IT leadership: How to build a learning culture

Intrado’s CTO shares his team’s success building a culture that prizes ongoing learning - using a “community of practice” program and other creative approaches
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If you're not building a culture of learning into your IT organization, you risk losing the ability to gain efficiencies that new technologies can provide. 

Part of the purpose and goal of an IT organization is to optimize the company’s use of technology – evaluating the value add of emerging tech and implementing new tools. Tech-forward organizations like Intrado are constantly exploring new technologies and working models in order to increase operational efficiencies and better serve customers. That means not only integrating them and educating employees, but also educating ourselves.

We've created a culture of learning that emphasizes ongoing enrichment and education.

For a rapid scale implementation at the enterprise level, new technologies such as public cloud and cloud-native application development and new working models like DevOps require in-house expertise. But as we all know, the IT labor market is fairly tight, and that expertise can be hard to come by. 

In addition, dropping everything you’re working on to quickly learn new tech from scratch is not exactly supporting a goal of operational efficiency. What we’ve found more effective is to create a culture of learning that emphasizes ongoing enrichment and education.

[ How does your talent strategy measure up in 2020? Download the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

When you think of the word “culture,” especially in a corporate context, you probably think of things like mission and values, or cool office perks and employee retreats. But a “culture of learning” is a little more complex: It needs to be at the core of everything you do, especially as it pertains to IT. Ours has four main pillars:

1. Keep up with audit needs: The first pillar is pretty basic: We simply have a plan in place to ensure our IT organization is keeping up with corporate requirements. We have ongoing training that keeps our teams up on what they need to know to satisfy audits. This is obviously not unique; all IT organizations have this mandate, but it’s necessary for the company and serves as a foundational step for everything else. It gives us a starting point and benchmarks to refer back to, even when plans change (as they inevitably do).

We’ve established an opt-in developer university program – DevelopU.

2. Prioritize professional development: Next, we believe professional development is critical for talent development, so we’ve established an opt-in developer university program – DevelopU. We provide not just a clear career path for engineers to follow, but an actual dean and assistant dean to help set up their progression and the coursework to get them there.

Again, this program is totally opt-in, because not everyone needs or wants to pursue that route, but a lot of engineers find the structure and the real-life application of the program helpful. And often, providing the dedicated time and space to focus on education helps it sink in.

3. Consider a community of practice program: The third and perhaps most exciting pillar is our Community of Practice program.  A community of practice is a group of people working on a particular initiative who need to be able to learn from their peers. To make that happen, we have implemented an “enablement team” model, which is a recast of the “Center of Excellence” model that has recently become popular. However, rather than a discrete group working for the whole enterprise, as with a CoE, the enablement team comes in on-call to work side-by-side with the community of practice for specific initiatives. 

A community of practice is a group of people working on a particular initiative who need to be able to learn from their peers.

Enablement teams comprise a cross-section of roles, seniorities, and areas of expertise. We call them a team not because they are all part of a specific and separate department but because of their collective knowledge. Team members have their own individual roles and responsibilities in the organization, and they typically work on multiple projects at once and are funded by various budgets within the organization. 

At Intrado, we have several enablement teams for specific focus areas: the Cloud Native team, Operational Model/SAFE team, Public Cloud Utilization team, DevOps team, and Application Performance Monitoring team. When a new project team is formed, these enablement teams provide hands-on guidance during the first few sprints, and then, as a shared resource for the entire organization, they move on to the next project.

Ultimately, this approach leads to faster time to value, as it spreads out the funding and gives the teams access to resources they might not otherwise be able to afford on just their own P&L. They can move faster from inception to delivery, scale more efficiently, and train more people, because these teams are basically sharing the workload. They come together for specific and finite periods of time while also continuing to deliver on their individual responsibilities.

4. Consider communities of interest: The fourth pillar is a more generalized, informal version of the Community of Practice – the Community of Interest. A community of interest includes anyone who is interested in a subject area, such as AI and machine learning, or even a subfunction of a subject area, like deep learning or machine sensing. They may not have an actual project they’re working on, but they can still have access to the materials and insights that come out of the communities of practice so they can proactively pursue education and training, but at their own pace.

This overall approach allows for peer-to-peer learning, which many studies are finding more effective in the long term than bringing in an outside authority or governance structure to lay down the law. We went with this route over a traditional Center of Excellence because we don’t want to even indirectly foster an “us vs. them” mentality, and we also want to make this kind of training and education an everyday embedded part of work instead of an independent and finite thing.

This is the culture of learning – it’s not about taking time off from your work to learn, but rather, learning every day as you complete your work. That’s how it sticks for the individual and that’s how it translates to better productivity and upward mobility for your teams. 

[ Want more about how CIOs are leading culture change? Read also: CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

CTO Thomas Squeo
Thomas Squeo, CTO of Intrado, is a results-oriented, agile, technology executive focused on the business of software. Capable and forward-looking, Thomas leads within mission-driven, agile organizations that differentiate themselves through excellence in product innovation and customer-centered solution delivery.