May 20, 2016

Learning Organization – Get your employees hooked on success

Author: Mihai Mlesnita

There is no tech-skill like the piano

The path to becoming a senior specialist is pretty much straightforward in any field – while individual career journeys will of course vary, it generally takes us about 7 years of hard work to go from intern to expert.

So what happens after the proverbial 7 years it takes for someone to become a specialist in their field? Logic would seem to dictate they get even better at it. The more they practice, the better they get, the more valuable they will be for my company. Right?

Yeah, well, kind of. Maybe. It depends.

It stands to reason that the more someone plays the piano, the better they get at it. It’s probably one of the best examples, because you never ‘reach max. level’ with playing an instrument. Theoretically, if you’d live indefinitely and practice daily, you’d get better and better indefinitely. Even though once you reach a double-digit-number of years in the field progress won’t be as strikingly obvious as it was when you were one year into it, you will still be making progress. This is because the piano as an instrument has been more or less the same ever since it was invented, and practicing the same known tactics will make you better at them, more confident and able to improvise. You’ve learned to play one piano today, and you can play any piano ten, twenty or sixty years from now.

But technology isn’t at all like the piano. Technology is ever-changing. And all skills associated with the field are ever-changing as well.

Take this hypothetical scenario: a brilliant FORTRAN expert working in the year 1960 is frozen inside a time capsule, say like the one in the movie Forever Young. Your company finds the time capsule and revives this brilliant developer. What use could you have for him? What would you have him code? He wouldn’t even know who to use your computer. However, had the contents of the time capsule revealed a brilliant piano player of the 1960s instead, his skill would be just as ‘ready to go’ today as it was then. But the developer’s know-how, state-of-the-art in the year 1960, would be obsolete today. Imagine this with a C# developer from the year 2006. Would the situation be that much different from that of the 60s developer? Would he be ready to work in the year 2016, without a lot of training?

In the IT industry, hard work in not enough. Doing the same thing over and over will not guarantee success. Actually, if I had to go for one definitive statement, doing the same thing over and over, never adapting, will guarantee failure – as soon as whatever it is you’re doing on repeat goes out of trend. Someone with a more adaptive, innovative vision is going to come along soon enough and grab the opportunity to take you out of the game.

Learning organization = Performance organization

As an organization, it’s tempting to just through the entire burden of adapting and staying ahead of trends on your employees, but it’s not exactly efficient – and it’s obviously even more inefficient, not to mention unpopular, to deal with the costs of just replacing people as their skills come to be ‘obsolete’. It becomes obvious that both the company and its employees have a lot to benefit from a Learning Culture. With my current team, I see the impact of mentality on motivation, employee engagement – and of course medium-to-long-term recruitment costs are lower with the company in general.

For example, the costs of recruiting a junior to train into an expert are significantly lower overall than those of hiring someone who is already an expert – and the junior will of course benefit from the intensive training as well, which means your investment is likely to help make them more loyal employees.

What’s more, because a learning culture is a two-sided effort involving both the company’s resources (time, money, hardware) and its employees’ commitment, you’ll begin to ‘attract’ candidates who resonate with such a mindset – people who will always want to better themselves and adapt, instead of settling into a comfortable place of outdating familiarity.

When supported by the company, proactivity often leads to innovation. And, historically speaking, companies with such a mindset have managed to evolve ahead of the trends and get good results – like Facebook, for example, who’s been on a constant upward spiral since its inception in 2004.

Help your people get hooked on success

Motivation is kept alive by success. Success is addictive.

Really, in the most literal sense. Whenever you’re successful in accomplishing a task or you acquire new, useful information, your brain’s reward centers fire and dopamine is released, giving you that pleasant feeling of accomplishment we all know. This encourages you to repeat that behavior. Evolutionary speaking, we’re supposed to find acquiring new skills rewarding, because it helped keep our ancestors alive by passing on vital knowledge, like starting a fire, from one individual to another. What this means for your company is that creating a culture for learning will ‘trap’ your employees in a productive circle of wanting more of that feeling of accomplishment: learning more skills you can then put to good use, succeeding with meeting yet another tight deadline, or successfully wrapping up a complex project and receiving praise from your clients. As I’ve often seen happening on InCrys teams, this makes for proactive, lively employees who are involved in helping provide better services to your customers – as opposed to the ‘drone-like’ mindset of minimal resistance.

So how exactly do you cash out from education?

It’s quite obvious that the return on investment, when it comes to education, doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a medium-to-long-term process for each employee you spare the resources to supply education for. Simply put: it’s an ‘you win when you apply’ type of situation. Investing in education leads to better people, which leads to better service quality – a better business overall.

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