How a culture of learning can increase performance in IT

Investing in professional enrichment keeps your organization nimble and innovative. UAB CIO Curt Carver shares how he prioritizes a culture of learning in his IT organization
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We live in a world of rapid change. Our job within an IT organization is to anticipate and respond effectively to that rapid change in the world around us. That’s not something you can get a certification in; rather, it’s a set of skills that you have to keep enriching. As an organization, it’s something you must foster.

Hopefully, even the most tech-driven of organizations understands that its most precious resource is its people. That’s certainly true for us at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; we invest in our people. That’s not just a feel-good HR slogan, either. We very conscientiously carve out budget and create dedicated processes designed to keep our teams not just trained but enthusiastic about learning. 

[ Find out how learning cultures support rapid change. Read the new Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: "IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era." ]

It can't be theoretical

Our philosophy is that empowered people take the kinds of risks and make the kinds of decisions that can have real impact on the organization, the university, and the world. But we want those decisions to be informed. We empower our people by supporting them with the time and resources they need to become knowledgeable in any number of areas.

This goes beyond providing simple continuing education courses to truly facilitating a culture of learning, one that prizes intellectual curiosity in order to turn employees into agents of innovation. The kind of innovation we’re talking about only happens when people are not afraid of getting fired if something goes wrong, and when they’re not so bogged down in deliverables that there’s no time for creative thought.

A culture of learning naturally requires space to explore and room for mistakes. 

As you might imagine, this means balancing your focus between maintaining this kind of culture and driving cost-efficiency, and that’s not always easy. A culture of learning naturally requires space to explore and room for mistakes, even if it might mean you get the deliverable later than expected or waste some resources in experimentation. 

At a 250-person strong IT organization like UAB, that can’t just be theoretical. You have to create processes and policies around it. For instance, we’ve implemented an actual process around mistakes. When we make a mistake, we go through an after-action review, not to determine who’s to blame but rather how can the organization learn from this and become better. Then we usually don’t make the mistake again, and we become more resilient, less fragile, more entrepreneurial, and more innovative in how we move the organization forward.

This is not to say that our creative process is all rainbows. Not everyone responds as easily to this kind of environment, especially in IT. Some people find strict timelines and deliverables a comfortable way to work, which is certainly valid and doesn’t mean those people can’t be innovators. You simply have to give them the structure they need to stay engaged in learning.

That’s why we prioritize training plans and, perhaps most importantly, we build in the work time to actually get that training done instead of putting the onus on them to do it in their free time. This can’t be a slog or something you add to an already busy person’s agenda. It has to be something they can personally get invested in, too.

Overcoming resistance

You may also see some static at the C-level when it comes to enacting something as difficult to quantify as a culture of learning. A CFO who is highly protective of your company’s bottom line may bristle at the idea of creating purposeful inefficiency. It may come down to convincing them (and any other naysayers) of the larger value down the line. But this isn’t just pie-in-the-sky stuff; there’s real evidence that it’s not machine cogs but visionary thinkers who lead organizations forward.

The nature of IT is aggressive pursuit of progress; there’s something new to learn or a new tool to try out practically every day.

A recent Deloitte report on Industry 4.0 readiness found that 51 percent of CIOs cited a significant mismatch between current competencies and future needs. The nature of IT is aggressive pursuit of progress; there’s something new to learn or a new tool to try out practically every day. IT organizations are tasked with determining which of those things can drive actual value for the company. And ideally they’re keeping up with the pace of innovation and being agents of innovation themselves. The performance of our staff over the last few years under this kind of culture has been noticeably improved, and we have seen a measurable boost in customer wins.

Last year, I dedicated nearly 100 hours to small group conversations (5-10 people per group) with our entire team. I led open-ended, anything goes discussions and let the teams dictate the agenda. Just creating an opportunity for them to talk openly about their successes, their challenges, and their passions generated a lot of ideas and important insight for me on how I might help them become agents of innovation.

I want our employees to be intellectually curious, to be looking at what’s going on around the world and identifying windows of opportunity. Then, I want them very intentionally pursuing those opportunities to transform the lives of our customers, students, faculty, researchers, clinicians, and our staff.

It’s gratifying to see how that leads to a great degree of playfulness, experimentation, and real fulfillment for our team. They’re learning, creating, and having a real impact – all of which keeps them engaged professionally and personally. It may be hard to put a concrete numerical value on that but it can’t be denied how valuable it actually is.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Curtis A. Carver Jr., Ph.D. is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this role servant leader and enabler of others, he leads a team of dedicated professionals focused on providing solution to the UAB through world-class IT with a focus on innovation, agility and cost efficiency.


I hope you like the article. A dangerous question to think about: Who owns the hype cycle of each technology deployed in your company? I would gently suggest you need a culture of learning that permeates your IT organization unless you believe one person can own all hype cycles. I know I am not smart enough to own all hype cycles.