7 ways CIOs are rethinking IT training: Dallas CIO of the Year winners share

We asked award-winning CIOs at organizations large and small to share how they're providing learning opportunities for their teams despite current constraints
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It’s been more than a year since any of us traveled to a conference, hung a lanyard around our necks, and navigated the halls of a convention center to find the sessions we were eager to see.

Naturally, we’re adapting. To ensure training and continuous learning remains a priority for their teams, CIOs have adopted new ways to help their teams keep their skills fresh. 

We caught up with CIOs who recently won the 2021 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to learn how they’re approaching training under current conditions. The awards were presented by the Dallas CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

We asked them how they’re approaching new learning and training opportunities for their staff, and to offer any examples of any areas where they’re focusing their efforts. Read on to find out how these award-winning CIOs are adapting their training programs. 

[ Does remote work leave your team exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

1. Create a virtual learning program for IT 

Super Global CIO of the Year

Sue-Jean Lin, SVP & CIO, Alcon: Talent is connected to the organization’s results. The deeper an organization prioritizes talent development, continuous learning, as well as diversity and inclusion, the higher the organization performs. Virtual working does not need to put learning and development on hold. 

In 2020, Alcon IT introduced a Digital Fluency virtual learning program, with a new digital topic introduced each month, ranging from Scrum, Agile Methodology, Data & Analytics, Automation, among others. Attendance exceeded our expectation – we saw more participants attend our virtual sessions than we normally would have seen in a physical training environment. Another benefit of holding these courses virtually is that we were able to easily record them for reuse. Our Digital Fluency program has been so successful that we have extended it into 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic advanced digital, and the recovery will be digital too.

2. Offer a variety of outlets

Global CIO of the Year

Gertrude Van Horn, SVP & CIO, NCH Corporation: Continuous learning is a mindset. We hire people who understand that IT is the intersection between fascinating and demanding business challenges and continuously evolving technology. We require that mindset. As a CIO, it’s important that I build a culture where we embrace continuous learning about our NCH businesses as well as the technology side of the equation.

During the pandemic, IT hours are even longer and it seems we don’t have much time for “training.” But it’s not an event. There are still significant opportunities for continuous learning. Our vendors and partners have significant resources and are always offering learning opportunities. We’ve used training credits, LinkedIn Learning, Lynda.com. Our network team is pursuing Professional Development courses on LinkedIn. A few of our infrastructure team members recently earned certifications. Learning is alive. We’ve also tapped our in-house experts to share their knowledge and continue to do Lunch and Learns. I continue to talk about experiential learning, where there are opportunities to learn more right here where you are every day from the experts all around us in NCH Businesses or Technology. 

Our vendors and partners have significant resources and are always offering learning opportunities.

As leaders, we need to model the behaviors of continuous learning. Several of my direct reports and I recently attended a Design Thinking session, giving us a chance to learn together and build some new skills and frameworks. And personally, I think mentoring is important. I am mentoring a small group of IT associates who asked if I’d walk them through IT project finance and budgeting. It’s been fun for me to provide half an hour of mentoring on that important topic every couple weeks. And it demonstrates my commitment to the team for their continuous learning goals.

3. Applying virtual lessons is critical

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year

Nimesh Mehta, CIO, National Life Group: When it comes to learning, CIOs must move from a tactical response to a strategic one. I don’t believe people will go back to teaching or learning the same way as we did before. The days of the weeklong training programs are being replaced by “bite-sized” learning through videos, reading, and podcasts. Work from home is being translated to learn from home.

Ultimately, I believe we need to enhance virtual learning to evolve into an omni-channel experience. Creating content for this learning experience is our next challenge, but I see it as an opportunity to disrupt conventional thinking around barriers to entry like cost, travel, or even time zones. We can now have access to great teachers from across the globe. 

Learning is important, but applying the learning is critical to success. Building trust in learning is essential as peers need to connect, communicate, and collaborate as part of their learning process. This can be especially challenging when employees are learning virtually. 

Storytelling is one area we’ve been focusing training on in our IT organization, even throughout the pandemic.

Storytelling is one area we’ve been focusing training on in our IT organization, even throughout the pandemic. IT teammates have great ideas, but sometimes find it difficult to present them to their audience in a simple, understandable way. This became even more challenging when we weren’t working together in-person. To make sure the lessons stick, we rely on coaching and practice. We take real-life examples from work and create opportunities to pitch, explain, or ideate through storytelling. To learn multiple approaches to storytelling, teams have switched from PowerPoint and multimedia to practicing their verbal storytelling skills. We provide feedback and try again and again. With each failure we learn and our performance improves.

[ Want to improve your storytelling skills? Read also: How to become a better storyteller: 3 key points ]

4. Virtual training increases participation

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Michele Rodgers, CIO, Exeter Finance LLC: Exeter has made huge strides in transitioning to the new norm of digital workplace learning. We started a year ago by enabling 100 percent remote onboarding and learning across the organization. Since then, we have successfully onboarded more than 100 new team members. 

While we’ve launched many internal training programs, I believe having the larger professional conferences available virtually has been a tremendous help to us. The virtual training events have made it possible for more people to attend who previously might not have been able to take part. Plus, since employees don’t have to take time to travel to them, the virtual participation has made us even more efficient and productive. This has made a huge difference to our workforce by helping our team members keep up with much-needed continuing education.   

Even though the way we work (remote) has changed, the appetite for learning has not.

Even though the way we work (remote) has changed, the appetite for learning has not. At Exeter, we have made it a strategic priority to develop a diverse and engaged workforce focused on people excellence, performance excellence, and service excellence. To enable this, we have reformatted our learning content to accommodate virtual/remote training needs. We have been focused on developing individually targeted training programs to not only increase IT skills, but also to develop their leadership competencies through an IT leadership development program. Targeting these types of individual training plans will not only allow the team member to gain technical acumen and business knowledge, but also continue to strengthen their leadership development.

5. Virtual lessons are more tailored to personal needs and interests

Corporate CIO of the Year

Jyoti Lynch, CIO, European Wax Center: Leading into the pandemic, there was already positive momentum toward leveraging digital technology for training and conferences. Social distancing measures in 2020 have accelerated adoption, normalized remote learning, and introduced new platforms allowing for a more collaborative and immersive experience. 

The content that team members are seeking has become much more tailored and prioritized versus generalized. Instead of attending a general five-day conference, team members are now attending one to two-day virtual events tailored to the scope or problem they are focused on. 

Learning continues to be a high priority and the all-digital platforms have allowed for higher attendance frequency based on schedule flexibility and lower overall costs. It also allows for better quality content, higher caliber speakers and more tailored breakout topics for the team to engage in. All team members are already prepared for working remotely leaving no barriers to digital learning.

6. Provide learning opportunities in multiple ways 

Healthcare CIO of the Year

Shane Henderson, CTO, Signify Health: As a market leader, it’s critical that we continue to push the envelope in how we apply advanced technology and analytics to drive both our business and our industry forward. Having a strong learning environment enables us to do that. It starts in the talent acquisition process, by hiring bright, innovative, and tech-savvy team members and engaging them from day one.

Our commitment to learning and development has remained consistent during the pandemic, with some modifications to accommodate a virtual learning environment. Among our approaches: 

  • Ongoing Lunch and Learns: Inviting expert speakers to drill down on key areas where we want to focus in the future. This provides a rich learning environment and provides employees with an opportunity to engage in discussion with industry experts. 

  • Virtual training: We hold both formal and informal sessions where colleagues share a best practice or talk through a use-case for applying a particular element of our tech stack to solve a customer problem. 

  • Managerial leadership: Our in-house learning team has created a learning calendar with more than 15 soft skill learning opportunities for our leaders that help build skills including meeting management, change, engagement, interviewing, team building, psychometrics, mentoring, diversity and inclusion, and presentation skills.

  • Mentoring: We encourage one-on-one mentoring, which we see as an effective way to support cross-functional learning.

We will continue to seek new ways to keep our colleagues engaged, providing new learning and development opportunities and adapting to the changing ways we work.

7. Use the buddy system 

Public Sector CIO of the Year

Jack Kelanic, CTO, Dallas Independent School District: Given the changing role of IT in many organizations and competitive landscape for talent, it is very important for technology leaders to identify and develop hidden potential in their people. One method we’ve used in Dallas ISD is creating product teams charged with developing and implementing a new system or service, usually based on an emerging technology. The technology leadership team calls for volunteers regardless of current role, and over invests in technical training for selected product team members. 

Most training is remote, of course, but we supplement training with hands-on experience by buddying team members together to continue learning, practicing, and supporting each other as they develop. The approach may be less agile than alternatives, but we’re developing a stronger, more capable team that wins in the long run.

[ Want more lessons from award-winning CIOs? Read more from InspireCIO award winners.]

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.