Companies must be proficient in test, says NI exec
Francis Griffiths, National Instruments’ senior vice-president of regional sales and marketing, tells Electronics Weekly why building organisational proficiency is vital for engineering and test managers.
Why is organisational proficiency highlighted as an important trend for test this year?
It’s a cliché, but people remain the most important asset in any organisation, and for engineering organisations, the aging and diminishing engineering workforce places more importance on hiring for long-term success than ever before.
As we all know, for Europe and the US in recent years, fewer students have entered engineering as a field of study, and those that graduate do not always then go on to practise engineering in their careers.
According to a 2012 survey, the typical engineer has 19 years’ experience, but only 1 in 5 engineers began their career in the past decade. In a few years, there may be more engineers retiring than entering the workforce.
To address this shrinking talent pool, test managers must look to grow organisational proficiency using a three-pronged strategy, focused on hiring for long-term success, better onboarding for new hires and continued investment in teams through training programmes.
How can engineering and test managers ensure they hire for long-term success?
A key aspect to consider is hiring for cultural and organisational fit. Many recruitment processes emphasise experience, while some consider aptitude, but to ensure long-term success, hiring managers must also consider a candidate’s cultural fit for the organisation, something which is far harder to train.
With demand growing and supply diminishing, choosing the right candidate first time is vital to ensure long-term success.
Hiring managers frequently face the challenge of shortlisting potential interviewees from a large pool of qualified candidates. If the pool is properly screened and qualified, then they can often be successful by placing a heavier emphasis on soft skills, such as communication and team-building. Though these soft skills can be difficult to assess, managers at best-in-class companies find more success hiring candidates with a stronger cultural fit than candidates based only on experience and skill sets.
However, best-in-class companies succeed with this strategy because they are also properly structured to support effective onboarding programmes and ongoing plans for growing proficiency within teams.
What can test managers do to ensure higher retention rates, preventing expensive repeat costs of hiring, onboarding and training?
Studies estimate that the cost to replace a salaried employee is six to nine months’ salary, even without intangibles such as lost IP and expertise. Best-in-class managers have found that implementing a formal onboarding programme has a significant positive impact on employee retention. Less formal programmes often fail because of low accountability.
Responsibilities and execution are often shared between HR and hiring managers, with the task often delegated to experienced senior employees with no time to execute, track and measure the process. Best-in-class organisations ensured higher retention rates with dedicated and accountable mentors who can spend time and attention on one-to-one meetings and project reviews.
What about continuous learning? How does that contribute to organisational proficiency?
Building a strong team with low turnover hinges on the continuous learning of all team members, including senior members. According to a 2012 survey, the number one challenge that keeps engineers up at night is keeping their skills up to date.
Engineers want to continue to learn new skills and concepts, ensuring they regularly “sharpen the saw”, staying relevant and able to effectively contribute to their organisation.
A model that has seen success for best-in-class test managers with strong training plans is building centres of excellence (CoE). CoEs provide leadership, evangelising best practices and training for a particular focus area. The CoE concept leverages observations from other best-in-class companies, whilst also incorporating training certifications to help drive multiple levels of core competency.
A CoE best succeeds with a diverse set of group skills: the most advanced skill set makes up the smallest portion; the next layer is composed of those with intermediate skill; and the largest group is categorised as entry level.
Using this model, senior team members with advanced skills can mentor newer engineers, bringing them up to speed in a more comfortable way. The CoE provides the structure necessary for organisationally proficient teams to effectively onboard and hire for culture.
Where does certification fit into this model?
Certifications can effectively measure competency, act as a great motivator and create a natural leadership/mentorship hierarchy within a community. Additionally, the previously mentioned challenge of identifying qualified candidates can be alleviated by enforcing a minimum certification requirement, or by using certification exams to qualify them during the recruitment process.
The availability and growing credibility of certifications have made them an important element in successful training strategies.
How would you summarise the challenge and solution for engineering and test managers looking to develop their organisational proficiency and build successful teams?
Hiring, training and retaining are important focus areas for test managers looking to build and maintain high-performing teams.
Hiring challenges fuelled by the diminishing engineering talent pool place even more emphasis on the need to become organisationally proficient by implementing talent development programmes to retain and develop expertise. Test managers who hire for culture fit, properly onboard new hires, and continually invest in training will ensure optimal team retention, cohesion and performance.