How to prioritize constant learning with your IT team

One CIO shares strategies that work for creating a learning culture
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The most effective IT organizations are those where employees never stop learning, and are constantly looking for opportunities to widen their knowledge base or take on new skills. But in the time-starved atmosphere of most IT departments, where employees struggle to deliver projects on deadline, how do you get them to carve out time for learning as well?

Michael Spears, who is both CIO and chief data officer at the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), has put a lot of time and thought into making sure both his IT and data teams never stop learning. In part one of a two-part interview with The Enterprisers Project, he shares some strategies that have worked for him.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): What are the biggest challenges in driving a culture of learning in an IT department?

Spears: The speed of technology change makes it very challenging to plan learning in a very methodical way. The culture must adjust to learn things more organically as needed with readily available tools. A key attribute for your team must be curiosity.

TEP: Do you ever get resistance to learning from employees and/or their managers?

Spears: In terms of resistance, some managers or employees might be biased toward formal training and lose sight of the many other opportunities for learning. Occasionally, we’ll have to work with someone who states they are “done learning.” Sometimes, there can be a match for that person working with a specific platform or system until either the platform or the employee retires. We’ve actually had some surprising success lining those two things up.

TEP: What programs have you found are most effective for enabling and encouraging learning among employees? 

Spears: Tuition reimbursement and study time are great for learning for the long term. We encourage people to use our tuition reimbursement programs not only to gain specific skills to support their career goals, but also to learn how to learn.

TEP: When creating a culture of learning, how much of a say should the CIO have over what is being learned?

Spears: I don’t want that much of a say in what people are learning as long as we have the core skills we need to accomplish our immediate goals. We have people research broader topics like design thinking, UX design, Color Theory, Data Visualization, Project management, and yes, even soft skills.

TEP: Are there approaches that don't work well and should be avoided?

Spears: The best learning comes from desires of the employees and where they want to steer their skills. The approach to avoid is forcing learning when the employee has no interest. Working with your team on learning goals to match corporate needs, and matching that with the best modality of learning for the individual is what works best for me.

We used to hand people a book to learn a new programming language or send them to a multi-day class to learn the basics. That may still have its place, but more success comes from curious employees who take the time to learn what they need. There are endless free resources for learning online, and we supplement that with two different eLearning libraries for technical staff. We establish mentoring opportunities when it makes sense, and give real on-the-job practice. At the speed things are changing, learning can’t be an afterthought. It has to be baked into how employees approach their jobs.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.