Curiosity skills the company

I’ve always valued curiosity as a crucial element of a potential employee’s skill set. Curiosity enhances a person’s ability to learn and quickly overcome any and all obstacles to gaining new expertise. Potential employees with a high curiosity quotient impress me more than those who present imposing grade-point averages.

Next time you interview a candidate, ask this question: “Can you tell me how you go about fixing a problem for your company?” Be sensitive to how much – or how little – the candidate likes to research a problem. See if you can figure out from the response if the candidate is curious and action-oriented.

In these times of enormous business change, those of us in IT leadership positions need to build teams that continuously improve their skills, and I believe we can do so by encouraging curiosity. Two sobering statistics make our job challenging: Three-fourths of the population over the age of 25 don’t have a university degree (though many are over 65 and no longer in the job market), yet 85 per cent of jobs today require high-level skills, compared with 40 per cent of jobs in the 1950s, according to reports released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2001.

Obviously, the workforce needs more education in order to perform at a continuously rising level. Motivation is critical, and the key to motivation is curiosity. Our goal as leaders is to help provide that key. Creating the environment for continual improvement lies with the employer, while the responsibility to improve lies with the employee. Improvement can come from a book, training, a mentor, experience or finishing a university degree.

Our organizations can’t improve unless our people do. Without workers who keep up with developing technology, our companies can’t grow better and stronger.

Every employee should assume responsibility for upgrading his or her skills, which in turn will boost job performance and the company’s overall performance. I have always tried to build a culture of continuous learning by advocating formal mentoring and training programs. As business people, we expect productivity, response time, quality, expense control and customer service all to show steady gains over periods of time. So, too, should employee skills.

Here are five ways to make continuing education part of the culture of your organization:

1. Set the tone from the top. Praise front-line employees for learning something new – and learn something new yourself. Attend a training class with one of your direct reports. After the class, invite team members to breakfast to share what was learned.

2. Make learning ongoing and strategic. Meet regularly with IT team members to discuss what went right and wrong during the week. Listen to what they learned from successes and failures. The following week, take some of the lessons learned and sprinkle them into the IT process. Repeat. Learning involves more than a one-time program.

3. Measure learning. Track progress of the learning experience in regular job reviews, and discuss the results. A part of each team member’s bonus should be tied to continual improvement metrics.

4. Stress the team nature of training as much as the individual results. A part of the bonus should be tied to the success of the IT team. So much of what we do today in IT is the result of the whole team. Everyone from the developers to the help desk can improve the value that IT brings to an organization, so rewards should encourage collaboration.

5. Recognize and celebrate learning together with your team. The next time your team hits its learning improvement objective, give everyone the afternoon off and go to a movie together. It’s fun, they will remember it, and they will want to do it again.

The next year is likely to look a lot like 2002. IT budgets will continue to be tight, and the business environment will change in ways we can’t anticipate. Companies will demand higher levels of accountability in what is left of their organizations. Companies that want to do more with less need a workforce that is held accountable for results and a workforce that can fix problems. Only well-trained and well-educated employees will have the necessary knowledge.

By gradually building your own competency and that of your teams, your organization’s performance level will also improve. Show some curiosity, participate in the learning process and celebrate the results.

Goldfarb is the former CIO at Global Knowledge, an independent provider of IT education solutions and certification programs in Cary, N.C.

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