Learning Unbound

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.

How We Learn

The subject of how companies should address skill development in an ever-evolving technical environment has attracted attention from the research community. Hal Salzman, a senior research scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, has been studying the IT skill shortage and companies' current skill-building practices. He observed two current learning models in today's workplace. The first -- call it the dotcom startup model -- relies on highly motivated individuals to push the envelope on new technologies. These companies tend to believe that if a subject can be codified into training, it's probably already dated.

At the oppposite end of this spectrum is the stable company with a workforce unaccustomed to much change. Although they may have corporate training programs, these focus on bringing people up a hierarchical ladder from junior to senior programmer rather than teaching new technology development skills.

Unfortunately, neither model can be relied on to grow an organization's technical skill set. Leaving people to their own devices to pick up new technical skills is an inefficient way to promote organizational learning, and traditional training programs put a straightjacket on the kind of flexible, reactive learning Crisp did at Time Warner.

More important, sticking people in classrooms ignores the way in which people really learn. According to a 1998 study conducted by the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, 70 percent of skill development happens informally -- outside the classroom and in ways dictated more by the work environment and the people in them than by any management decree. In other words, learning happens in overlooked and often undervalued ways that are as diverse as the myriad IT skill requirements. To handle these issues, the IT classroom has to get much bigger.

Reaching Out

Senior IT people often need to augment their skills, as developers for Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment's customer relationship management system well know. The system, WINet, supports what resembles a frequent flyer's club for gamblers, tracking and analyzing customer activities at their different casinos and delivering special incentives to keep customers gambling. The application, which connects AS/400 processing capabilities, Windows applications and a Unix-based customer database, began four years ago. Last year Cindi Dulin, a project manager for Harrah's, and her team realized that WINet's back-end data warehouse needed a better table structure. They wanted to see how other companies had implemented their systems.

So in the summer of 1999, the team turned to the Greater Memphis Unix community to learn how others had constructed their databases. Because Dulin teaches Unix part time at a local community college, she knows who works on the platform. They e-mailed requests to the community, asking if anyone had addressed this problem and if they would allow a review of their implementation. Within a day, the team had invitations to visit other operations in the vicinity.

"We're encouraged to do a lot of networking," explains Dulin. As long as it isn't a competitor or someone looking for proprietary information, Harrah's lets its employees bring in visitors to review their operations.

"It's incumbent on the CIO to be in touch with whether the talent of an IT organization has the right tools to be successful," says John Boushy, Harrah's Entertainment's senior vice president for brand operations and IT. To make sure his talent has those tools, Boushy provides them with a plethora of options for setting their own career path. "Given the rapid changes in technology, it's important for people to be exposed to a broad set of things," he says. Each year Harrah's budgets $6,000 per employee, with a goal of providing a minimum of two weeks of training. The first week is the choice of Harrah's; the second is the employee's, as long as it's relevant to the his or her career at the company. (Harrah's management reserves the right to approve the expenditure.)

Harrah's employees use that second week option to get staffed on project assignments that interest them. When management announced that the web was going to be the locus of future development, several employees used their second week to attend Java development seminars held in San Francisco, and the company picked up the tab. When Harrrah's did commit to a CRM application as one of its first major web projects, it had a team ready, willing and, most important, able to go to work.

Looking In

Networking through local technology communities as Dulin's team did isn't new. Encouraging networking as a legitimate means to forge advanced technical skills is.

In 1998, David Easterly, president and COO of the Atlanta-based media and internet services company Cox Enterprises, concluded that its internet gurus ought to know one another. Cox and several of its divisions -- including Manheim Auctions, AutoTrader.com and Cox Interactive Media -- confront similar e-commerce technology challenges. Four internet development experts from each unit met in 1998 and established the structure and organization of the Cox Internet League.

Here, any Cox employee involved primarily in internet development can collaborate with peers in the sister companies. The 45-member league has two divisions: one dedicated to application development and the other to systems architecture issues. The league has formally met only six times since its initial inception, but e-mails flourish among members in the two communities.

Whether the subject is coordinating their interactions with vendors or discerning technical solutions for load balancing problems, the league serves as a sounding board. "Here are a lot of really smart people that you can take a situation to and discuss it in an open environment," explains Stephen Brown, one of the league's founding members and an interactive technology manager for Manheim Auctions. The league has become ingrained in company operations. Brown says that management now asks if he's run each new systems architecture plan or budget by the league to get their opinion.

The Cox Internet League enables peers to interact and deal with everyday IT development challenges. It also provides the means of tackling more strategic topics that require collective input. Management encouraged the league's initial formation, but its members drive the topics and activities. Its members augment their skills in ways that they see fit.

One-to-One

Technologists at Manheim Auctions develop leading internet services; in 1996 they created Manheim On-line, a website with wholesale automobile listings and other services for registered dealers. They actively evaluate the latest technologies; when the PalmPilot first came out, they began testing it to see when it could be introduced into their development platform mix. Manheim defines its technology as cutting edge. The challenge is how to stay there.

To that end, Manheim Software Development Manager Steve Crawford has established practices in which his developers play an active teaching role.

At least twice a month, someone who has attended an outside conference or seminar -- or who has simply learned something he or she wants to share with the group -- will do a lunch-time presentation. When green programmers begin, they are first trained in the basics by the leader of the team to which they've been assigned. They then are paired with an experienced team member to work on actual projects. Because they're anxious to have help, or possibly because technologists simply enjoy sharing what they know, Crawford can rely on his staff members to bring their peers up-to-speed.

Staples, the Framingham, Mass.-based office supplies retailer, strongly emphasizes to its employees the need to teach and learn from others. According to David Guillotte, Staples' director of technical services, for Staples employees to advance within the company they must demonstrate that they can add value at the next level. Teaching fellow workers not only demonstrates a person's grasp of the technology, it's also, Guillotte says, "a chance to give back to the team. It signals [management] that they are mature and competent enough to help others."

Instilling the leadership behaviors needed to succeed in a fast-paced environment happens also through formal training at Staples University, the company's onsite executive training program. The teaching habit extends downward. Midlevel managers lead seminars on development standards, practices or emerging technologies. This practice fuels another significant component of Staples' extensive training program, the onsite technology seminar for IT staff.

Seminars open up subject matter to people who may want information, but not the in-depth training needed to actually work with the tools. Staples' manager of IS training, Sandy King, will work with senior managers to decide on the relevant topics and the best teacher. Sometimes the teacher is a consultant, other times a vendor. Often their own internal technical experts will teach subjects such as frame relay or satellite communications standards. The seminars aren't necessarily geared toward other telecommunications experts who would incorporate these standards into their own work. They serve to familiarize people with topics that, by changing networking standards, might affect their work.

Staples does have extensive partnership agreements with local colleges to teach standard technology skills, such as C++, but even with those formal relationships they need the seminars to fill in the gaps between what's known and what will be important to know next week.

Tension will always exist as to who holds primary responsibility for proactive skill development: the employer or the employee. But many companies are coming to realize that if they don't get serious about providing learning opportunities that motivate their employees, they'll lose them. According to Michael Boyd, manager of human resourcing strategies research at IDC (a CIO Communications sister company), "Skill and employee development is consistently stated by CIOs to be their number one, two or three most important concern."

The term informal learning isn't the hot button issue in most boardrooms. It isn't a line item in a budget, like training. But it does accurately describe the way technical people acquire knowledge of technical skills. It may not be the best lunch seminar topic, but it's something for CIOs to chew on.

This story, "Learning Unbound" was originally published by CIO.

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