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How to learn new technology in a corporate environment

Here’s how it usually goes when it comes to technical training in a corporate environment. A company decides to implement a new technology. The powers-that-be look around to determine if the IT staff has the knowledge and skills necessary to adopt the technology in question. If the determination is found wanting what usually happens is that management will decide to hire a training company to deliver an intensive training session on the technology in question. The length of the session typically run three days to a week, but never longer.

The company sends the employees to the training. The employees get trained. The technology gets implemented.

Right?

Wrong.

And, it’s wrong in so many ways. Allow me to elaborate on how to learn new technology in the corporate world.

Training vs. education

The first and foremost wrongness about the situation described above is that the thing that’s being called technical training isn’t really about training at all. Training is the process of instilling behavior in a subject in response to an event or expectation. Taking the Pavlovian approach, you can train a dog to salivate upon hearing a bell ring. Those of us with kids have gone through the whole process of potty training: getting the child to notify you when the urge strikes.

More advanced training, such as a teenager learning to drive or a pilot landing on an aircraft carrier require more skills and attention, but the end goal remains the same.

While training might be all well and good when it comes to driving or landing a plane, the goal, and the process to achieve it, are both well known. But, when it comes to how to learn new technology, the notion of training doesn’t fully apply.

You can’t train a deployment engineer to create and maintain an efficient Kubernetes cluster any more than you can train a chef to create a dish worthy of a 3-star Michelin rating. The process that gets this to happen is something different altogether. It’s called education.

Most tech requires education

Education takes place on a much broader cognitive landscape than training. Most training is confined to the lower end of the cognitive hierarchy. Education goes deeper, and targets advanced thinking and abstraction. Education wants you to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to create new ideas and adapt to unusual circumstances.

You cannot train your way to innovation. Training, by nature, is not that concerned with creativity or cleverness. On the other hand, education is. Thus, when you take a look around to see what really matters in IT — creativity, innovation and efficiency, education becomes paramount.

Activities and tasks where IT staff can be trained are just candidates for the next round of automation. If you want your staff to be viable in modern IT, especially when you consider how quickly tech moves forward, then a proper education really counts.

Think about. The term is life-long learning, not life-long training.

Retention is key

Let’s say we accept that fact that for a company to effectively adopt a new piece of technology, its employees must be educated about it, not trained. Then, one might ask, what’s so bad about employees attending week-long intensive sessions? The problem is that it’s very difficult for learners to absorb and retain new information presented in these crash courses over a short period of time. Learning the information is one thing, retaining it is another.

You can be subjected to an intensive class that covers all aspects of a new technology and might even quickly get the hang of the tech. But to retain what you’ve learned, you need to use it every day or it will all slip away. For the process to be effective, it must be continuous.

Sadly, many companies don’t plan properly. Employees will be sent out for training over the course of a week, with no scheduled follow-ups to monitor progress. Some employees might be assigned to immediately use the new technology. Others have to wait months to get a shot at it. By that time, all they would’ve learned will be lost.

Is there a better way for companies to get the most bang for the “training” bucks? Yes, there is.

Save money, but keep your employees educated

The week long, intensive training session has been a conventional standard in the corporate education playbook for years. But does it work? Without some hard data in front of me, it’s hard to say. Nonetheless, maybe it’s time for companies to reconsider its effectiveness.

Now, please know that I say this with some hesitation because I make a portion of my living from these intensive classes. Although, I will say in my defense that I’ve cut back on this work since I came to the realization that there’s a better way.

So, what is this better way on how to learn new technology?

You first need to realize that most IT employees worth their salt are pretty good at learning new technologies on their own. They know how they learn, what books to read, which YouTube videos to watch and have a structured mindset

You’ll also need to realize that all good things take time. This is important, so let me say it again: all good things take time.

There are a limited number of people that can quickly acquire a long-term understanding of a new technology through various means. Most of us require a good deal of ongoing daily exposure and practice with the tech to get good at it.

As a result, I find that the better way to conduct technical education in a corporate environment is to provide employees with the time they need to get competent with the tech at hand.

If it’s an accomplished self-learner, give him or her the time to dabble. If it’s an employee that needs a structured learning experience, do a one-day intensive basics class followed up by once a week sessions that take place over an extended timespan, say three months. These sessions can be led by a third-party expert or by someone in-house. The most important thing is that employees get to work with the tech in a consistent, continuous manner over a long period of time so that they properly retain the information.

The choice is yours. You can continue to send employees to one-week intensive classes with the expectation they will learn everything they need to know for their positions.

Or, you can go with a cost-effective approach that gives employees to the time get a firm grasp on the tech at hand.

Me? I’ll go with the wise spend every time.

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