A learning culture

Last week, I went to Silicon Valley to attend a conference and also visited friends. A friend who owns a software company told me: “There is a critical shortage of skilled people here. Many companies are experiencing issue where workers change job frequently to get better salary. Even new graduates are learning this bad habit too. You hire them from school, train them, then they leave for another company. Training is a waste of money.”

I asked: “So how do you keep your workers’ skills up to date? Technology changes fast and without training, their skills can be obsolete?

He said: “I only hire skilled people; it is a better way to operate a business. I am looking for graduates that has good planning skills, good programming skills, understands business operation, have some soft-skills and experiences in working with customers. I look careful at all classes they took at university and their grades as indicators about what they can do for my company. Of course, it is difficult to find a “Perfect” person. Most of them are skilled in only few subjects, but not in all subjects that I need. I have to put new graduates in small projects, where they learn and improve their skills until they are good enough to work in larger projects. However there is a risk as some would leave after gaining the experience. Today most college graduates can only do few things as their training programs are not up to date.”

I asked: “So how do you expect them to work since they do not have the skills that you want?

He answered: “I give them some technical documents to read.”

I laughed: “So you want them to self-study because you do not want to spend money on training. This type of training only works if the document is short and well written, No one would read a big document and understand well. Self-study is only effective if the person is motivated but it has many risks. How comfortable would you be when your developer completed a “self-study book” on a new technology that you will use in a new project? How do you know the person has the skills to perform?

He argued: “New software developers are monitored and put under a manager for mentoring.”

I said: “Mentoring is easy to say but most are often not well defined. It is about telling a person to ask an experienced person when they have questions. In software working environment, people are busy so it is ineffective when the assigned manager does not want to be a mentor as he is unavailable most of the time. Many new graduates do not know what to ask since they do not know what is expected of them.

He corrected his argument: “We also have self-tutorial training too. There are software tutorials that we bought for training.”

I told him: “Self tutorial or computer-based training is only good for general information. People download the software; watch the lectures then take a test to verify their understanding. It is good for something simple, small, and easy subjects, such as learning how to use a software tool. There is no guarantee that they can develop skills just by watching a video.

He hesitated for awhile then asked: “It seems that you advocate for more classroom trainings?”

I explained: “Classroom training is the traditional way to provide knowledge and skills. With good instructors, practical use of tools and examples, the results can be effective. The advantage of classroom training is the “group learning dynamic” where people interacts with others. If they do not understand, they can ask questions and gets immediate answers from the instructors. This training is better than self-study as people can read a book many times and still confuse. New employees can learn from tutorial software at their desks, they may sit there all day but if they do not pay attention, they just waste time. New employees can have mentor but if they do not ask questions; or never find the person who knows the answer; they learn nothing. With classroom training, you can watch students to see who really learn the materials well and who do not. You can see who are paying attention and who do not. You can test their skills by having exercises or have them practice in a “pseudo project”.

He seemed convinced: “So you recommend that I hire some consultants to train my employees?”

I explained: “The best way is having your own instructors. Your managers should be instructors since they know your business and the technical aspects of your company. To get new employees to learn fast, nothing is better than using your own managers to provide the training. There are people in your company who have strong technical skills and they can be helpful for internal training. Managers should train their own group since they are responsible for the group’s performance. You should make training as part of their job. Since they have specific knowledge on how the company operates, their trainings can focus on the needed skills. You should not be too concerned with the issue of people changing job. By having internal training by your own people, you can improve your company’s performance and it benefits you. The internal training helps employees to develop a sense of community and loyalty as they see that they have better career here. As long as people recognize that by develop better skills, they can advance their careers by moving up in the company rather than looking for another job with few dollars more. You should go further by encourage employees who are willing to share their expertise with others to be candidates for future promotion. If they know where they are today because someone trained them and where they will be tomorrow because they train somebody then you would have more skilled people. Your training program will manifested itself into a learning culture where people would always keep their skills current by continuously learning new things. Your company will become a “Learning organization”.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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