Learning Unbound

By Dawne Shand, CIO |  Career

John Crisp knew his Cobol backward, forward and upside down. He knew his mainframes. A business applications analyst for 11 years with Time Warner's customer service group in Tampa, Fla., Crisp knew just about everything there was to know about the applications that got magazines into the hands of Time Warner subscribers. And Crisp knew something else. He knew he didn't know enough.

"I realized that I wasn't at the end of my career," says the 43-year-old Crisp, "and I wouldn't be working with the same tools for the next 20 years." But Time Warner had no plans for web development, nor did it want to spend money to train people in technologies it wasn't using. So in 1996, Crisp and 24 other Time Warner programmers began a skunk-works project to teach themselves Java, object-oriented design and other skills that Time Warner might one day realize it needed, and which they hoped would keep them employable for the next 20 years.

For 12 months, while management looked on, intrepid groups of programmers read technical books and worked sample problems together over lunch. "I had to get serious about learning new technologies and not just learning about them," says Crisp.

As the groups' familiarity with and confidence in web tools grew, their leaders began talking up the benefits of this type of development to senior management. Realizing that the company now had an internet-ready staff, Time Warner committed to the web.

Crisp now spends most of his time working with object-oriented design tools, even though he never once set foot in a classroom. And today, thanks to the efforts of employees like Crisp, visitors to Time Warner's website can order magazines online.

"You can promote self-learning through computer-based training, but people don't get excited about learning new technologies that way," says David Bass, senior IT manager at Time Warner's customer service group. Bass, like many managers, realizes that the fast-changing technology landscape can all too quickly outstrip an organization's skill set. Therefore, the wise manager thinks about ways to allow a staff to teach itself.

To make sure his staff understands the business problems faced by the company, Bass pairs his developers with business users for three- to six-month stints of on-the-job training.

The wise manager looks to leverage his employees' natural ambition, imagination and inquisitiveness. Bass assigns his people to short-term R&D projects to find out more about technologies that one day may be relevant to their jobs.

In short, the wise manager seeks to turn his IT department into a big classroom in which learning is something that bubbles up from within, not something imposed from the outside.

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