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Valuing Learning


I work for a company that values learning.

Over the last 3 months, we’ve had our annual tech conference that brings all of our tech teams together for three days of learning from each other, we’ve hosted various night school sessions to share our experiences with the community, we’ve enabled Management 3.0 training for a diverse and growing group of employees, we’ve sent an significant number of people to AWS re:Invent and we’ve continued to host our quarterly leadership speaker session. We’ve invested thousands of hours in learning.

I think there are lots of us that can say their companies do that – invest in learning. But I didn’t start this article by saying we invest in learning. I said started by saying we value learning.

We value learning because we know the only way to get better is to learn – new skills, new tools, new processes, new tech stacks, how to fail fast, how to grow, how to learn. We value learning because we know the best way to grow and engage our employees is to challenge them with new things and invest in them. We value learning.

But I’m not writing this to brag about our learning opportunities. I’m writing this to show you that you must make a choice as an organization to value learning. I’ll try to show you that you must model that learning behaviour to enable it and layout some of the things you, as a leader, can do to seed and grow that learning culture.

Continuous improvement of your people, your teams, your product and your organization are all done through learning – get used to it, seed it and empower it.

Where do you start?

Like most things in business today, it seems where people start solving this problem is by brainstorming what knowledge gaps a company/team has, figuring out what kind of training will fill them, figuring out what it will cost and then doing the budget exercise to decide on timing. If you’re shaking your head “yes” right now, please stop. This isn’t the place you have to start.

The first step in valuing learning isn’t identifying gaps. The first step is deciding to invest in learning. Investing can often be confused with budget – cold, hard cash. If you’ve got your wallet out right now, put it away. The more important investment here is time. We’ve all heard that “time is money” but money does not always buy time.

“You need to build trust in your employees that they can take time to learn.”

You must start with a conscious decision to create time to learn. You need to build trust in your employees that they can take time to learn. You must be the example and take that time to learn yourself. You need to build learning time into your day, your projects, your company structure. Until you make that decision to invest time, identifying gaps is a useless activity.

Look in the mirror. Are you modeling, as a leader, that learning is okay? When’s the last time you took a couple of hours or days off to attend a conference? When’s the last time you built time into a project schedule to experiment and fail and learn from those failures? When’s the last time you celebrated learning from failure? When’s the last time you read a book and summarized it for your staff? If they don’t see you doing it, they won’t do it themselves. It won’t feel safe. It will feel like your “day job” is always more important than learning and that their “day job” must be that way too.

I’m not saying you can always spend 40 hours a week learning new things – it isn’t learning above all else. What I’m saying is show your employees they too can learn and then trust that they will balance that learning time.

I’m ready to invest the time, now what?

You’re feeling good. You’ve started modeling that learning time is okay, you’ve introduced learning capacity into your projects, you have an amazing staff that is empowered to enable their own learning time. Now what?

We’ve all seen this situation. Your team is about to take on a brand-new project with a tech stack that you’ve never used before. There’s a tight timeline to the project and you identify that there is that gap in that knowledge and set aside some time at the start of the project. You hire an expert to come in and make everyone else an expert through a 2 day, crash course. Learning enabled! You pat yourself on the back and add “learning enabler” to your resume. And you’d be wrong.

Enabling learning isn’t necessarily about filling gaps and it definitely isn’t about filling gaps at the last minute. Enabling learning is about growing the curiosity of your teams so they are filling gaps without even knowing it or way before it becomes a gap.

“Enabling learning isn’t about filling gaps – it’s about growing the curiosity of your teams and make them feel safe to learn”

The better story above would have been identifying the new tech stack and knowing you have people on your team that have already keenly learned about that through self-learning, courses, conference, books or all the above. When the project started you already had the learning completed and now had mentors on the team so you didn’t have to bring in that expensive consultant. That’s easier said than done, but here are some free or inexpensive ideas for enabling that to happen.

  1. One-on-ones – this very important tool in your manager toolbox is a great way to understand interests of the employee, where they want to grow their own skills, where they thing the technology/project/company could go and where they think the gaps are on the team and in the products. Use this to empower your employee to drive their own development plans. Your job as a manager is to help guide and enable opportunities but now to own the progress against the plan.
  2. Set up a mentorship program – If your company is bigger than 1 person, you have experts on certain things that can teach other people. Use one-on-ones, peer reviews, coding metrics and observation to identify people that are both experts and able to teach. Establish mentoring as a key competency of senior people in your company and pair junior employees with these mentors. Set time aside for these to happen, every week or every sprint.
  3. Community Groups – geographical areas rich with technology companies usually have community sponsored Peer-2-Peer programs. These peer-2-peer groups allow a bunch of people wanting to learn from each other to come together and learn. Even better, if you identify a gap, start up a P2P and bring the experts together.
  4. Conferences – these may seem like big investments but for the cost of entry, a flight, a hotel and some food costs you can get a wealth of knowledge on industry trends, other companies trying to do the same thing you are, connections with industry leaders and a bunch of amazing content. Bonus points if you send your employees instead of going yourself and make sure that the employees cross-train the team when they return.
  5. Online learning – there are numerous online course providers that you can purchase subscriptions to for specific training packages. Research these and purchase what you need today and especially what you’ll need tomorrow.
  6. Learning Management Systems – As your company’s collective knowledge continues to grow, don’t hesitate to put a system in place to capture and share this knowledge. Have video repositories of lunch and learns, content storage for learning outcomes, shared courses, quizzes and design specifications. Your current and future employees will thank you.
  7. Public Root Cause Analysis (RCAs) sessions – One of the best places to learn is from your past mistakes. RCAs are a great way to understand exactly what happened and how to spot it earlier or prevent it all together. Have these results published and shared so everyone can benefit from the learnings of others.
  8. Time to Experiment – Make sure you are building time into your release cycles or yearly calendar for experimentation. Setting up hypotheses, running experiments to prove/disprove those and teaching out the results is a great way to drive innovation and future learnings.
  9. Rotation Programs – Have your employees rotate through other teams in all areas of the company. They will learn how things are done, you will break down silos and end up with a great way to cross-pollinate ideas and best practices across the organization. You should do this to, rotating through or shadowing employees on your teams. Not only is this a great way for you to understand roles but also a great way to identify blockers and training needs.

With an investment of time, some creativity in approach, modeling the behaviours and enabling employees, you too will drive a culture that values learning.

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