October 20, 2016

The care and feeding of solution provider professionals

TL; DR: Solution provider staff need to attend industry events, conferences, and training or they will fall behind.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of solution providers in the information management industry, specifically as applied to education and professional development. I define solution providers as providers of hardware, software, or professional services to end user organizations who consume those goods and services.

Full disclosure: I've spent much of my career as a solution provider, mostly on the technical side but with some responsibility for marketing, sales, and business development. And I currently work at AIIM, with more than a little interest in increasing the number attendees at our conference and our training programs. But I started in the industry as a solution provider and saw the same dynamic then and have been thinking about it off & on for more than 20 years now.

So for all the solution providers out there, a gentle question: Why don't you develop your people?

Let me take a step back and explain. I speak at a lot of information management industry conferences and events. And yet I rarely see solution providers' staff at these events and courses. Sure, I see them manning the booth. Sometimes they participate in the networking activities, though often "the team" has to go to a team dinner to meet with partners or clients, review the day's events, and strategize for the next day's events. But they don't attend any educational sessions, with the exception of the occasional session that's available on the show floor from another solution provider.

I also teach a lot of courses on various information management-related topics. It is still very rare to see a solution provider send people to our public courses. I don't think it's the course content, because end users still seem to get substantial value from them. The solution provider staff members that have attended generally seem to get value from the courses as well. This value is not just from the educational content, but also from the interactions, and discussions, and sharing of lessons learned and good practices by people who have "been there, done that." But we don't see very many of them, and in private discussions I've had with many of them, they don't often get to go to things like that unless they pay for it themselves.

In both cases, where solution providers are in attendance, they are generally either the significant exception - and possibly doing it on their own dime - or they are somewhat on the outside looking in. Either way, they aren't getting any individual professional growth or development out of the experience. Why?

It isn't because they are world-class experts with nothing left to learn - though that may be a perception particularly among senior staff and management. And of course it costs money. But I'm reminded of the apocryphal exchange:

"What happens if we train our people and they leave?"
"What happens if we don't - and they stay?"

What, indeed?

Think about it another way, solution providers. You hired that person with a specific set of skills, knowledge, and experience. You're paying for that expertise. Every white paper and conference has as an underlying theme how quickly the industry changes: the tools, the processes, the ways in which information moves and is used, and acceptable practices for how things get done. It's imperative that your people stay up to date with relevant changes. Yet how does your staff do that if they aren't getting training and if they aren't attending conference sessions? As good as your white papers and webinars undoubtedly are, they simply aren't sufficient. Even if they are the best coverage of that topic in the world, they still reflect only one point of view - your organization's.

You charge annual maintenance to your customers, so they have access to your upgrades, your technical support, your other resources, and sometimes even your training. You want them to stay up to speed on the latest and greatest. Your staff need to do that as well - and it's more than just keeping up with your new release and the features and functions therein. But they also need to understand the bigger picture. What are the trends in the industry? How have customers, or prospects, or just other organizations, addressed particular issues? How have your competitors done so, and to what extent have they succeeded?

I understand that your business is in the business of the business - just like every other business. But according to the Association for Talent Development, the average company provides the average employee more than 53 hours of training per year. That's almost 9 full days of training per year (the typical training day is around 6-6.5 hours because of breaks, lunch, administrative tasks, etc.). How close are you to that for your sales staff? Your support staff? Your implementation/professional services staff? Your customer service staff?

I know many, many exceptional people in the industry. Some of them have the great fortune to work for organizations that do support professional development, and there are a few of those out there. Others understand that they have to take responsibility for their own growth and development, and they go to training and conferences on their own dime, and they get out there to other events on their own time and dime. But if they aren't getting support from you, you run the very real risk of losing them to an organization that does recognize the real value of their developing and maintaining those skills.

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