Growing for Keeps

Growing for Keeps

Providing continuous learning and growth opportunities is crucial to retaining IT professionals.

Two issues are ever present for today's IT leaders: how to keep their best IT professionals and how to keep them skilled and growing. The first is difficult enough. The combined challenge can put IT leaders at wits' end. However, tackling the second issue can make the first much easier to solve. People are more likely to stay with an organisation when they feel valued, invested in and challenged by their work. "Sure, money is important. But my people are willing to give a little on the money issue if they feel they have growth opportunities and a chance to make a real impact," says one IT manager. Creating an environment for continuous learning and growth in business and personal areas -- more comprehensive and flexible than typical "training and development" programs -- can address both these issues. One organisation taking this approach is the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.

The bank faces three challenges: the changing role of the Federal Reserve system, a need to transform IT professionals from technologists to business problem-solving partners and a competitive marketplace for IT talent. In response to these pressures, the bank has committed to making itself a place where continuous learning and growth enable it to meet these challenges and produce concrete results. "There's a new energy among our IT professionals -- an energy that comes from new learning," says Jean Lovati, the bank's vice president and CIO, describing the results. "We converse more about classes, collaborate more on solving problems and share new techniques and tools. The bank clearly benefits from better solutions and higher productivity, both of which translate into serving our customers better." A company can tackle the construction of a continuous learning and growth environment in many ways. At the bank, it is one part of a major change effort involving IT professionals.

As part of this larger effort, the program has contributed to a significant increase in client projects delivered on time and within budget, customer satisfaction increases of more than 10 per cent, turnover reduction of 4 per cent and significant cost savings in desktop learning technology.

A Vision for Breakthrough Performance

The business value in continuous learning lies not only in retaining IT professionals but also in raising their performance levels. The bank uses three anchor phrases to summarise its vision for continuous learning and growth, which serve as guideposts for designing an environment of exceptional performance: - Learning to build a better future: learning predicated on each person's desire to develop and grow on both professional and personal levels.

- Learning what you need to know anytime, anywhere: creating demand-driven tools for learning that are available when needed (rather than on a predetermined schedule) and wherever a person happens to be.

- Learning beyond the walls of IT: recognising that everyone in the bank does IT work at some level and that the continuous learning environment must not be limited to the IT organisation or to the classroom. Whoever does IT work is invited to learn continuously. Many IT organisations rely on their human resources department to create their learning curricula. Given the complexity and risk in growing and retaining IT professionals, wouldn't the IT department want to own this effort itself? "It became clear early on that taking personal ownership of our learning program was the only way to build trust and a commitment to developing our people," explains Fran Sibley, assistant vice president for IT strategy and deployment. And so the bank's continuous learning program is "by IT folks for IT folks". A new IT team, Learning and Development Services, led by manager Gary Arnold and including three full-time staff members, took on the challenge of creating the learning and growth environment. The team was positioned to succeed because its members were close to the issues, knew the needs and could speak the IT language.

This group called on HR as needed, looked to outside groups as strategic partners in the process and stayed very close to its customers -- those who performed IT work throughout the bank. The team made significant strides by focusing more on the performance success and less on the training success. As more and more skills development shifts from the classroom to the workplace, improved performance will remain the biggest challenge. Therefore, learning must be (and be seen as) part of the work.

Choice over Prescription

"The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice," wrote novelist George Eliot 120 years ago. The IT Learning and Development Services team thought these words described its experience exactly. A typical lock-step curriculum, where individuals take specific training in a set order, was not the answer for the bank. Emphasising choice in how people grow helps individuals take ownership of their learning and control of their futures. Bank IT staffers are encouraged to sign up for "trailblazer" projects in which they can try out new skills and roles in a supported environment. Budding project managers can step up and manage new projects. Mainframe developers can opt to be part of a client/server project. Individuals are further encouraged to craft a personal learning agenda and to take advantage of opportunities that make their growth choices clear. Having a choice where one didn't exist before isn't always comfortable; it's often easier to be other-directed than self-directed. To equip learners for this personal change, the Learning and Development Services team arranged a career power workshop, in which each person learns about the power of making choices, forming new habits for growth and setting a personal or career vision. "The workshop reminded me that I need to think about my career -- not just my job," notes one participant.

Trusting the Natural Order of Things

A continuous learning environment brings cultural change. One truth holds in altering an organisation's culture: You must meet the organisation where it is and work to move it forward step by step.

When people at the bank worked on learning activities, such as reading articles or taking desktop learning in their offices for the first time, many wondered: "Is it OK to do this?" Overcoming this anxiety among staff proved critical in moving the culture to a new place. When managers reinforced and encouraged associates by sanctioning these activities, associates began to value time for learning. Recognising and trusting in a natural progression can tax our patience. But it isn't until people see the value of the first step that they are willing to take the next. As one learner put it, "The learning resources create building blocks for learning. And I'm encouraged by my manager to take time for learning. This motivates me to block time for learning activities." At the bank, respecting the natural order of things means implementing a continuous learning and growth environment in tiers: Tier I: Create the infrastructure for learning IT skills bankwide (that is, a continuous learning network, a Web site, on-demand courses).

Tier II: Create the environment for IT professionals to learn and grow in business knowledge and soft skills (that is, a sense of value about time for learning, collaboration and communication, individual choice).

Tier III: Incorporate the new learning process into the culture, measure the results and reinforce it through support mechanisms such as coaches and trailblazer projects.

Tools for Serious Learners

Serious learners -- what we want our IT professionals to be -- need tools that will make learning easy, fun and productive. The tools at the bank include an intranet site that is the central resource for learning and growth information and events and hot links to learning sites, individual assessment tools, a project manager toolbox, learning assistance checklists for managers, a library of self-study courses and audiotape business books refreshed every 30 days. To tie it all together, the Learning and Development Services team offers internal consulting services on tools and techniques to help learners grow. We all struggle with building our organisation's capacity to learn. Such a struggle is essential to keep the best IT people and to grow their talent for the future.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis approached that challenge in a way that made it successful. Strong leadership and a dedication to creating a collaborative learning organisation that focused on improved performance provided the starting point. Along the way the bank discovered key pieces to the ever-evolving puzzle of learning and growth among IT professionals. But never once in the journey to continuous learning did managers forget who makes up the "edge pieces" that frame the puzzle -- the individual learners.

Continuous Learning and Growth Principles Ten principles that guide the bank's robust learning process and culture - Connect continuous learning to the key business strategies that drive IT.

- Meld personal and professional development.

- Institute time for learning as part of each business plan.

- Foster the loyalty of employees.

- Promote the dignity of and respect for the individual.

- Integrate technology with learning.

- Assess how learning is contributing to individual, functional and organisational performance.

- Assess how learning is being applied individually, functionally and organisationally.

- Increase communication and collaboration through learning events.

- Measure business performance and not "training" success.

Engaging the Learner

HOW DO WE LEARN IN EVERYDAY LIFE? We read a little, try something, ask for help, research other ways to deal with the problem, experiment some more. The bank's environment mirrors this with a wide variety of learning vehicles that address different objectives and styles.

Bankwide Learning Forums are open to all, covering a specific IT topic with a business connection and presented by a recognised expert in the field.

Continuous Learning Network (CLN) enables learning at the desktop, in a learning centre or at home. CLN provides convenient, self-paced learning opportunities through software.

Business Awareness Breakfasts with presentations by internal business leaders increase IT staff's business knowledge, build on personal business/IT interaction and cover business issues and implications for IT.

Career Power Workshops help individuals take charge of their careers. Building on the work of Stephen Covey and Tom Peters, the workshops help IT professionals create a vision for the future, form new habits for personal growth and set goals.

IT Workshops are presented by an internal or external subject matter expert.

These events are exclusively for IT staff and explore a technology concept tool or technique to improve knowledge and skills in IT. Coffee Talks are informal discussions that share internal best practices and experiences on a specific technology or process.

TIPS (Training in InterPersonal Skills) are a series of two-hour learning events on key interpersonal skills (that is, conducting meetings, negotiating, listening) for IT professionals.

Gary Arnold is manager of Learning and Development Services at the Federal Bank of St Louis. Sheila Smith is managing partner at Omega Point Consulting in Massachusetts

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