollars. Take the time to learn about the technologies they already have in house, but also examine other solutions and tools that will help their departments become fully optimized. Vendors will be more than willing to help out through support programs and their own educational tools, including certification and training programs, online forums and other offerings.
According to our survey, a knowledge and information-sharing gap does exist within federal IT environments. Applying the practices mentioned above should help shrink that gap and create more knowledgeable and optimized environments for all federal IT professionals.
Paul Parker is chief technologist – Federal and National Government, SolarWinds.