Teach IT: Why Staff Learning Beats Training

Most IT organizations offer their teams some form of training, yet few IT leaders bother to help members acquire useful knowledge.

Ron Delfine, executive director of career services at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, notes that there’s a big difference between training and learning. “IT training is showing individuals how to perform and accomplish a specific task or tasks, while learning can be thought of as a process to apply knowledge across multiple contexts.”

IT learning focuses on obtaining and developing IT knowledge and skills, while IT training is concerned with imparting and transferring a specific IT understanding and abilities, observes Susan Gershman, chief customer innovation officer at Prophix.

Learning is by nature a self-motivated activity that requires the learner to identify their skills gap and seek knowledge to fill that gap, adds Greg Shields, senior director of IT ops skills at online IT training firm Pluralsight. “Training, on the other hand, is more directed in nature.”

Embracing Learning

Mike Saccotelli, director of solution delivery for SPR, believes the best way to encourage learning is to give team members the opportunity to work toward a goal and potentially fail. “Then help them identify what went wrong and how to do better next time,” he says.

Prophix offers hands-on learning and coaching tools to new customers, helping them to learn how to use the firm’s financial performance management platform. “This enables them to get familiar and comfortable with the technology while building real life models specific to their business processes, versus a more traditional training session,” Gershman says.

Managers and Mentoring

Delfine recommends mentoring as a relatively easy way to elevate training into learning. “Mentoring provides guidance, support, and industry insights to learners,” he says. Mentors are typically experienced IT professionals who share knowledge and advice on a one-to-one basis. “Mentoring facilitates the transfer of practical skills, helps learners set goals, and provides … networking and professional development opportunities,” Delfine says.

Saccotelli agrees. “Managers and mentors are best suited to help folks learn,” he says. “They’re the ones who must provide an environment where folks can fail and ask questions … so they can understand what they did well and what they need to do better.”

Mentors are also essential to helping learners overcome stumbling blocks. Traditional training methods, particularly when complicated concepts are involved, can often leave team members discouraged and feeling helpless. “Providing wisdom to someone else is what helps lower that learning curve and, hopefully, accelerates the learner’s success,” Saccotelli says.

Mentoring allows learners to move forward at their own pace. “Having a coach to assist and support the user during hands-on learning promotes a more positive environment,” Gershman says. Mentoring also eliminates the possibility of someone “falling behind the class.” “Should users run into any challenges or complications, the coach is there to help them work through it and resolve the issues, empowering them to handle it on their own in the future,” she notes.

Learning Centers

IT learning should always be positioned as a top-down initiative, Gershman says. “Executive buy-in and engagement is critical,” she states. “That needs to be effectively communicated to, and implemented with, all parties involved.”

IT managers and specific organizational educators should be called upon to oversee IT learning and/or develop education centers within the organization, Delfine says. “These individuals might be responsible for bringing in industry professionals and curriculum specialists to design and deliver effective learning programs with an eye toward industry trends that are relevant to the needs of the IT job market.”

It’s also important to provide access to a comprehensive learning platform that reduces the friction between instructional tools and an individual’s desire to learn. “Not all individuals learn in the same way,” Shields says. “Platforms that offer multiple learning modalities — video, written, hands-on, and so on — further reduce friction by meeting the learner where they’re at.”

Taking Control

Providing access to relevant resources, such as industry text materials and possible guest speakers to discuss emerging trends, can help an organization build a culture of learning, Delfine says. “Supporting a collaboration environment, encouraging peer learning, and offering mentorship opportunities can enhance the learning experience and motivate individuals to seek our educational opportunities.”

Each IT team member should ultimately be in charge of their own learning, Shields advises. “Success comes at the intersection of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and team members who receive institutional support for learning, while also having a strong desire to upskill themselves, are the ones who will derive the most benefits.”

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