It is easy to forget that IT staff, as with anyone specialising in a fast-developing technology, have to spend part of their working lives keeping abreast of the technology that they specialise in and remaining familiar with a host of allied technologies. There are plenty of ways of doing this, with websites, mentoring, university courses, certification courses, conferences and a wealth of quality online IT courses and training material available online.
Self-paced training and organisations such as Pluralsight, Coursera, Udemy, Code Academy, Safari books online and many others spotted a gap in the market and have put training material at a price point that an individual can afford.
One contractor put it “my worth to an employer is in what I know. I see a subscription to a learning resource as an investment in myself”.
Many open-source vendors have recognised the provision of high quality training material as a shrewd investment resulting in a sales asset and aid to adoption of their products. So how can organisations take advantage of the democratisation of learning resources?
Recognising staff as assets, not liabilities
Companies invest huge sums of money in software and hardware to try to gain a competitive advantage in their market, but often forget that their people, the craftsmen, are the key to getting the best return for that investment. The evidence for this can be seen in the inadequacy of their training budgets.
There is also an overreliance on their star employees. Heroics is no substitute for staff training. At SQLBits Buck Woody put it succinctly “No matter how talented you may be you can only sustain a level of performance perhaps 50% greater than the average. You may be able to push yourself beyond that level but you will not be able to sustain it. Therefore the only way for you to achieve more is for you to make it possible for others to do more”.
When I first became a manager this advice was foremost in my mind. What could I do to help my staff to achieve their best? I thought that a good start would be to provide subscriptions to one or more of the online training providers. However, I wanted to ensure that this type of staff training would be self-sustaining: If subscriptions weren’t renewed after the first year, we would be back where we started. Could a more ambitious approach avoid this?
Solution brainstorming and mind map
When I start working on a new idea I begin by producing a mind map. I have found that this is an effective way of capturing a great deal of information on a single sheet of paper. This makes a mind map an excellent communication tool as it presents information in a form that is easily understood. Another advantage is that it provokes questions and conversations about the subject that it illustrates.
The Mind Map below shows my approach to this subject and summarises the points to be discussed in this article.
Building a business case
As a manager I have control of my budget and over things immediately in my domain. I can sign off one-off training courses and probably a small number of subscriptions to a learning resource.
As I am proposing to put something in place that goes beyond my remit, I will need support from my colleagues. I have to find sponsors and interested stakeholders to help me if I am going to succeed.
To recruit these sponsors and stakeholders I have to put forward an initial business case. If I’m successful in doing so, then they will provide support, help me to refine the business case, define the scope and provide governance for my initiative.
Just as when proposing to upgrade to an existing system, the business case will make the following items clear:
- The problem I am trying to solve
- How I am proposing to solve it
- The resources I need to do so
- How I will measure the success of an initiative
- How long will it take to demonstrate that success
- What are the milestones that will show that I am on track
What should I look for in a stakeholder or sponsor?
Sponsors are usually in positions of power within the organisation and are implicitly stakeholders. In this particular case, the HR manager is a good candidate to recruit as a sponsor
A stakeholder is someone who will benefit from what we are proposing to do. My staff should be considered amongst the stake holders.
To identify stakeholders I have to ask:
- Who can help me?
- How can they help me?
- Why is it in their interests to help me?
- What compromises will each stakeholder demand?
Each stakeholder/sponsor will have their own idea as to what they want an initiative to achieve. They will not be doing this for altruistic reasons; they will be helping you because your initiative is a means for them to meet their own objectives.
My first stakeholders would be HR, my manager and my staff.
What is the problem I am trying to solve?
If I am to recruit sponsors and stakeholders I have to describe the problem I am trying to solve in terms of the interests of my stakeholders. When describing the problem I have to focus on the following questions:
- What is the problem?
- How big is the problem?
- What impact does the problem have on my sponsors and stakeholders?
- Is the problem growing, diminishing or staying the same?
Example problem description
We are adopting a number of technologies to support the initiatives outlined in the corporate strategy.
The cost of classroom training to be able to make effective use that technology is higher than the training budget for this financial year. Such training will cost Â£3,0 00 per person.
The number of IT staff in the first tranche will be ten people. This will require an initial investment of Â£30 ,000.
Rol l out of the technology across the organisation this financial year will require additional training investment of comparable size.
Reducing the staff training numbers will compromise the resources needed to deliver the strategic initiatives in the desired timescales. In addition the annual staff satisfaction survey identifies training as consistently low scoring which reduces the overall satisfaction score.
The next available training course for technology ‘x’ is in October which is out of step with the desired delivery dates of our project. Knowledge retention is also compromised as there the gap between training for skills and use of those skills . This limits the cost effectiveness of what is a substantial investment in training
How will my initiative address the problem?
For each of the points that I make in the description of the problem, I have to demonstrate how my initiative will counter those points. It is here that I provide the detail behind my mind map.
Online learning resources address a number of points from our problem description
- Available on-demand, not tied to a particular schedule
- Low cost relative to external classroom training
- Repeatable, so the issue of knowledge retention is addressed
A good foundation stone is a catalogue of learning resources. This catalogue should include the following:
- Price including quantity discounts
- Coverage of subject areas of interest
- Quality of coverage (are there independent reviews or do you stakeholders have prior experience with a resource?)
- Terms and Conditions including how a subscription covers any staff turnover
- Usage monitoring
- APIs and integration points.
On the latter point, a number of vendors provide an API that allows their product to be presented through a corporate intranet or through an existing learning management system.
To make best use of an online learning resource, we need somewhere to practice what we have learned. Some IT suppliers already provide learning labs for their products, for example:
- Cloudera and Hortonworks both provide virtual machine images of their respective Hadoop stacks.
- Teradata provides the Teradata Virtual Data Warehouse.
- Oracle provides Virtual Box images for much of the Oracle stack.
The concept could be extended to provide virtual machines for technology configurations that are specific to my organisation.
The idea is that an individual can download virtual machine images from a corporate library and use them to practice what they have learned.
Once again, the learning labs address the points made in the problem description:
- Available on-demand
- Targeted to the specific needs of the organisation
All the sponsors will want to know that something that they are paying for is being used. They will also want to keep an eye on the ongoing costs such as cloud usage, storage costs
Some online learning resources provide some form of usage-monitoring as part of their service.
An HR sponsor is likely to want the individual usage of the resource to be included in staff appraisals.
Usage-monitoring is one of the ways in which we can measure the success of the initiative.
Because my staff are also stakeholders, they will have been involved in the selection of the online learning providers but nevertheless their subsequent ongoing feedback is important. Remember that the purpose of providing a learning resource is to enable them to achieve more. Some learning providers are strong in some areas but weak in others and my staff will identify the strengths and weaknesses of each provider.
This is the use of subtle incentives to feed self-motivation. In the context of training it can take the form of lessons completed, and exam scores.
Personally I am not keen on setting up leader boards and league tables for a training resource. I would prefer the individual to appreciate their own progress rather than be disheartened by their progress measured against a noisy superstar.
As Ernest Hemmingway put it “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
As my staff are stakeholders this provides them with a means to measure their own success.
It is foolish to take a chance on “If you build it they will come”. I do not want failure to be due to lack of awareness of the facilities provided. If I, as a manager, propose an initiative then its success or failure will be mine. Actually, that is not entirely true. Success has many fathers but I will own the failure.
It is here that HR stakeholders can help. For them, an online training resource that is available to all IT staff is a potentially attractive recruitment lure and something they can emphasise during a staff induction process. As mentioned earlier, if you include the use of the training resources in an annual staff appraisal process, it will also make my staff more aware of what is available for them.
A good sign of success is when staff demonstrate what they have learned as a result of my initiative. Promotion of a facility by peers is more powerful than promotion by management.
There is extra bonuses in that running show & tell, lunch & learn and mentoring sessions gives an opportunity to learn further skills:
- To present to a group
- To prepare a meeting
- To mentor others
People who can demonstrate the skills above are valuable in any organisation.
In terms of the specific points raised in the problem description, knowledge transfer speeds up the spread of information. The first presenters are pathfinders for their peers by identifying what works and what doesn’t so the next generation are better prepared.
How will you measure success?
Each stakeholder will have their own clear criteria by which they will judge my initiative to have been a success. These criteria should be visible to all stakeholders so any issues can be discussed and compromises reached.
They will also help define what milestones should be in place so that we can measure whether we are on track to be successful.
A commonly-agreed set of criteria for success and a shared understanding of the milestones are useful in keeping focussed on what you are supposed to be delivering.
From my experience, stakeholders will be keen to perceive an initiative as a success provided it met some, not necessarily all, of their objectives.
When will I know that it has been a success?
The sponsors will want to know when they are going to receive the benefits that they have paid for.
Delivering tangible things such as subscriptions, learning labs and usage monitoring is relatively straightforward as is attaching timescales to these.
Attributing the success or failure of a strategic project to my initiative is not as clear cut.
Determining whether my initiative achieves a permanent change to the ways in which IT skills are acquired and shared is something that will only become apparent over a longer term.
What resources do I need?
So far I have discussed the benefits of my initiative. Now I have to discuss the costs.
I have to walk a fine line between being realistic and poisoning the well. I think is wise to identify the resources using the MoSCow technique and make it clear to the stakeholders which items fall in which category.
- Must have (critical items)
- Should have (important, may compromise what can be delivered but not a deal breaker)
- Could have (would make life easier but are not essential)
- Won’t have (The lowest ranked items that are jettisoned in order to deliver the preceding items)
Throughout my career, both I and my peers have devoted a considerable amount of personal time to developing our skills. Although organisations are lucky that their IT staff do this, it would be foolish to take this for granted.
If staff are running at capacity throughout normal working hours, that will diminish their ability to learn outside of those hours.
If we are proposing an alternative to 10 days per person external offsite training then we should look at spreading the equivalent of 10 working days across the timescale for the project. For a half year project this would mean around Â½ day per week to devote to training.
For specific project activity we can plan explicit technology spikes. We can even make a showcase demonstration part of the deliverable and therefore a measurement of success.
As I am proposing to use an online learning resource I need an internet connection sufficient to allow that resource to be fully used. This is doubly true if I am proposing to use cloud based resources rather than on premises learning labs.
If I am proposing to use on premises learning labs then the developer machines should be capable of running at least one instance of VMWare Player of Virtual Box. Similarly, I need sufficient storage to store the library of learning labs and network bandwidth in order to copy the template lab to where it is going to be used. This indicates that one of my stakeholders should represent network and infrastructure.
I need the skills to set up the basic learning laboratories including the virtual machines images and network connectivity.
If the resource is to be accessed through an internal intranet or learning management system then I am going to need the skills to integrate with those systems.
This may involve specific DevOps skills and also skills in cloud infrastructure setup.
We must take into account the cost of the purchase of the online learning subscription. However the business case is predicated on this being considerably cheaper than the equivalent classroom training.
There is a slight problem here in that my initiative should reduce the need for external classroom training but it won’t eliminate it entirely. There are times when external classroom training is the most effective way of acquiring skills within the organisation.
In my experience, the authority over spending is deemed to be a management responsibility with the level of spending that can be authorised linked to seniority.
Earlier in this article I mentioned that in order to accomplish the transfer of knowledge my staff would have to learn skills associated with management.
Outside of the work environment my staff are trusted to take out 6 figure mortgages. Why should they not be trusted with their own substantially lower training budgets? If I plan for my staff to be able to plan meetings, act as mentors, present their work and manage budgets then what I am actually doing is succession planning.
So far I have focussed on what I need to germinate a sustainable learning ecosystem. I am a mindful that there is more to gaining skills and training than the mechanisms I have described.
I need a sustainable way of ingesting external ideas to shock people out of the narrow perspective that is inevitable when people work for a single organisation for an extended period of time.
I have found that “Meet Ups” on the www.meetup.com website are low cost, relatively frequent, varied in topic and a symposium of peers.
As Meet Up events tend to be in the evening then, as a manager, I can authorise staff to leave work early in order to attend. Where appropriate I may be able to sign off reasonable travel expenses. Simple measures such as these are useful lubricants to encourage existing staff passions.
Less sustainable external activity
The last paragraph in my example problem statement earlier in this article alludes to the problem of timing and also cost for external courses. When the timing is right an external course can be worth every penny.
Conferences present a similar challenge. SQL Bits and QCon are both high quality conferences and excellent ways of ingesting new ideas and thought processes. QCon in particular will shock the attendees out of their usual mode of thought and expose them to new and radical ways of thinking.
The problem these conferences pose to me as a manager are threefold:
- They represent a substantial part of my budget
- They are infrequent
- On a limited budget I have to pick candidates based on their ability to share their experiences. This isn’t fair on those who are less gregarious.
There is also the challenge in identifying those conferences that are worth attending. For every SQLBits there are some decidedly underwhelming counterparts.
One should not dismiss events organised by vendors such as technology breakfasts. These too can present a technology from an unexpected perspective. Although these events are soft sales pitches the value comes from the insight the vendor has regarding integration of their product with technology you already have. That insight is often broader than the narrow horizon of the particular vendor product.
There are two quotes from Richard Branson. The first is “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”
A sustainable learning ecosystem is a substantial step to fulfilling both.
The 2nd quote is “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple”.
If by investing in your staff they pay greater attention to their customers, both internal and external, then ultimately this is an investment in the future of the organisation.
The speed of technology evolution is accelerating. The cost of keeping up with that evolution through traditional means is increasing.
IT staff have always sought out ways to keep themselves up-to-date and now organisations need to make better use of the available online learning material to make it easier for their staff to do so.