Wednesday, 17 May 2006

What is SFIA anyway?

I've mentioned SFIA in a previous entry and thought it would be helpful if I gave a quick overview of what it is, and why we should care about it.

In July 2003, the BCS, the IEE, and IMIS formed the SFIA (Skills for the Information Age) foundation. The primary goal of this was to create a high level skills competency framework for IT professionals, much like those that already existed in other industries, as well as a standard language for talking about IT skills. Indeed, it grew in part from the BCS's ISM (Industry Standard Model) which was subsequently modified in accordance with SFIA and rebranded as SFIA+. It is SFIA+ that forms the basis of the BCS professional development product offerings. But I digress, back to the framework itself.

SFIA version 3 is at first sight a relatively simple two-dimensional matrix. There are 7 responsibility levels across the top (1 being the lowest) and 6 main categories of work down the left as follows:

Strategy and Planning
Business Change
Service Provision
Procurement and management support
Ancillary Skills

Each main category incorporates sub-categories and skills. It should be noted that the placement of skills within categories can be argued (and has been). When using the matrix to assess your skills as an IT professional it is important to indicate where you have a competency regardless of which category it falls under; the categories are really a convenient matrix navigation aid and not intended to be limiting. For example, if your main role at work is that of network support this falls within the Service Provision category. However, you also have project management experience which falls under Business Change. Therefore you have skills in both areas, and that is okay. In today's environment I'd go so far as to say cultivating skills in the business change arena is to be encouraged!

Okay, so far it seems sensible enough, but how do you know if you are selecting the 'right' skill and how do you decide which level to record against it? That's where the skills definitions reference document comes in. Let's look at the example of Network support within User support on page 29.
Network support (NTAS)
The provision of network maintenance and support services. Support may be provided both to users of the systems and to service delivery functions. Support typically takes the form of investigating and resolving problems and providing information about the systems. It may also include monitoring their performance. Problems may be resolved by providing advice or training to users about the network’s functionality, correct operation or constraints, by devising work-arounds, correcting faults, or making general or site-specific modifications.

Level 2 Assists in investigation and resolution of network problems. Assists with specified maintenance procedures.

Level 3 Identifies and resolves network problems following agreed procedures. Uses network management software and tools to collect agreed performance statistics. Carries out agreed network maintenance tasks.

Level 4 Maintains the network support process and checks that all requests for support are dealt with according to agreed procedures. Uses network management software and tools to investigate problems, collect performance statistics and create reports.

Level 5 Drafts and maintains procedures and documentation for network support. Ensures that all requests for support are dealt with according to set standards and procedures.

From this we can decide whether it is the most appropriate skill and furthermore, the appropriate level with which to assess ourselves against.

For IT professionals, this framework is an excellent tool to help identify your strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement, i.e. peform a gap analysis. However, I'd go a step further and say that IT professionals should join the British Computer Society and make use of the Career Developer facility using SFIA+ which has much more depth. More on that in another blog entry.

For employers, once your staff have completed an assessment you then have an accurate skills database which is a plus point for auditors and Investors in People assessments! However, far more use is the fact that should someone leave the organisation, you now have the information at your fingertips to decide which of their skills you wish to hire back in, or make the decision that actually you need someone with another skill set.

Long-term I see the terminology used in SFIA forming the basis of job adverts. As it becomes the recognised standard for the industry by the IT professionals themselves; recruitment can be streamlined as candidates will have a clearer idea of what the job entails before making an application, and employers will have a clearer idea of what they are actually looking for. A definite improvement over the current situation.


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