Making Skill Shares Part of an Organizational Learning Plan

As an open source software developer and open data advocate at an organization committed to open government practices, I’m pretty familiar with the importance of sharing. The open source software world in which I work is built upon sharing, after all—we continually borrow, adapt, modify, and improve programs written by others with the understanding that we’re sharing a commons of code and technology. The region I live in offers programs for car-sharing, ride-sharing, and even sharing the excess fruit from neighborhood lemon trees. So when a local city that I consult with needed low-cost training opportunities for municipal technology staff, we decided to explore building a skill sharing program in-house.

1. Determine, clarify, and prioritize your needs

The city’s CTO was seeking technical training for IT staff members on a variety of topics, including some rather cutting-edge software development tools. While city tech leaders recognize the importance of ongoing training, they don’t have the budget to send staff to formal training classes for every topic they need to know about, let alone the things they find interesting for personal or professional development.

So our first activity was to conduct a survey of the entire IT department, asking everyone to list the topics they needed to learn—such as how to most effectively use existing software already on city computers. We also asked them to list topics that they felt would be beneficial in some way—we suggested examples of new programming platforms or technologies that would help their department, but also included an open-ended question intended to solicit topics that staff had a personal desire to learn.

This survey provided several benefits:

  • We were able to get an idea of how many people needed training on each topic so we could identify topic clusters;
  • We were able to get a sense of how IT staff prioritized the learning of different skills which informed management’s prioritization of training opportunities;
  • We were able to communicate that we cared about staff training needs beyond the immediate skills they needed for their current positions and that their future goals and personal enrichment were important to management.

2. Determine what you already have to offer and offer it

While we surveyed the IT department asking what they’d like to learn, we also asked them what they could teach to their colleagues. Although this wasn’t a formal skills inventory, we were able to learn that some staff had already gained experience in topics that other staff wanted to learn.

Success! When staff member A can teach something to staff member B right in the workplace, we’re not spending money on training classes or distance learning technologies or even registration fees at the local community college.

There are a lot of ways to actually provide opportunities for this teaching to take place: job shadowing, co-working on a relevant project, informal lunchtime training sessions, or occasional semi-formal classes led by colleagues. One of the most important steps, however, is to communicate your skills inventory to the team so everyone knows what their colleagues’ strengths are. Even a spreadsheet or simple list can help here—“OK, when I have a question about PHP components I ask Phillip, but when I have a question about Ruby on Rails, I should ask Rachel first.”

Image by opensourceway via Flickr. 

3. Find others sharing knowledge—locally and online—and forge connections

In the technology training space, there are many commercial providers. Cities or companies can easily spend thousands of dollars per day for on-site or distance learning classes. But there are frequently helpful local resources right under your nose!

We reached out to other local government entities, local technology/software user groups, and local technology companies to find out what skills were available in our community. We found that one of the local library technologists happened to be an expert Python programmer who had built several web applications in the past. Though she remains in a different organization, she’s now a resource for city staff who have questions about Python.

Thankfully for smaller organizations and those in remote locations, you don’t have to rely on finding a local skill provider. Free self-directed and group-based training resources are sprouting up all over the Internet, covering every topic imaginable. In the tech world, this means exposing our city staff to online learning resources like Codecademy, CodeYear, Safari Bookshelf, and Khan Academy. At Code for America, we’re contributing all of our internal skill shares to a public site for anyone to use.

One thing to keep in mind: self-directed, self-paced learning resources are fantastic, but their success requires two components:

  • the learner must be motivated to learn, whether it’s for personal growth, success at work, or another reason
  • the learner must be supported in her or her learning efforts: managers should advise staff of these resources and also give them the time they need to pursue them

It can definitely be hard to keep up with new skills and technologies, especially for workers in organizations that have decreasing amounts of time and money to devote to training and learning. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of free and convenient resources that we can take advantage of to learn—and to contribute and share our skills with others.

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This post appears courtesy of content partner Code for America.

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