Reviving HK's ICT professional recognition framework

Hong Kong Science and Technology ParksAs Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam pledges to develop Hong Kong into an international innovation and technology hub in her Policy Address delivered this morning, the Government is advised to genuinely commit itself to address the problem of IT manpower shortage and plan for the long term development of more local IT talent, while properly recognize and raise the status of the ICT industry professionals as a whole.

In the Policy Address 2017 delivered this morning, Lam proposed that the Government to inject HK$1.2 billion into the Qualifications Framework Fund to further strengthen and drive the development of the qualifications framework, and to enhance the recognition of qualifications for different industries.

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"A mechanism which allows the IT Qualifications Framework (ITQF) to adapt with industry demands cannot preclude the need for a unified ICT professional recognition framework," said IT legislative councilor Charles Mok, in an interview with Computerworld Hong Kong.

"A unified ICT professional recognition framework can solve many problems that are faced by ICT professionals, such as the lack of professional status, which have made ICT industry deemed a less attractive and stable career path, compared to other professional fields such as engineering," Mok said.

Existing ITQF framework

The Government's earlier efforts on ITQF development can be traced back to the formation of the Task Force on ICT Professional Development and Recognition in 2012 under the Digital 21 Strategy Advisory Committee, led by the then Government Chief Information Officer Daniel Lai.

To date, three branches of ICT-related industries are listed in the government's Qualifications Framework: operation and support, communications and information services, and software products and software services.

Together they cover a wide spectrum of skills, including technical and soft skills: application support, network support, security support, product and service life cycle management, project management and generic skills like business acumen.

Refreshing IT qualifications framework

Back in August, Mok submitted a new IT policy proposal to Chief Executive Carrie Lam in preparation for her Policy Address. It laid out recommendations to address issues like IT talent shortage. In particular, Mok called on Lam to re-launch the preparation work for the ITQF.

Regarding the development of IT qualification certification framework, Mok proposed that the government should first revisit the recommendations put forward by the Report of the Task Force on ICT Professional Development and Recognition (see PDF report) in August 2015, which outlined a feasible plan of establishing an authority to facilitate the development of ITQF.

"In May 2014, at the special meeting attended by ICT professionals and some members of the public, some negative views were noted regarding the establishment of a unified ICT professional recognition framework in Hong Kong," Mok said. "For instance, they discussed how the scheme would bridge Hong Kong professional qualifications with the equivalent frameworks in mainland China and other countries. A member of the public also expressed concern about the potential 'burden' posed on SMEs' hiring of ICT professionals."

Subsequently, the government opted to partially implement the Report's recommendations, while leaving the most substantial proposal -- "establishing a unified ICT professional recognition framework" -- on the shelf, citing diverging views in the society, Mok recalled.

Broad consensus needed

Moving forward, Mok advised the government to restart its engagement in the ITQF preparation where it left off in Auguest 2015.

Having an ITQF can help guide training providers and employers to gauge the skills demanded in ICT sector, Mok suggested. "There needs to be a broad consensus on how this is devised. I think industry associations and industry practitioners should be consulted as this directly affect associations currently running professional qualification programs, and those who have already acquired such qualifications."

"The biggest challenge of adopting ITQF in Hong Kong probably lies in addressing the concerns of ICT professionals, such as would there be extra job requirements to fulfill, the time, cost and effort required. Meanwhile, the benefit of having a framework in the fast-changing world of ICT needs to be articulated very clearly to not just ICT industry, but to the employers and community," Mok concluded.

Local CIO support

CIOs in Hong Kong generally find the ITQF useful. Although it remains uncertain whether recruitment will be easier or more difficult with the implementation of the ITQF.

Eric Ho, CIO of Hong Kong Broadband Network said the ITQF will be useful. He reasoned that a common and universal IT qualifications framework will be beneficial to companies which require the right IT practitioners to sign off documents to ensure compliance. "For example, an IT auditor needs to sign off documents to indicate that an IT infrastructure complies with the Government's standards." Ho suggested that the ITQF should cover developer (beginner level), project management, system management and architect.

Patrick Ng, IT manager of HKU Space, also supports the implementation of the ITQF. "Even a plumber needs a license to practice. Why shouldn't IT practitioners be given formal recognition?" (Note: The present Qualifications Framework covers plumbling.) "IT practitioners need certification, instead of just taking an IT degree to enter the field. Organizations rely on the IT staff to manage very important IT systems. They should be managed by IT professionals or else disasters easily occur."

Ng suggested that the ITQF covers IT security and IT audit. "IT security professionals are very important roles. They serve like security guards at the front door, and should not be helping hackers," he said. "As for IT audit, big corporations need to perform IT audit on an annual basis. Now, IT auditing are conducted by the Big Four [accounting firms] -- yet they are not IT experts. This creates a vacuum within the IT auditing industry."

Suk-Wah Kwok, regional CIO for Asia Pacific at Lockton, supports the implementation of the ITQF as well. "The Government is the best to lead the adoption of the QF, as its practitioners cover all industries. The Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB) may take the lead in QF adoption," she suggested. Kwok suggested that the ITQF covers the job titles of IT security, networking and programming.

Peter Yan, executive director and CEO of SUNeVision, supports QF adoption as it provides professional recognition. He said the ITQF can also become a handy tool to help seasoned IT practitioners, who are non-IT degree holders, to obtain formal qualifications. He proposed that the ITQF provides recognition to IT practitioners that work in the gaming industry and the cybersecurity industry at hacking level. "These geeks may not be covered in the proper IT framework."

In addressing concerns that it is tough to put IT qualifications within a framework to match the fast-changing information technology, Yan said "it is not impossible to implement QF for IT, as long as we have a framework to quickly come up with the subject matter to provide recognition, as opposed to formal certification, which is much less flexible."