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Thirst for knowledge

PA Consulting Group
Evaluation Centre
20 November 2008


With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the turn of the 21st century has marked fundamental changes in the nature of day-to-day work and the ways in which people go about doing this work. This has affected the IT function more than most – presenting HR with new learning & development issues to address.

The biggest factor shaping the nature of work and the learning needs of IT staff is the fact that Western nations have moved towards service-based economies, with an increasing number of knowledge workers who work in less structured but more networked environments. This has resulted in the need for:

  • Continuous knowledge development – knowledge workers tend to learn in ‘bite size’ chunks while on the job.
  • Extended professional networks – in IT, there is a strong professionalism agenda underpinned by the industry’s ‘Professionalism in IT’ skills programme.
  • New levels of flexibility and recognition – members of the so-called Generation Y typically look for a better work-life balance and opportunities to take time out for career breaks, yet still expect challenging work.

 Alongside this, collaborative technologies and social networking tools are enabling learning to be delivered in new ways.

So how should HR respond?

Traditionally, learning & development has been a transactional support function that supplies a range of courses. However, organisations are now asking for learning support that fits the requirements of knowledge workers – embedded in their day-to-day activity and more clearly focused on organisational needs.

Critically, a strategic capability focus involves learning that is driven by the future needs of the organisation and applying learning methods that are increasingly job/experience-based and technologically enabled.

So how can you help your IT organisation develop its future workforce? Experience suggests there are four key steps for success. These steps are best illustrated by a case study of the change carried out by a major energy company with a 3,500-strong IT workforce:

Step 1 – Map strategy to capability

The 3,500 IT staff served a customer base of 90,000 people, but customer service was perceived to be poor and there were concerns about whether the IT employees had the skills to deliver for the business.

To address this, the company set out strategic plans mapped to the current people capability (roles and skills) within the IT function. Using this framework, the firm was able to assess its level of capability against the key areas for business strategy delivery.

Step 2 – Establish business ownership

Traditionally, the business owned the budgets and strategy but the capability required to deliver them was considered an afterthought. The energy company therefore established a ‘capability owner group’, including senior operational staff, whose remit was to set targets for development in each of the capability areas and work with the learning & development staff to build integrated support for IT professional development.

Step 3 – Manage capability development as an end-to-end process

In any organisation, there are three processes that need to be integrated to effective develop people’s capabilities:
1. The business planning of capability (people and skills).
2. Learning and development management.
3. Individual assessment and development.

It is rare for organisations to manage these as an end-to-end process. But the energy company achieved significant benefits by integrating the three processes – enabling leadership to see that they had successfully built the capability to deliver the business plan.

Step 4 – Pick the right learning approaches

There are four (non-exclusive) approaches to learning that an organisation can take.
1. ‘Living learning’ (personal career journey)
2. ‘Learning on demand’ (personalised content delivered on demand)
3. ‘Embedded learning’ (supporting a learning organisation)
4. ‘Corporate learning’ (learning offers aligned to business goals)

The approach varies depending on the degree to which learning is embedded in day-to-day work activity, versus being delivered by a central learning function through events and activities; and the degree to which learning is dictated centrally by organisational priorities or is self-directed by learners.

Embedded learning

In summary, a shift towards building strategic capability typically involves a greater focus on learning that is more embedded in organisational activity, such as giving employees performance improvement tools (eg, Six Sigma tools), and enabling them to use them on the job.

Achieving significant changes in the work that organisations do and the employees who do it, requires HR to become a partner with the organisation in developing the future skills and knowledge of its workforce.

It is no longer enough to provide a suite of development programmes; today’s learning programmes need to be targeted to meet the specific needs of the organisation and the preferred learning approaches of today’s knowledge workers. 


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