7 ways to foster a culture of learning in IT

Constant learning is a must in IT. Leaders share how they make it a priority for everyone in their organization
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A passion for learning and limitless curiosity have become sought-after skills in IT talent. That's because companies need people who believe in continuous learning amid increasing digital disruption pressure and ongoing technology change.

A recent report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services underscores the value of continuous learning – and what IT leaders can do to make it part of their organization’s culture. “CIOs who are serious about transformation are building a learning culture, and a lot of learning comes from trying things that don’t work out,” the report states.

[ Download the report, “Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership,” to see what a culture of learning looks like at companies including Toyota, Vanguard, and Adobe. ]

In light of the report’s findings, we asked IT and business leaders to share the ways they are providing on-the-job learning opportunities and encouraging team members to take advantage of them. Read on for seven ideas to make learning interesting, fun, and a priority for everyone in the organization.

1. Learning culture starts at the top

Dary Merckens, CTO, Gunner Technology: "The most important factor in fostering a culture of learning is that it starts at the top. Not only do managers and executives need to stress the importance of learning, but they need to demonstrate it by their actions as well, by constantly pushing themselves to always learn more about a wide range of subjects. If you do this, you’ll start getting feedback loops where all of these new ideas are constantly shared, which causes people to want to learn about more new things, which brings even more new ideas to the table, which encourages even more learning, and so on.

We have a huge library of learning materials. We're constantly purchasing new books and courses, sharing interesting blog posts and sections of documentation, all kinds of stuff to pique people's interest in potentially new subjects or technologies. We also encourage everyone to review books for companies like Manning and Pragmatic Programmers. They get to help out a fellow software developers/authors and get the added bonus of learning about something they might never have been exposed to otherwise."

2. Embrace a culture of “why”

Puneet Gangal, CEO & founder, Aciron Consulting: "One of the ways we encourage learning at Aciron is by embracing a 'Why?' culture. Each time we are faced with a problem, we ask why it happened. Then, we repeatedly ask 'Why?' of each new reason given to try to get at the root cause of the issue. Furthermore, at the end of every project, we take the time to explore the lessons learned: what was successful, what went wrong, and what we can improve on for the next time. These exercises help employees to think more critically and learn from their experiences. Plus, since we document these findings in our internal knowledge base, the lessons learned are shared with the entire team, so we can learn from each other.

We originally implemented our 'why' culture as part of the software development process, but it has since permeated our office culture more generally. For example, it changed the way that we approach internal operations for things like task management and team communication. We were struggling to find the right internal communication/task management software that employees would actually use. So we took a step back and asked ourselves why each of the systems was failing. We also really considered why things had been done a certain way in the past. Our 'why' culture made us more open to changing our processes, and it also helped us to identify a new communication tool that addresses our specific needs and overcomes our previous challenges. Because we have this 'why' culture, all of our employees are more open to finding innovative solutions to problems."

3. Don't underestimate the power of boot camps

Matt Mead, CTO, SPR: "As a manager, you should help your employees develop their skills in a way that works best for them. One general option if the employee is a go-getter is a boot camp. A boot camp is a great way to learn a new skill in IT because it can quickly provide a person with everything they need to learn a subject. While the economy is booming and IT jobs are plentiful, boot camps are a very practical way to catapult someone into an IT career.

At SPR, one way we strive toward a learning culture is by having a designated 'Maker Space' where team members can build prototypes of solutions to our clients’ problems and develop their skills and creativity. It’s common knowledge that smart people are curious and like to explore new things. Because of this, we wanted to provide a place for folks to tinker. Instead of hanging by the water cooler or playing foosball in the break room, our employees like to use the Maker Space to relax, explore, and bond with other employees at the company.

The Maker Space also allows for our non-technical employees to interact with and use the technology, deepening their understanding of SPR’s products and services more than any class or boot camp ever could. For example, one of our marketing and sales employees was able to design and build a custom, IoT-connected nightlight for her niece in our Maker Space, which gave her an increased familiarity with the tools she promotes every day."

4. Explore the 75/25 rule

Nate McKie, CTO, WWT Asynchrony Labs: “We intentionally hire for a learning mindset and motivation to grow and improve, and then we challenge our employees by putting them in situations where they don’t have all the experience they need to be successful.

We are a team-based project development organization, so we set up short-term teams to handle development requests from customers. The people on the teams have a variety of levels of technical skill in different areas. Because of our high level of collaboration and pair programming disciplines, we can put people who are experts with people who are learning, and allow everyone on the project to increase their skills by working with those who are more proficient in one area or another. For any given skill needed for the project, at least 75 percent of the technicians on the team have already used that skill and have proficiency, and the other 25 percent have little or no experience. Since projects use multiple skills and technologies, it may be different people who are on one side or another, so, ideally, everyone gets a chance to learn. This model has been very successful in keeping everyone engaged and preventing silos of knowledge in the organization."

5. Make learning fun

Cristian Rennella, CEO and co-founder, MejorTrato.com: "We developed an internal game called 'Learn to Win,' with different levels, points, and prizes for different learning goals achieved (such as the number of books read, courses taken, tutorials reviewed, classes completed, etc).

To accomplish these goals, each IT employee has at their disposal $200 per month to invest in their ongoing training. The landscape is different now than in the past thanks to technology. Now everything is online, and learning can happen from the comfort of your office desk.

Thanks to the gamification of education, we improved our IT employee retention by 24.1 percent. Notably, we saw a lot of commitment to learning and excitement among the younger employees in the company.

6. Provide freedom to play

Viktor Farcic, Senior Consultant, CloudBees: "People become engineers because they like 'playing' with tech. We do not need to tell them to learn and innovate. We just need to let them do that by giving them unstructured space and freedom to dedicate to whatever they think is interesting and useful. A day of week (Fridays, perhaps) when everyone can do whatever he or she needs to do is a good start.

Most companies spend most of their engineering talent on mundane and repetitive tasks that can be replaced with scripts. More importantly, people tend to spend too much time reinventing the wheel and doing things that were already done in other companies. We are engineers living in a world when knowledge and skills become obsolete overnight. Learning helps us keep up to speed with the rest of the world."

7. Consider cross-trained mentors

Meera Rao, senior principal consultant, Synopsys Software Integrity Group: "In our organization, one of the most efficient ways to bring teams together is through cross-trained mentors who have an in-depth understanding of software development, software security, and operations across the entire secure software life cycle. These mentors are responsible for training and coaching resources throughout the product team — in some cases, across the entire organization. We rely on cross-trained mentors to provide subject matter expertise on development, deployment best practices, and software security within the organization.

To start a mentorship program, organizations can start with a small subset of teams to drive adoption and expand the program enterprise-wide. Spread awareness through initiatives like lunch-and-learn sessions and organizational tech talks. Use these training sessions to identify mentors and champions, then work with HR to create incentives."

[ Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


Great article! I am interested in feedback on the methods used to sell the time needed for learning as part of their budget and as part of the time needed in a customer-driven IT shop. Ie With a huge project backlog how do you successfully sell the idea of learning time?