The technology consulting industry is one of the most competitive industries in business today. Not only do consulting firms fight for clients, they fight to keep their employees from being recruited by competitors as well. Keeping the delicate balance between a client’s need for experience and skills, the business’s need for profit and the consultant’s need for career growth is that hardest part of running IT consulting firms.
When the management team at Digineer, a technology consulting firm based in Minneapolis with 76 employees, sat down at its annual planning and strategy session, it was clear that as the firm grew, so would the needs of its consultants. As one of the only IT firms in the Twin Cities operating using a salaried model (i.e. the consultants are paid salaries whether they are on a billable assignment or not), the need to keep consultants trained and ahead of the technology curve is key to Digineer’s success. Another challenge Digineer faces is that while it has been wildly successful, growing more than 80 percent year over year for the past three years, extreme growth could make employees feel disconnected as the management team struggles to keep up with the business.
“We knew that a critical success factor, if not the critical success factor, for us was finding a way to keep consultants trained. Not just on technology, but on ways to be more astute business people,” said Digineer founder and CEO Michael Lacey. Lacey and his team quickly decided putting a standard training plan in place was not enough. Instead, the firm decided to create its own complete academic environment for consultants. They named the program Digineer University, or Digi U for short.
From the beginning, the goal was to develop a program that was flexible, realistic and holistic in nature. The business had already determined technology focus areas and solution groups that provided the foundation for its delivery model. From there, it was simple to identify senior consultants, known as enterprise consultants, who would act as the mentors and teachers within the program. The Digineer team also opened up the classes to volunteers. If a Digineer consultant had an idea and could present a reasonable case why it should be a part of the curriculum, he or she was invited to create a class and put it on the schedule.
After the initial strategy and concepts were laid out, a second set of planning sessions were held to develop the curriculum highlights for the classes. The curriculum highlights were carefully analyzed to ensure they were in accordance with the overall business goals and technology focus of the company. Next, individuals responsible for teaching each class were instructed to develop the actual course materials. Upon final approval of materials, each class was launched. The entire planning process, class development process and launch of Digineer University took the team just three month.
The overall curriculum at Digineer University consists of a set of solution areas that include business intelligence, health and wellness, project management and of course various technology tracks. Within each area, there are many ways a Digineer employee can learn. Some courses are taught as formal classroom courses by senior Digineer consultants. Other classes are online courses taught by trusted partners. Lists of seminars pertaining to particular solution areas have been developed as well as approved user groups, books and Web sites. Coffee talks, where Digineer consultants meet to share information about ongoing client projects in a managed but informal fashion, are also a popular component of a program. In addition, if employees find a class outside of Digineer that meets the curriculum criteria, they can also sign up for it and receive credit. Consultants receive credits for attendance and earn Digi U swag. Individual credits are charted, and consultants with high numbers of credits are recognized for their learning achievements. Instructors within the curriculum also receive credit.
Technology consulting firms make their money off the technology skills of their consultants. The decision to invest in course work that included management, health and wellness solution areas was made because Digineer wanted its employees to be well rounded. Not only did they need to know technology, the company felt they also needed to understand business itself. Balancing their life with other activities was considered an important factor in developing and maintaining the productivity of Digineer’s employees.
The cornerstone of the Digineer University program is the set of individual professional development plans prepared for each consultant. Digineer’s culture supports continuous learning. This is proven by the more than $100,000 the company spends each year on learning and social programs. It’s also one of the company’s primary differentiators when recruiting employees. Each individual plan is created with the help of their resource manager and self-directed by the employees. The plan helps outline employee goals and creates an individualized mini-curriculum to help the employee achieve those goals. In addition, the plan helps the Digineer account management team understand the types of future projects the consultant would like to be considered for. Resource managers help guide the process, but ultimately the success of each plan is up to the employee.
As a result of the program, Digineer expects to achieve significant financial gains as well as personal and professional gains for its employees. The three year goals for the overall increase in bill rate due to the Digineer University program is 10 percent. Between now and 2009, DuToit expects to see rates increase as much as 15 percent for individual employees. This could result in an average increase in revenue of $20,000 per year, per consultant.
Lucinda DuToit is the Director of Human Resources for Digineer, Inc. DuToit has spent the last 10 years working as a human resources professional in the information technology industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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