a mentor helping someone solve a problem
PHOTO: Monica Melton

Over the last couple of years, digital transformation has been a frequent topic in my conversations with CIOs. These CIOs have told me repeatedly a culture that promotes a willingness to learn and relearn is essential for success. So how does lifelong learning enable businesses in the digital era?

CIOs Realize Learning Is Continual

Continual learning is a necessary success factor for all IT organizations. Industry analyst Dion Hinchcliffe put it this way, “I think that CIOs are acutely aware of the learning gap today and the need for continuous education.” Paul Wright, CIO at Accuride, said, “because the new technology curve has moved so exponentially to dismiss new techniques, it puts your company at a disadvantage.” Clearly, with the hyper-acceleration of technology, IT organizations need to be putting more dollars toward learning. Learning gaps increasingly represent a barrier to quality delivery at speed.

“Experience isn’t always historical, it can be very much current. One learns until their very last day, whether they acknowledge it or not,” said Milos Topic, CIO at Saint Peter’s University. Daemen College CIO Melanie Kenyon said, “for those of us in higher education lifelong learning is our mission so yes, learning is continual.” However, former Michigan State University CIO Joanna Young suggests, “CIO and team experience are just one part of informing decisions, words and actions. They should spend time with people who think differently than them, because you might be wrong. Be curious, gather alternate options.”

Related Article: How Can We Better Integrate Learning Into the Digital Workplace?

Biggest Barriers to Creating an Organization Committed to Lifelong Learning

Although IT organizations may recognize the importance of lifelong learning, gaining support for such efforts isn't always straightforward. Wright said, “it's difficult when there is a lack of strategy around learning or there isn't always clear alignment regarding how training fits with business needs.” Hinchliffe added that, “organizations aren’t always as cognizant of what their options are to ensure their team has the resources they need to achieve sustained learning.” Attitude, perception and motivation matter. Team members also need to do more than the minimum for learning, growth and advancement to succeed.

The five common barriers to lifelong learning are:

  1. Time and money.
  2. Organizational ethos.
  3. People do not feel they need to improve their skill sets.
  4. Immature or too mature leadership stuck in a pre-digital era where training was less critical.
  5. A lack of understanding that a well-informed workforce is leaner, meaner and more intentional in delivering value.

Related Article: How to Get From the Workforce You Want to the One You Need

Leadership Skills Required

Young said, "leadership skills vary widely and wildly among CIOs.” She believes, however, that true leadership involves “caring more about others' success than one's own.” Today it is clear that, leadership needs to extend beyond the IT organization. 

A lot of the CIO job, said Wright, “involves creating advocates in other parts of the business and developing talent so they can move onwards and upwards in their careers.” Leadership clearly is a byproduct of personal experiences. However, former CIO Tim McBreen, said there is value in “interaction leadership training where people have to role-play and be evaluated by professionals including audio/videotaping, peer and subordinate surrogates, etc. This creates the ability to interact with other leaders and get real experience.”

Related Article: Overcoming Dysfunctional Leadership in the Digital Workplace

Most Important Steps CIOs Can Take

The CIOs I spoke with suggested the following steps for any CIO looking to create a culture of continuous learning:

  • Create a development plan for continuous learning.
  • Make a point of capturing ideas for professional development.
  • Provide visibility for people who are exploring their leadership interests.
  • Provide time for learning.
  • Regularly do retrospectives with a no-blame mindset.
  • Enable rotations that include the actual customer experience.
  • Provide time to listen to support phone calls.
  • Reward positive outcomes.
  • Communicate goals early and often.
  • Be consistent, proactive and a learning example for the team.
  • Lead by example and walk the talk.
  • Tell success stories.
  • Build career plans and mentoring programs.
  • Challenge the status quo and educate teams on how market demands change and evolve.
  • Sell the value of a culture shift supporting continuous learning.

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Metrics for Measuring Improvement in Organizational Learning

Pellissippi State Community College CIO Audrey J. Williams said she “is trying to discern effective measures for the core value of curiosity.” Hinchcliffe agreed, saying “there are plenty of KPIs for learning floating around, but few standard ones.” Here is a list of some worthwhile KPIs:

  • Retention and turnover rates.
  • Velocity and quality for innovation.
  • Revenue, customer retention, customer satisfaction.
  • Employee satisfaction.
  • Team performance.
  • Innovation index.
  • Percentage growth in usage of systems.
  • Run-Transform-Grow percentages.

Regardless of the metrics you chose, it is important to establish a baseline. I remember when I ran an executive scorecard product for CIOs they repeatedly told me you must learn how a metric squiggles to understand what it means and what the real goals should be. Clearly, KPIs that matter are about results and business outcomes.

Parting Remarks

Leading-edge CIOs clearly understand the importance of lifelong learning for themselves and their team. Creating continuous learning involves overcoming barriers and showing leadership. Kenyon summed it up nicely when she shared a saying she has on her wall: “Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it."