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A Good Employee Is the Best IT Asset

Higher performance expectations make having a high-quality IT staff more important than ever. Partnering in employees' careers can make it easier to hold on to them.

Q: The state of the economy has made employment more of a buyer's market, but carriers still have to compete for the best technology talent. What measures can carriers take to attract the best technology prospects for senior level positions?

A: Neal Ruffalo, ACUITY: Regardless of the state of the economy, attracting and then retaining top IT talent is a year-long struggle. Our focus has been to mentor and grow the talent from within to move into the top-level positions. But that does not always fit the situation. Ultimately the organization as a whole needs to attract talent-from local beat on the street, to industry recognition, to being "one of the best places to work."

A: Paul Glen, C2 Consulting: Most technology professionals, including executives, are not looking for get-rich-quick-scheme compensation plans. Most are looking for engaging work, potential for a future of engaging work with the company, and fair compensation that is competitive in the marketplace. For executives, the compensation plan should be aligned with the organization in the same way that those of other C-level executives are aligned.

A: Matthew Hintz, CIGNA: Regardless of the economy, it's always hard to find good people-those who combine technology skills with business acumen. In fact, during a down market, companies redouble their efforts to hold onto their best people, and those individuals are less likely to be lured away in a buyer's market. To attract and retain high-performance individuals in these volatile times, our best incentive is to create a work environment where a professional can learn and grow. Simply put, these folks want to own their careers. To address this need, we're creating an end-to-end career management process for our IT professionals that serves as a blueprint for career development and advancement. For example, we've introduced career paths and learning maps for major roles such as application developers, business analysts and project managers to guide both managers and employees.

A: Maria Schafer, META Group: Senior-level staff are looking for an opportunity to demonstrate the range of their skills and capabilities, and are equally interested in keeping momentum in their careers, so clearly understanding the specific business opportunity, such as whether it's a transformational versus caretaker situation, and knowing what the likely career path will be. must be part of the equation. Having good technology in place will attract the best and brightest. So will a transformation opportunity (there have been few of these, due to the lack of investment currently in new projects or technology in general). A combination approach to incentives that includes a balance of risk (so some kind of variable pay), and cash and non-cash rewards (good 401 (k) matching programs, stock) are the best approach.

Q: Graduating technology students don't necessarily look to insurance as a target field. How can the challenges of recruiting new talent be met?

A: Ruffalo, ACUITY: Here is where the company's recognition and reputation plays a big role. Word travels fast through the campus community, especially if it is negative, and certainly has an impact if you want to attract the cream of the crop. When the supply tightens, pursue non-traditional candidates. Run all candidates through whatever assessment tools you have in place and if you don't have any, you may want to reconsider. Paid internships can be a vital link with the institutions and if screened properly, should lead to future talent for your organization.

A: Glen, C2 Consulting: Graduating technology students generally don't think about industry at all when considering a first job after school. Their primary focus is usually on what technology they will get to use and their opportunity for advancement. To recruit graduating students, on-campus recruiting is a very useful tool. Since students don't think about industry, you have to go looking for them. When recruiting graduating students, I think that there should be only two criteria: scintillating intelligence, and a burning desire to learn and grow. This serves as the raw material for an outstanding employee. As an employer, you should be prepared to supply training for the rest.

A: Hintz, CIGNA: Interestingly, we have found that offering a career management process really resonates with young recruits. Conventional wisdom has been that these individuals are job hoppers, concerned with the here-and-now of an initial offer. But we have actually heard our college recruits say they choose CIGNA because we offer a structured career development approach. For them we created a technical development program that focuses not only on technical skills, but leadership competencies, mentoring and rotational assignment. Our best and brightest serve as the pipeline for our Emerging Leadership Development Program. These individuals rotate assignments at least once a year to get a broad set of experiences in both applications and infrastructure roles. They complete rigorous classroom training modeled after the Society for Information Management leadership series and are involved in quarterly learning forums with senior staff.

A: Schafer, META Group: Entry-level job applicants have been hit hard by the lingering recession, making recruiting almost non-existent in firms that were scrambling for people a few years ago, so insurance firms have an opportunity here. The opportunities for a defined career path, training and flexible benefits, combined with a company that has a commitment to work/life balance (a big issue for younger workers), will attract young talent. Insurance companies with strong technology transformation programs in place should highlight these-that's what talented candidates are looking for. They should develop relationships with institutions across the spectrum, including technical training institutes, like Devry or Chubb, which have sound teaching methodologies and are good sources for technicians and specialized types of skills, as well as community colleges, and universities/colleges.

Q: How should insurance IT organizations work internally to ensure the development of IT staff?

A: Ruffalo, ACUITY: This depends heavily on whether you build (create) versus buy. The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from something that one creates has no match. That being said, we all know it is impractical to always create-someone has to maintain past creations. Micro-managers are not managers. Employees need to be challenged and empowered to research, design and create. The sooner an employee learns to fly solo, the more they can take on, and of course the stronger you are as a whole. Focus on bringing in just-in-time training and recommend continued education.

A: Glen, C2 Consulting: Professional development should be a partnership between employer and employee. Neither should take complete responsibility for career development alone. My observation is that employers who offer no support for training and education lose employees who have the desire to grow. They go elsewhere where they get more support. On the other hand, employers that take complete responsibility for spoon-feeding training don't seem to do too well, either. Their employees take training for granted. It seems to work best when the burden is shared. That way, employees have to want the training and then they get the support.

A: Hintz, CIGNA: We developed a dynamic multi-modal high-tech/high-touch training and development strategy named CIGNA Technology Institute (CTI) to serve as our overall career management services organization, devoted to enhancing the performance and productivity of IT professionals. CTI was initially established to serve our 3,400-person IT community, but it now serves as a model for best practices in training and development enterprise-wide for CIGNA's 40,000 employees. A critical part of our people strategy is our mentoring approach, which focuses not just on fresh-out-of-college recruits and early-career, high-potential types, but also new mid-career hires and mid-career high-potential employees. We believe that it's critical that our people continually update their skills, and re-skill as needs change. For example, we recently held a re-skilling "boot camp" to teach applications developers Java so they can support our business needs to deliver our products and services over the Web. It is equally important that our technology people be conversant in the businesses they serve. Large segments of our CTI curricula and career development tracks are dedicated to this.

A: Schafer, META Group: Internal development efforts should be linked to business needs, and should include on-the-job-training and mentoring situations, as well as standard learning approaches. Learning, not training, must be the focus, and learning, to optimize effectiveness, is continuous. Taking information and transforming it into actionable knowledge is the goal for training activities. Where specialized skills and knowledge are essential to the organization, it may make sense to opt for certification, but the skill must be truly necessary. Where possible, gaining skills related to more universal application of technology may be more effective in the long run than specialized certifications (what does it take to be a systems engineer, putting in specific tools where they're needed, versus just getting the next certification notch on one's tech tools belt). Leadership development should take place starting with the entry into the organization. Identifying future leaders and ensuring they have exposure to a variety of positions, and building business knowledge along with technology capability, is essential as one moves up the career chain.

Q: What criteria should be used to determine whether or not to use outsourced talent? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

A: Ruffalo, ACUITY: We have not and do not outsource talent. The advantages from our viewpoint are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages. From basic communication woes being once removed, to the handholding, to the misunderstandings, to the ultimate result-have you really gotten what you wanted? In some cases companies have felt as if they were being held hostage. Availability and costs can be a major impediment to implementing the change you need right now to remain competitive.

A: Hintz, CIGNA: We outsource talent when engaged in projects that involve skill sets not available in-house, or, more often when we need an outside consultant to engage a project on a temporary basis. The advantage with the former is that we can quickly ramp up and our staff can learn-as-you-go by working with the outside talent. The advantage with the latter is that we can engage just-in-time capabilities for a project and when the project is completed the individual can go on to another assignment. The disadvantage, or challenge, is developing a cultural fit within our organization. There are the typical corporate culture issues of working with a consultant group of synching up on communications, program management methodologies and so forth. We address this by developing long-term strategic vendor relationships, rather than sporadic, fragmented ones, so we can focus on managing for results, rather than managing the vendor.

A: Schafer, META Group: The great advantage in outsourcing for talent is flexibility: The opportunity exists to locate just the right skills for a given need. This needs to be balanced against the length of time those skills will be required (outsourcing may in fact make lots of sense for a short term need, but it can be very costly in the long term), and whether or not the capability will ultimately be needed in-house (for example, working on financial applications on the SAP system-some applications, such as those for executive compensation, or particular projects, may be politically sensitive and should remain within the organization, requiring a transfer of skill at some point). The disadvantages, in addition to higher costs over time, can be the difficulties in managing a workforce that is not linked culturally or emotionally to the larger organization. And, if the outsourced staff are off-site, managing deadlines and remote staff requires specific management processes linked to this environment, including clear lines of communication, performance objectives, and expectations. These are crucial to an outsourced arrangement. Generally, outsourcing commodity types of activities makes sense, reserving more sensitive projects and programs to the enterprise to manage, where possible.


This Month's Experts

Neal Ruffalo

VP, Enterprise Technology

ACUITY (Sheboygan, WI)

Paul Glen


C2 Consulting (Los Angeles)

Matthew Hintz

VP, HR, Systems

CIGNA Corp. (Philadelphia)

Maria Schafer

Program Director,

Human Capital Management

META Group (Stamford, CT)

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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