Learning professionals regularly talk about the need for learning that is “just for me.” This term refers to customized educational programs that fulfill the professional development needs of unique individuals rather than a monolithic, faceless workforce. And with the possible exception of executives and managers, no one requires learning that’s made to order more than employees in technical roles. These positions can range from network administrators to physicists, from software programmers to electrical engineers. Virtually any occupation that has a heavy concentration in information technology, mathematics or the hard sciences could be designated as “technical.” Because the people who occupy these roles generally have to possess extremely sophisticated and specialized knowledge and skills in order to succeed, the learning they consume must be similarly sophisticated and specialized.
The employee education team at IBM certainly understands this. The company has more technical professionals in its workforce, from IT architects to chemists, than most other organizations employ on the whole. “We count the total technical population of IBM — people who have at least some technical background — as 200,000,” said Ted Hoff, IBM’s CLO and vice president of learning. “We need to ensure that there are development paths in terms of what people learn and how they learn on the job. We’ve concluded as a company that we need technical tracks that allow people to become deeper in their field and become senior innovation leaders in IBM.”
Likewise, the Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), which offers a multiplicity of IT services and solutions, also employs a host of technical professionals. CSC has about 79,000 employees in 370 job roles, and between 80 to 100 of those pertain to technology. All of the technical occupations within CSC are carefully defined according to their core competencies, said Holly Huntley, CSC’s CLO and corporate director of its global learning and development management group.
“We view technology as a component of the broader innovation agenda,” she explained. “We have an office of innovation at CSC. That is a group that we collaborate with to deliver learning programs to the organization. We have global roles defined for all of our employees. We have an IT solutions family, and we have an IT services family of roles. Within each of those roles, we’ve developed competency models. We also have an online development plan tool, where they can specify what their development activities are.”
Delineating these professions is a good place to start. By explicitly defining the technical occupations in the company and explaining what their key skills are, a learning path can be developed for the individuals in those complex roles. Here are few more factors to consider as you build the road to education for your technical workers.
Learning leaders will run into many of the same challenges in creation and delivery of education for their technical workers as they would with any other kind of employee population: time, cost, content development, modality mix and so forth. “From a practical point of view, one could say challenges we face include time and money,” said Ron Shapiro, director of technical learning curriculum, new employee orientation, career counseling and external tuition at IBM. “Everyone is busy, and we can’t spend an inordinate amount of money. We spend a lot of it — more than anyone else — but we have to intelligently spend that money. How do we deliver learning in a cost-effective way? The thing I have to think about as a provider of learning is not necessarily how much it costs me to produce a given unit of learning, but how many minutes of students’ time I’m using up. That’s where the real costs come in.”
However, while several of the challenges are similar, there are certain differences within each that exhibit the distinctive nature of technical professionals and the fields they work in. For example, time and accessibility are key not only because of the speed at which the business operates, but also because of the rapid rate of technological transformation. “This is not unique to technologists, but time and distance are always our worst enemies,” Huntley said. “We’re always geographically dispersed, and people’s time is limited. For technologists, I think the unique challenges for them are keeping them current — because (technology) changes so fast — and also that learners tend to come from various entry points and skill levels and across business units. In terms of the pure technology content, because it’s changing so quickly, it’s good to tap into vendors and alliance partners. Otherwise, you could never develop and maintain it fast enough in terms of the shelf-life.”
Additionally, the appropriate platforms for learning delivery need to be carefully considered. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that they’ll respond best to the more high-tech modalities because of their occupation. “We look at all modalities, and we’re always studying which ones we should use and when,” Hoff said. “We’ve had to shift how we’ve enabled people to learn from just formal learning to more work-based learning and on-demand learning. We still do have the formal courses, especially at key points in a person’s career. We think a lot about issues of cost efficiency, but we also think a lot about the effectiveness of the learning and access to the learning when people need it. One of the arguments for investing in technology-based learning is people being able to get it when they need it. But we’re also careful to understand the limitations of this media.”
Technical employees do react well to formal education delivered in a classroom, but the circumstances have to be right, Shapiro said. For example, perhaps more than other learning populations, technical workers will ask themselves, “Why am I learning about this?” or “Why should I listen to this instructor?”
“People all love in-person, but if we’re going to do in-person, they want to have really qualified instructors,” he explained. “They really want the expertise more than presentation skills or anything like that. They like e-learning if it’s done well and if it gives them the information they need when they need it without a lot of nonsense. They also like on-the-job training. It really depends not on what method works, but on what method works for what. For example, I would not want to bring people in to just listen to a lecture all day. I would just give people an iPod so they can listen to that. We don’t need to pay for the travel or just have them sitting around. On the other hand, if I have an interactive type of session, there is no substitute for doing preparation through e-learning and then coming into a class. (Learning) has to be really relevant and be there just when people need it, as well as satisfy intellectual curiosity. If we’re going to have a technical workforce, that’s vital.”
Another way to keep technical workers engaged and interested in learning is to give them a substantial amount of power over it. “We have found that the more control we give to these learners, the better,” Huntley said. “The self-paced assets that allow them to gear the learning to their specific needs — again, because they have different entry points — are more conducive.
“We also have programs that allow them to showcase their expertise,” she added. “For example, we have a program called the Leading Edge Forum Associates. These are our leading technologists in the company, and they’re selected for a research and development assignment. They write up a proposal to do some cutting-edge technology research. We fund grants for these people, and they also get mentoring. We pull them off their jobs so they can do this full time. It’s a highly developmental assignment for them. But we also get to benefit from their research through a whitepaper that we get to use internally and for our clients. It allows them to showcase their talents and learn at the same time.”
At IBM, employees are given a say in their own development path. Under this arrangement, which has been in place at the company for decades, workers meet with their managers on an annual basis to discuss their written plan for expanding their skills and knowledge through the coming year. This can even involve taking on completely different responsibilities for a brief period of time, Shapiro explained. “One of the things that we’re doing on a pilot basis through our Blue Opportunities program is saying each employee should get the opportunity to do something different at least once a year. Now, what ‘something’ is varies a lot for employees and depends on what their skills are and what they do. That’s a way to broaden their knowledge of the business. For example, if you normally develop software, then maybe you should go test it for a while. Or maybe you need experience in explaining what you do, so maybe you can go talk to a school group. Every opportunity is different.”
“Part of it comes down to principles of operation and expectation,” Hoff said. “IBM has had a principle and expectation for decades that everyone at the company would have an opportunity to develop themselves and grow. The challenge is enabling people to have project opportunities that allow them to grow. This is more than a course. How do you actually manage the human resources so that people can have developmental opportunities and still run the business in an efficient way?”
Another crucial element in any technical education strategy is on-demand learning that employees can access while on the job. If they run into an issue or have a question, then they should be able to have some means of resolving the impasse within a few minutes. CSC offers its employees performance-support tools such as online books collections, which encompass IT and various business topics. “We have referenceware, so they can get information just in time, when they need it,” Huntley said. “For instance, we have an instant code series where a programmer can go in and copy a bit of code that they need for a program that they need and paste it in. The other interesting thing about the online books collection is that we have a series geared toward technology and engineering, but we find that the technologists use the business collection just as frequently as they use the technology and engineering collection. We have open access to all the content for everybody, regardless of their role.”
Other performance-support modalities at CSC include express guides that boil down new technologies to basics in brief, easy-to-consume formats. The company also conducts virtual conferences that can either be accessed at the time of delivery or in the archives of CSC’s internal portal. “We have technology briefings, which are webinars, and these involve the really cutting-edge technologies,” Huntley said. “They can access it live or on the replay. We also have alliance partners from different technology companies that we work with that we do briefings with as well.”
Similarly, IBM offers its technical workforce quick-hit learning that saves time. One such program is TaaG (Technology at a Glance), which is built by knowledgeable volunteers within the company. “People have said if they put an hour into the TaaG program, it’ll save them a week or more of time,” Shapiro said. “The reason why is we help them get started with what a certain area’s about and line some reference sources up so they can get the basics. We can save them 20 to 40 hours on learning.”
Interpersonal Learning: Mentoring and Collaboration
Technical learners definitely profit from high levels of human interaction in educational environments, which might be surprising given their proclivity for science and technology. Two fundamental ways to promote interpersonal learning include mentoring and collaboration. IBM, for example, offers a robust mentoring program on a global scale. “We’ll find a lab that’s very highly skilled in something, and we’ll find someone who’s very interested in bringing that skill to newer labs in some of the countries that have not been established for a long time,” Shapiro said. “We’ll get someone to move from, say, California to India for about two or three weeks and set up a program. Then they maintain a mentorship relationship with those people when they go back home. Then they’ll come back a few months later and evaluate how what they established has been implemented. It’s a constant mentoring (process), with some being done remotely and some in person.”
For CSC, one of the main ways for technical employees to learn and grow professionally is via communities of practice, which are controlled through the company’s knowledge management system. “We’ve had them probably well over a decade,” Huntley said. “At this point, we have 200 active communities, where they have regular meetings and keep the content and collaboration fresh. We probably have another 400 or so communities that are more ad hoc. We track some key communities, and picked some roles that have strategic importance to our business.”
The Future of Technical Education
Just as technical professionals are constantly looking forward, so too should the people who are developing the learning to help them move in that direction. What that will mean is more and better educational offerings in the science and technology spheres, as well as tangential business subjects, designed for this audience. “We’re living through a revolutionary development right now — we’re in the midst of it,” Huntley said. “I think we’re starting to see the co-evolution of business and IT. I think what that means is that leadership skills and relationship skills will become more important for everybody, including IT professionals.”
Another aspect of technical education programs to come will likely be increased collaboration along the lines of what is currently seen within the open-source movement, which entails a loose, decentralized arrangement in which any participant can make modifications. Thus, the software, which isn’t really “owned” by anyone, is continuously being changed and, hopefully, improves over time from myriad contributions. Huntley explained that the desire to learn this way is borne out in surveys of the CSC workforce.
“What they tell us is one of the main ways they prefer to learn is through peers and through collaboration,” she said. “If you look at what’s happened with the open-source movement, that makes sense. That’s how they like to learn. Finding ways to help them collaborate and share knowledge is really important. I think that organizations need to figure out how to tap into that more, to the extent where we institute some formal policies and programs that allow our technologists to collaborate more freely internally and externally so we can benefit as organizations.”
Both Huntley and Shapiro cited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and especially his recent book “The World Is Flat,” as a profound influence on how they approach education of technical employees. “When I look at that, I think about learning in a flat world and what that means for organizations,” Huntley said. “I think it means we need to give technologists unfettered access to collaboration.”
“There are a lot of people out there with a lot of skills,” Shapiro said. “The thing that you have to do through technical education is to have a workforce that is able to combine their technical skills with your business model and come up with something unique. I think it’s got to be a core part of any business. It’s absolutely key if one’s going to have a competitive advantage.”
–Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org