Early in my career, I experienced attitudes toward training and development that were polar opposites. Later, as I moved into leadership positions, I gravitated toward the pole that favored developing staff and keeping them up to date on technology developments. Nonetheless, I have found that extremes rarely provide the best course, and I came to realize that an anything-goes, pro-training policy had its drawbacks.
As a young IT professional, the prevailing attitude in the companies I found myself working in was, “Training is a waste of time. You’ll just get brainwashed. We need you to hustle every chance you get.” At that point, having given the matter little independent thought, I pretty much agreed. I didn’t think that the term “research” applied to me at all. I couldn’t be bothered with a systematic investigation of the influences on the world of IT and the businesses it served. Instead, I added to my professional knowledge in a very casual and opportunistic way. I might buy a book or get permission to go to a free presentation, but that was it. My work was my priority, and I remained connected to it even when I took a vacation.
Then I became a systems analyst at what could be considered a more progressive company. There, I learned, the CIO required every IT professional to apply for off-site training lasting at least one week each year. Any training that was at least indirectly related to your job qualified for approval, but you could also sign up for training in areas you didn’t work in if it fit in with your planned future IT career direction. The CIO tied all this training to improvement of the IT organization by requiring everyone to submit a one-page report after each course taken that summarized the material and recommended changes in the IT management function that would accommodate this new knowledge.
While recognizing that the CIO was primarily interested in aggressively pursuing training because he saw it as essential in assuring continuous improvement, I was even more impressed by the psychological effect his approach had on a staff member like me. I was being trusted to manage my time so that I could accommodate the training requirement, and I was delighted that I would be paid to travel and learn. I was being given autonomy to the extent that, within limits, I could choose the material that would help me be more productive or progress my career. Best of all, I got the feeling that I would be trusted to bring back what value I could and that my input was sought. For this benefit alone, I was motivated to perform.
Over the next three years, I was trained in best practices, rapid application development techniques, database management, voice and data network integration and the latest in project management techniques. I stretched by taking a course in public speaking, something that was nerve-wracking for a typical IT introvert like me. I appreciated the wisdom of insisting that all training be done off-site, since that allowed us to concentrate without being pulled back into the comfort zone of day-to-day work.
Over time, my performance and added qualifications naturally progressed my career, and I moved up in management. And because I took pride in my growing résumé, my IT function and the enterprise I was part of, I became an enthusiastic recruiter of other IT professionals who saw the growth potential that my experience exemplified.
My colleagues and I would sometimes look back at where we had been before we had been recruited into this company and realize that we had been completely stuck; we had gone native, which is to say that we had understood that in those other companies the status quo was the priority, and change was not. More than once, co-workers would say that a former job had provided the same year of experience, again and again.
Perhaps best of all, the CIO actually implemented some of our suggestions and recognized us for bringing them to the organization’s attention. This reinforced the notion that the management team was watching and actually cared about our humble proposals. And the IT function was improving its ability to perform.
By the time I moved on to leadership positions, where I could make my own decisions on things like training and development, there was no doubt in my mind that a liberal approach to training was far superior to what I had first been exposed to. I could see that it let an IT organization continuously introduce and implement beneficial change due to the staff’s increased awareness. Just as important, the ground-up approach meant that change could be introduced with minimal resistance.
Nonetheless, I eventually concluded that this research and change introduction process could be improved by becoming more focused and cost-effective.
Awareness at the Root
When I moved into positions where I was responsible for others’ development, I always kept in mind the idea that beneficial change (that is, improvement) is highly desirable. I also found it valuable to find out that there has been much analysis aimed at understanding how change occurs, and such analysis has always established that awareness is the first step in organizational change. In other words, there can be no change without new knowledge. And new knowledge comes to the organization through research.
One way to implement these ideas would be to follow the example of our very generous CIO, with his seemingly unlimited training budget. But normally I did not have the training budget I would need to make beneficial changes happen in the same way. And at some level, I felt that a more effective approach was possible, and even desirable.
My thinking on all of this came to fruition after I had become an application systems development manager. We knew our team had to be more productive, especially in comparison to outside firms. Faced with a limited training budget, we gathered the entire team and asked them how we could improve our productivity without the option of generous training for everyone.
What we came up with was a framework for research aimed at beneficial change. The questions we set out to research were: (a) How do we make our application development function provably the most productive on the planet? and (b) How do we make the businesses we serve as productive as possible?
We all agreed that to answer these questions, we would have to understand as much as possible about the latest techniques, technologies and tools, and even those still on the horizon. We also agreed that any proposed change must be practical and that we needed to prepare a short business case to clarify the return on any investment anticipated from its introduction.
Our limited training budget could then be used in a very targeted way. Instead of letting team members pursue whatever caught their interest, our training dollars went toward very specific goals. The result was much higher impact for each training dollar spent.
Of course, we could easily classify the various components of the application development process so that an environmental scan against these components would tell us how we might use our training or research dollars (or prioritize them) to gain the knowledge needed.
We were much less familiar with the needs of the business. What knowledge did we need to pursue in order to best serve it? We went in circles for a while until we realized that the best thing we could do was to ask the business itself. Those on the team most familiar with the systems that supported the business met with the business managers and came up with a list of targeted issues that they needed to address. We found that that sort of communication carries huge benefits. The business managers were enthusiastic about the new interest we were showing in their goals and processes. If anything, they felt that we should have had these sorts of discussions sooner.
With all of our planning, we were able to make the most of what we had to spend that year. We decided that 10 areas were the maximum we could handle on our annual budget, leaving some things for the following year, but also putting a little money aside in case something arose unexpectedly that we needed to learn about quickly.
Our budget constraints also led us to look for ways to keep the costs of our environmental scan down, and it turned out that powerful and free knowledge-base tools were available to help us determine where the information we sought resided. Vendors were another very helpful resource, one that we had previously overlooked. Once our vendors knew what we were looking for, they were able at the very least to point us in the right general direction, again at no cost.
Another breakthrough: We realized that we should build on the alliances we had started to create with leaders within the business by asking them to accompany us to see the new approaches we were investigating. This simple thing turned out to be a great way to shorten the time it took for the business to buy in to the changes we proposed. As I always say, people support best what they help build. An added benefit of this approach, though, was that we could make much better matches for each business unit’s particular need, and in much less time.
We understood that we would want to take a look at the landscape anew every year and decide on the areas where we would concentrate our knowledge absorption. But beyond our agreed-upon target areas, we left room for knowledge gained through individual interest, and established a process to recognize and reward anyone who improved the performance and chances for success of the IT function and the business. This turned out to be very exciting stuff for contributors, which created a desire in others to do the same.
Does It Actually Work?
Over the years, this “targeted research and change” process brought us more positive results than I could begin to tell you about. Just as an example, when I worked for a large credit card issuer, our targeted awareness and training approach led us to introduce digital imaging technology that allowed us to completely avoid the cost of handling and storing physical pieces of paper (checks) while also making it possible for call center staff to make the appropriate digital images available to customers over the Internet during a call. After the business press suggested that this was a customer service advantage, other credit card issuers hustled to duplicate and enhance the process — but we were a step ahead, and proud of it.
Yes, this improved process let us indeed measurably avoid cost, improve service, increase revenue and improve competitive advantage. What’s more, its initiative was seen by the business as a proactive and practical approach to improve its value proposition to customers and help it achieve its growth strategy. Perhaps best of all, this approach to joint and purposeful exploration created positive experiences for all concerned and growing confidence that exciting discoveries were actually out there to be found. And they were.
So, here’s to change. It comes to all of us, whether we expect it or not. You’ll stay a step ahead it, both for your IT function and the enterprise you serve, if you proactively and continuously improve your team’s awareness. And once you’ve begun the process, you’ll never have the same year of experience twice.