As I began writing this article on open training model, I realized the topic would be interesting, troublesome, confusing, challenging, and hopefully by the end, help others clarify their thinking around IT training investments. In the information technology world, many leaders focus on production outcomes – the next software version release, the emerging security threat, or the isolated recovery backups to control ransomware damage, etc. All of those needs are relentless, unforgiving, and demand an intense focus that can lead to reactionary training.
Unfortunately, that view of training is limiting. For example, sending Aimee to a Cisco routing course because Lela got a promotion will meet an organization need for Cisco routing skills. However, a less utilitarian view of training, one that might align with my view, would include making Cisco routing and every other skill my organization needs available to anyone in the organization before Lela moves up so that the organization has reserve talent to ensure zero down time during a transition or an emergency. Reading these words you might think I am merely describing a more proactive approach to maintaining critical skills, which is true, and it is not the full story or intent.
Opening Up Training Resources
One of the things that contributes to my leadership effectiveness is a non-utility view of learning, education, or training. Many IT leaders view training as a means to a predefined end, however I have witnessed that opening training resources and other forms of education or skills acquisition to the entire organization creates opportunities for all team members to discover their passion. I have also witnessed the amazing outcomes that are created when you connect a person’s passion to an organization need. This level of understanding and lived results means that my annual budget funds first level training for anyone in the entire organization to explore the skills required to join one of my IT teams. For example, in 2020 I paid for 20 data analysts from across the organization to attend hands-on data visualization and formula analysis training as a way to help each of those extended team members discover the level of skill required to perform those functions on my Business Informatics team and determine if they have the passion required to master those skills.
While the approach to training for either organization utility or technology passion is similar, the path and the journey are very different. More importantly, the outcomes are orders of magnitude apart. How? Training only for utility or predefined organization outcomes introduces bias into the training decision in the form of prerequisites. First you think you absolutely must need skill Z. Why else would you support the training? Second you think to get to skill Z you must need skill Y, because that is the way the vendor or certification body stated requirements, or that is just the way your organization has designed promotions or learning progress. Of course, to get to skill Y a person must have skill X, and so on. In this simple example your training path has eliminated learning opportunities for every skill you cannot pre-define and every person without skill X and skill Y. Just pause to think about all the new skills you may not have predefined and all the smart people on your teams who do not meet skill X and skill Y criteria. Why would you limit team member and organization growth opportunities like that?
Alternatively, an open training and learning path can ignite extended team members’ passions through discovery and elevate their commitment to the organization while opening the learning gates introduces new skills, new ways of getting work done or eliminating work that no longer needs to be done and developing the longer-term employee/employer relationships that lead to a highly productive team. Moreover, an open training model expands your team membership to people who already understand how the organization works, even if they are not in IT. For your IT team members, an open training model allows them to go out, capture a new skill, then return and apply that skill to help your organization immediately. The alternative to this existing team member with new ideas growth model is to hire new employees with new skills only after you have identified that specific need, which is typically too late to achieve anything more than following the market, rather than leading it. Moreover, bringing in a new employee with a new skill is disruptive. That person cannot know the nuance of your organization and may try to force the skill to work the only way they know. Why would you create that level of team and organization dysfunction just to add a new skill?
Every budget owner reading this far is wondering how to pay for an open training model. The reality is that training is not free, but no investment is free. As with every other form of investment, I suggest doing your research, starting small, and defining how you might determine Return on Investment (ROI) to help you set an appropriate investment level each year. My open training model is not just a blank check for anyone to give away, it includes stages or paths that any employee can request to follow. For example, some skill development paths begin with a book to help people explore and understand the skill or underlying technology. Completing the book and required post-reading discussion with someone who already has that skill demonstrates commitment and helps my management team evaluate the person’s passion for the skill. This is our first ROI check point. Other ROI evaluations and steps are built into the open training model to ensure we are paying attention to the actual return. Your process will vary to fit your organization needs, culture, and norms.
How To Balance Open Training Model
Another question that budget owners may be thinking is how to balance the training inside or outside of IT? To open the thinking around this question I will return to the Data Analyst example above. At a minimum, the training investment raised the quality of data analysis in other functions, and in reality, the training helped two or three people decide they have the passion to become IT BI analysts. That realization means IT will be able to hire from within the next time we post a BI analyst role. Hiring internally will cut 30 days from the hiring process and 60 days from the becoming productive process since the new hire will know the organization. Doing a simple ROI reveals that saving 90 days of production time for each of three IT BI analyst hires equals 270 production days for the price of bringing an instructor onsite to teach the data visualization and formula development class. This is the hard, outcome only, your finance team would approve, math. The softer and more contextual ROI includes bringing 20 members from across the organization together to learn, which leads to team building, process standardization, and an overall more informed and dedicated workforce, which are all ROI elements your HR department will endorse.
Organizations and those who lead them are unique. This view of open training for all is just one of those things that makes me a bit of a different leader. I know that when people are passionate about their work, the organization wins every time, hands down, no matter what. Training is one tool to help people discover and refine their passion. Moreover, the loyalty that training can create is…, well it is another one of those HR ROIs that may not have a specific dollar attached to it, but every manager reading this knows it exists. While no training budget is unlimited, a team member’s passion about a particular skill can be. Developing an open training model that combines funding and passion to achieve organization-wide ROI including finance, HR, and IT measures is a leadership challenge. However, the outcomes are worth your investment. Skilled, passionate, loyal, team members who understand multiple parts of your organization’s operations, what would you pay for that? I suspect the answer is more than the price of any training course.
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