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Why Are My Skills Out-of-Date?

Lou Russell

Are Yours Skills Stagnating?

If you suspect your skills are stagnating, you might ask yourself these two related - but different - questions:

1. Why are my skills becoming obsolete, and
2. Why are they not growing?

Skills currency has two distinct aspects: the desire (or lack of desire) to learn, and the opportunity to learn. The odds of our improving our skills are higher when both aspects are in place, but we can still maintain skills currency if either is missing. While attending a "systems thinking" workshop, participants analyzed the issues of skills gaps and skills currency. This is an analysis to illustrate the complexity of maintaining skills currency in today's IT environment.

Mental Models

As IT practitioners, we resign ourselves to the belief (or "mental model") that as soon as we learn a new technology it will be replaced by a newer technology. By understanding this mental model we come to appreciate the dynamics at work in the skills currency process. This article discusses the ramifications of mental models using causal loop diagrams. These were popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Here are several mental models, or beliefs, about reskilling. Which of these do you hear in your IT organization - and with what results?

  • "They won't let me develop new skills; it's not my fault!"
  • "Tool skills are the essential skills."
  • "I must learn in a classroom."
  • "I am not rewarded for acquiring new skills."
  • "There is no time to learn."
  • "Skills acquisition is an activity independent of real work."
  • "The grass is greener someplace else."

Now, let us examine each of these mental models and their impact upon reskilling.

"They Won't Let Me Develop New Skills; It's Not My Fault!"
Figure 1 shows a model that focuses on JIT, or just-in-time, training. The beliefs or mental models behind this process are

  • When the company discovers a skills gap, it throws training at it to make the problem go away.
  • They (some other people) are the ones who control the acquisition of skills.
  • We have no choice other than to complain.

Figure 1. Just-in-time learning.

This is the way the model works. "Same" means that the variable influences the other variable in the same direction. If the first variable increases, the variable it influences increases as well. If the first variable decreases, the variable it influences also decreases. "Opposite" means that the variable influences the other variable in the opposite direction. If the first variable increases, the variable it influences decreases. If the first variable decreases, the variable it influences increases.

In the model, as a skills gap increases, training kicks in and increases as well. Money is thrown at the problem, the reskilling budget increases, and eventually everyone marches into a training fix. Training lessens the skills gap, which decreases the emphasis on training, which decreases the budget, which decreases the training even further. It is easy to identify this behavior at work in organizations because their training schedules look like a yo-yo: up and down, up and down.

How do you change this bouncing agenda? One way is to break the reactive nature of the training intervention. By planning for skills development in advance, training can be evened out. This strategy requires a commitment to ongoing performance improvement, and this commitment will in turn result in a more stable environment.

While it may be true that individuals cannot manage the organizational skills' development process on their own, what they can do is examine the condition of their own skill sets, create a plan for what they would like to learn, and get on with the business of learning it, regardless of what they are doing. This will probably require a commitment to learning during free time or getting involved in projects that others might find too risky or time-consuming. It might mean reading several books per year, browsing the Internet, or asking key people what they are thinking and learning about. As I indicated in my opening story, learning does not have to be tied to the organization's view of the world.

"Tool Skills Are the Essential Skills"
IT people are challenged by skills gaps every day. It is almost always true that when a new technology is delivered, people do not understand it. This condition may create the belief (or mental model) that IT professionals must learn every new technology that comes along. This is simply not the case.

A decade ago, the steady output of software releases led to a production line approach to skills acquisition. Called 'sheep dipping,' all employees got the same training whether they needed it or not. This was a massive waste of resources in most instances. However, not everyone needs to learn everything about each new technology. Notice that the model shows that as training increases, the skills gap decreases. Unfortunately, this often does not happen when the wrong people show up for the wrong training.

An organizational commitment to skills currency requires not only that people have opportunities to learn new skills (interpersonal as well as technical), but also that training quality and participation be carefully managed. Determining who needs training and education in what, by when, and why is a far more responsible and cost-conscious approach to performance improvement through reskilling than sheep-dipping.

"I Must Learn in a Classroom"
I recently met with a customer who had done brilliant work on a Web page. This Web site blended development standards and methods with real-life examples and gave both new and seasoned employees a place to go when they were not sure what to do next. The customer kept apologizing that it really was not training, it was just a Web page.

We sometimes restrict too narrowly our definition of learning. To define learning as that which occurs only in classrooms or within multimedia training packages can be counterproductive. We can challenge this belief or mental model by defining "learning."

My definition of learning is "adding capacity." Learning occurs whenever we add personal or organizational capacity in some way - and is not limited to what goes on in a classroom. My customer's Web site is a perfect example of non-classroom-based learning!

An interesting learning dynamic frequently happens in companies as they prepare for outsourcing or rightsizing: their work forces appear to stagnate with little additional organizational capacity added. Amazing learning often occurs at personal levels, however, as individuals strive to become more valuable in the marketplace. Economic survival can become a powerful motivator. By defining learning as adding capacity, we can broaden our view of where learning occurs. First, the obvious sources of learning:

  • Training events, utilizing all types of media;
  • Publications of all kinds, tapes, videos;
  • Conferences;
  • Professional association meetings and activities;
  • Web pages;
  • Intranets;
and the less obvious:
  • Company meetings;
  • Recognition and reward structures, both formal and informal;
  • Conversations with others (especially not in work settings).

The first key to rapid and continuous reskilling is to create personal and organizational strategies for maximizing the use of these several different sources of learning. The second key is to ensure that the sources actually produce learning. Do not discount the less obvious learning venues; even that little bistro down the street may be the focus of tremendous learning and sharing of information!

"I Am Not Rewarded for Acquiring New Skills"
Corporate recognition and reward structures have significant impact on learning; they either reinforce it or discourage it. They are never neutral. Rewards fall into formal and informal categories. Formal recognition and rewards tend toward the tangible, and include promotions, highly valued assignments, raises, and bonuses. Informal rewards are more intangible (but still highly motivational) and center around the recognition that comes in the form of increased respect from peers, leaders, customers, and others.

Here is an example of how rewards can undermine reskilling. Company X decided that everyone must take Microsoft Office training by the end of the year. Employees who did not take the training were punished by seeing their lack of participation duly noted during their annual reviews. Employees who did participate received the reward of not being punished. However, employees attending the training were also expected to return to their desks at the end of each day and maintain their normal workloads. As a result, the reward of participating in the training was perceived by employees to be

  • We have no choice and no say in the training decree. This was perceived as evidence of a lack of respect and trust.
  • We have no released time to really learn since our daily responsibilities are waiting for us when we get out of class. This says that that the learning really is not that important.

Such negative reinforcement (not that unusual) creates an environment that discourages reskilling. A variation of this strategy goes like this. Company Y mandates six days of training per person per year. Managers are accountable for getting their people to classes. The effectiveness of this strategy is clearly demonstrated by the rush of people in the fourth quarter of the year to take anything on the schedule. Reskilling? New learning? Added capacity? Only in how to beat the system.

Figure 2 shows how rewards can actually promote the status quo - not the goal of learning. As skills based agility goes up, performance increases. As performance increases, rewards increase. Those who receive rewards perceive that they are for specific performance (they have never been told otherwise); they therefore concentrate on performing that same thing over and over again, thus eliminating new and continuous skills acquisition.

Figure 2. Rewards promote the status.

As skills stagnation sets in, performance eventually drops, rewards disappear, and employees get "even" by deciding to do whatever they want because "it doesn't matter anyway." The ironic thing about this model is that those who acquired skills are the people most angry at the company!

"There Is No Time to Learn"
Figure 3 uses the model to analyze the question "Why are my skills out of date?" In this model, as a skills gap increases, a perceived learning need also increases (after some delay). This increase in learning needs then increases the reskilling/learning processes, which increases skills, thus adding value to the company and lessening the skills gap. At the same time, however, the process of learning causes time on the job to decrease, thus lessening the added value individuals deliver, and ultimately increasing the skills gap. Skills get more and more out of date as on-the-job time collides with learning time.

Figure 3. Delays caused by learning.

What can we do about systems that require us to compromise our value to the company in order to learn? One answer is to change how we look at learning. Continuous learning and reskilling must become a core part of every job and not be merely an activity to be engaged in "when things slow down." The decision to make continuous reskilling a high value-adding priority must be made by both individuals and the organization.

Continuous reskilling reveals an interesting paradox: in order to learn new skills, our on-the-job efficiency may suffer. But, if we do not learn new skills, neither our efficiency nor our effectiveness will ever improve. The culprit is time. Learning is a time-intensive process and cannot be mandated.

"Skills Acquisition Is an Activity Independent of Real Work"
Learning is a multistep process involving others. It looks like this:

  • Revelation: We encounter new (and possibly useful) information.
  • Internalization: We integrate the new information with what we already know.
  • Practice: We test our new information by sharing and discussing it with others.
  • Continuing Revelation: We adjust our opinions and perceptions by learning from and with others, and the cycle continues indefinitely.

Real learning does not occur only in classrooms. Revelation may happen there, but the real learning occurs during on-the-job sharing, internalization, and practice. Many people are tempted to think that "the course did not work" when profound change is not immediately evident following a reskilling event. But this is not the way learning works.

Sharing and internalization do not occur overnight, and improvement from learning will be seen over time as communities of practice come together.

Learning occurs with and through others. We learn by trying out our new thoughts on others and modifying them based upon dialogue. One of my favorite examples of a poor reskilling strategy was a company's required Working in Teams class. The class was entirely video-based and the learning took place in small cubicles. Participants seldom saw other people, let alone interacted with them. Did learning happen? No; only the training happened. Little learning - and even less personal and organizational change - occurred.

When I was a programmer we did not have PCs on our desks. Instead, we had terminals grouped together in small rooms and we went to these rooms to program. An amazing amount of skills acquisition happened in these places. As we waited for the computer to do what we had asked it to do, we would watch what our neighbors were doing. Sometimes we would see them do something we did not know how to do and we would ask, "Hey! That's cool, how'd you do that?" They would tell us and we would learn without even noticing,

We have isolated ourselves with our new technologies. Everyone is off working alone. Some work areas are so quiet it is spooky - you only hear typing. I believe that laughter and dialogue are the way to magnify the exchange of knowledge, including new skills acquisition. Innovative companies are encouraging employees to spend more time in sharing information, learning from others, and maximizing knowledge and skills transfer.

"The Grass Is Greener Someplace Else"
The myth that "other companies are ahead of my company" in using the latest and greatest technologies pervades the IT culture. Perception is a powerful thing, and the perception that "It is better somewhere else" is a challenge to effective reskilling. It suggests to technical people that they can afford to delay skills acquisition until they get to that "better place." Yet, after changing job, many technical people find that their new homes are more similar than dissimilar to their old. Many move quickly again, and find the same thing. Many keep on moving. The only skills that are acquired are those associated with preparing resumes and interviewing.

I hear from IT professionals over and over again that they want training, but when training is scheduled, too few participate. I have concluded that they do not want training as much as they want opportunities to learn and grow, and - as we have indicated - learning and growth do not only happen in courses and workshops.

Senior IT management must model the continuous learning process. Many managers mistakenly believe that if they participate in reskilling, they will be seen by their subordinates as weak and out of date. On the contrary: I have found that IT professionals are more motivated to learn when they see their leaders learning. (See Reskilling: Let It Begin with Me by Bart Bolton.) This modeling creates leaders who live the vision and benefits of continuous learning instead of simply paying lip service to it.

Strategies for Improvement

This article described several mental models that prevent individuals and organizations from reskilling effectively. When taken together, the mental models create environments that prevent effective reskilling, continuous learning, and adding capacity. As Peter Senge says, "The solutions we implemented yesterday are creating the problems we are struggling with today."1 Or, in the words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy and they is us."

What can we do to change and improve? Someone (perhaps you?) must step up and champion reskilling. The process will not work unless it is planned, managed, marketed, and measured.

Here are some tactical tips for improving performance through reskilling:

  • Create focus groups, identify high-priority topics, and discuss how to reskill staff in them. Document the contributions and e-mail them to everyone. Ask for feedback and use it.
  • Send one person to a conference and have him or her buy all the audiotapes. Make these tapes and the conference proceedings available to everyone and reward those who use them.
  • Hire interns and ask them to share what they are learning at school that you are not doing at your company.
  • Encourage your staff to become active in professional associations. Reward and recognize staff for their participation. Then ask them to share what they are learning and provide opportunities for them to do so.
  • Start study groups; select interesting new books and have online or luncheon discussions. Share the leadership of the study groups. Help people learn how to facilitate. It is a career-enhancing skill.
  • Build "centers of excellence" around individuals who have specific skills (behavioral as well as technical). Encourage them to share these skills in both informal and formal sessions and reward them for doing so.
  • Have "glitch parties." To get free food, you need to share either a glitch or a solution to a glitch (or both). Make the party topical, focused upon a current strategic, behavioral, or technical issue of interest.
  • Encourage, expect, recognize, and reward individual learning initiative. Do not accept the excuse, "They won't let me develop new skills; it's not my fault!"

Contrary to the belief (mental model) prevalent in some organizations, reskilling does not have to entail massive amounts of time and money. For more effective performance improvement, challenge the beliefs about training and learning that inhabit your organization and do not be constrained by counterproductive mental models.

1. Senge, P.M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday, 1990.


About the Author
Lou Russell is the President of Russell Martin & Associates, an Indianapolis-based training and consulting organization serving customers throughout the United States and Europe. Lou graduated from the computer science program at Purdue University and received a Master of Instructional Technology degree from Indiana University. She founded Russell Martin & Associates in 1987. The company focuses on strategies for managing major changes including downsizing, retooling, and reengineering.


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