Turning the IT department into a learning organisation

The field of information technology has been more aware than most of the need for constant skills development. Technology marches on, and to keep up with the pack an organisation must make sure its IT staff are up to speed.

But ensuring that the IT department has the skills required to support an organisation’s strategic objectives is not just a matter of technical certification. For one thing, the challenge of designing, building, delivering and supporting systems that achieve business goals is not solely technical.

A common complaint is that an employee will be sent on an expensive training course, but then fails to put their learning into practice, either through own inability to apply the lessons in the context of their organisation or because their manager resists the concepts they have been taught.

The problem of developing skills in accordance with company strategy has been exacerbated at some organisation by their reliance on outsourced or contract staff. One way to address this issue is to hire young graduates or apprentices. This means company values can be imparted at the start of their careers.

But the problem cannot be tackled at intake alone, as shifts in company strategy must be reflected in the ongoing development of all employees – not just the most junior.

Learning organisations

An influential concept in this sphere is that of the ‘learning organisation’. Coined by MIT lecturer Peter Senge in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, the phrase refers to an organisation that continually develops its collective capabilities to adapt to its changing circumstances.

“The idea Senge had is that organisations that have aligned skills with the business requirements will perform better in the market that those have an undifferentiated skill set,” explains Michael Hanley, head of education at the Innovation Value Institute (IVI) at NUI Maynooth.

“Sometimes you can achieve that with external training, but it’s really about developing a culture where people feel that the organisation gives them permission to learn.”

That means providing employees with the resources with which to identify their skills and training requirements, he says, and to develop their skills in their own time. It also means that learning must be encouraged within the organisation, and not only depend on external training providers.

Before joining IVI, Hanley worked as an e- learning consultant at Cúram Software, which sells applications for the welfare and social services sector (and which was acquired by IBM last year).

Like any software development house, Cúram needed to continually upskill its workers, but junior developers pestering senior employees when they got stuck was not the most effective way to distribute learning. “You would have a junior developer going up to a senior developer and wasting their time for two hours,” Hanley explains. “This person would explain the process, and two days later another person would come up and there goes two more hours of their time.”

Its solution was to introduce what it called ‘Info Sessions’. “Every Monday, we would get one of our senior developers to talk about a relevant topic related to the tasks,” Hanley recalls. “We would invite all the developers down and stream it live over the web so people in our global offices could tune in.

“It was an opportunity for them to communicate their knowledge, but also for people with a less developed skills to ask questions and get practical examples.” Recording the Info Sessions meant Cúram developed a video library of useful training that employees could watch on demand.

“From then on, if a developer had a problem, they could watch the Info Session first, and then if they really had a legitimate question to ask, they were in a position to get the answer in ten minutes.”

“That was a fairly low-effort way to set up a learning culture, leveraging the resources that already existed in the organisation,” Hanley says. “We had the IT infrastructure already, so it cost almost nothing. The only requirement was the time of the individuals.”

NEXT>>> Learning simulations

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While IT departments have been good at sending employees on training courses, they have failed to teach those employees how to apply their learning, says Jan Schilt, managing director of training simulation company GamingWorks.

“IT departments have been very focused on certification for their employees, and the results have been terrible – quality has not improved,” he says. “These people come back to the office with a head full of knowledge but they are not using it, because they didn’t learn the competencies of applying the knowledge.”

GamingWorks provides training simulations that are designed to encourage learning processes in teams and groups. Its most popular simulation, designed for IT support and service desk teams, is called Apollo 13.

“We put people in the mission control centre of NASA for a day,” Schilt explains. “Everyone is given a role, such as flight director or capsule communications. At the start of the day, they are told to plan the flight, and then we run the simulation.

“Of course, they make mistakes – they have problems setting priorities, making decisions, taking leadership, the same problems that they encounter day-to-day,” he explains.

“Then we stop and reflect – an important part of the learning process. We ask what went wrong, and they realise that they should have communicated more, or planned better. Then we run the simulation again, but we change it, so they have the opportunity to reuse the knowledge they have learned into practice, but they need to discover new knowledge.”

The purpose of the exercise is to show participants the value of putting what they learn into action. “It gets the team talking, not about the content of their jobs, but about how they work together and how they learn.”

Customers typically sign up to a simulation to address a problem with collaboration or performance, or to encourage a new way of working in the organisation.

One situation that Schilt seeks to avoid is when a manager signs their team up for a simulation but does not participate themselves. “Most of the time, the manager is part of the problem,” he says. “And if they are not there, the employees say, ‘we had a good time but it’s the manager who always says no to our ideas, so we don’t think we’ll put this into action’.”

Indeed, Schilt says, the burden of creating a learning organisation lies with management. “If as a manager, you lay down the rules of how something should be done, employees will do it until your back is turned,” he says. “We need to train managers to facilitate the learning process.

“In a learning organisation, we see more people working on the attitudes and principles, and understanding why we are doing the work that we do, than on changing behaviour and setting rules.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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