Businesses can track progress by all kinds of measures, but for Lai Yam-ting, managing director of information technology (IT) services company Automated Systems Holdings, one of the most vital gauges is the amount of training each employee completes annually. 'Customer expectations and technology are constantly changing, so to keep ahead, we need to improve all the time,' Mr Lai said. 'Everything depends on the capability of staff, their technical, management and customer service skills, and our aim is for each member of staff to have 40 hours of training a year.' The thinking behind this is clear-cut and farsighted. It is designed to give individuals the breadth of skills needed to run project teams, support diverse corporate IT environments, instruct clients in the latest technology, and secure business in a highly competitive market. 'The key is to get people to have the right mindset,' Mr Lai said. 'We tell staff they have to assess what skills they are missing, see where they are inefficient or ineffective. They must raise their hand if they have a deficiency or realise there are certain customer requirements they can't sort out.' To help with this, the company has steadily increased investment in training and, through the human resources (HR) department, lined up a wide array of courses. Some are compulsory, seen as fundamental for a job or a prerequisite for moving to the next level. Others are optional but advisable. They cover everything from technical knowledge and interpersonal skills to the principles of management and language proficiency. Department managers are left in no doubt that they have to arrange for staff to attend relevant courses. If necessary, they are also told that team meetings, or one-on-one briefings, cannot substitute for formal training sessions and that, since the HR team controls the budget, there is no reason for trying to trim costs. 'We make it clear to everyone what is expected, but still have to apply quite a bit of pressure,' Mr Lai said. 'Staff may think they know their subject, but I don't accept that. So if they don't do training, they may not get their annual salary increment - or they can go.' In-house trainers or experts from various corporate partners teach the more specialised IT courses. Whenever a new product comes out, there are tailor-made classes for technical and sales staff. To upgrade skills in areas such as project management and business-related services, it is possible to leverage the experience of controlling shareholder Computer Sciences Corporation. And external trainers, vetted by the HR department, conduct programmes in such things as basic customer service, communication and teamwork. 'Training must be practical and the course content has to be topical. As consultants and advisers, we have to know more than the customers, so they have confidence in their IT operations and can concentrate on their own business. That means we can't just follow the books, but have to rely on ourselves to supplement and complement.' This philosophy, he added, had been evolving since the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. A direct result of that reversal had been that fewer people were interested in studying IT, leading inevitably to a shortage of local graduates primed to enter the sector. With the company expanding rapidly in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, Mr Lai realises there is no point thinking the universities will churn out ready-made experts. He focuses instead on hiring more widely and requiring all newcomers, whatever their level, to complete a comprehensive induction programme. They have to attain all the standards required for their role and accept responsibility for ongoing self-improvement. 'In general, the younger generation don't think in this way. They can just follow the course in school, so when they go out to work, they are 'quite dumb' in a practical sense. They need to have the right mindset for continuous self-development. If they don't have that, they will be left behind and we will have a problem.' He added that the company emphasised the development of interpersonal skills and teamwork. With projects becoming increasingly complex, involving teams of up to 50 people, it is impossible to rely on a few 'heroes' to carry the burden. Everyone has to play a full part by sharing experience, interacting with customers and acquiring extra abilities. Mr Lai's own interest in learning is as strong as ever. 'I have to know how new technology will change the landscape, and be updated on trends like adopting open source freeware,' he said. 'I need to understand this and relay it to my team and my customers.' On track Target for all staff to complete 40 hours of training a year Online and classroom courses for diverse technical and management skills Emphasis on practicality and keeping ahead of the customer Staff expected to take the initiative in matters of self-development'