Closing the skills gap by learning to learn again

In a survey, 100 UK CIOs gave their thoughts on the state of their IT teams and specifically IT skills gaps. Suffice it to say, most of them were worried.

  • 78% were concerned about the necessity of upskilling for IT;
  • 76% said they were worried about staying competitive through IT staff recruitment;
  • 69% pointed to IT upskilling as critically or highly important to their teams.

But are these results particularly surprising? Not really.

The proliferation of new technologies and new ways of working with those technologies is just getting faster, not slower. Platforms, programming languages and toolsets that we learn today could be outdated quite quickly. So, the fact that there’s this much concern about whether IT teams currently have the skills needed to meet this challenge is expected.

But it’s also good news. If IT team leaders can see that there are skills gaps, that means they at least know there’s a problem there to be solved. More worrying than the 78% who think IT upskilling is necessary is the 22% of CIOs who apparently think it isn’t!

Structured vs. unstructured learning

A major contributor to this skills gap problem is that, as a society, we treat education and learning as something that is done prior to joining the workforce. Once you leave school, you’re in “the real world,” as if learning and working are meant to be completely separate things. But that’s just not realistic. You don’t know everything you’ll ever need to know in life by the time you’re 18 or 22. Just because the formal learning period has ended doesn’t mean the need for learning has ended, too.

School is based on a model of “structured learning.” There’s a structure to the way knowledge is imparted to students, and there are certain expectations and goals aligned with that structure. But this just isn’t enough; the structured nature of this way of learning means it can’t keep pace with the rate of change happening outside of school, especially in IT environments. Consequently, even recent graduates coming into the workforce may not have all the skills they need to adapt to rapidly evolving trends or technologies if they weren’t already being covered in school.

The fact is, the way information comes at IT on a daily basis is completely unstructured. If a new JavaScript library is launched, or if leaders need their employees to know Botnet C++ or Java 8, then IT still needs to learn it regardless of whether they’d picked it up in school. The school method of structured learning is not conducive to how IT works, and we need to better cultivate a culture of unstructured learning on the job, not in the classroom, to change this.

Having the space to fail means having the space to learn

Workers need time and space to learn something new. That means creating a space for failure. That word scares a lot of enterprises, and to be clear I’m not promoting failure. But we do need to create more tolerant environments if we want to promote successful continuous learning.

This is especially true for veteran employees, who may have been at an enterprise for 20 years already. I hear sometimes from older workers who have been outside of formal education for a long time, and are now going through Emergn’s VFQ training courses, that it can be a struggle to get back into the swing of learning something new. And if there’s a job-required certification involved at the end of it, the pressure can really build – they feel like they need to get it right or else, instead of taking the exercise as an opportunity to learn.

I’ve talked to people taking our VFQ courses who seem genuinely afraid of getting it wrong, and I tell them, it’s ok to get it wrong. That can be shocking, because managers and leaders tend to condition workers into thinking failure – like failing to pass the exam on the first go – will lead to trouble.

But it’s actually the opposite: not getting it right the first time is a good thing. Learning isn’t just about one right answer or getting it right on the first try. Trial and error, and experimenting with a possibility of failure, is how we’re able to not just learn new things but actually have them stick. Getting things wrong strengthens your ability to get it right over time. Failure creates a foundation in the brain for better recall and better application of new information. When an environment is created that allows people to consolidate ‘failures’ and learning in a positive way, learning will stick over a much longer term. In addition, it creates a safe space for building confidence and trying out new things more quickly. The speed of learning is a competitive advantage in today’s fast-moving world.

Life’s most important skill is learning how to learn

You can’t ignite a passion for lifelong learning by forcing people to learn; you have to create the conditions for it and allow them to discover that passion themselves. The most important skill any worker can have is the capacity for learning. By creating environments where it’s okay for workers to try, experiment and even occasionally fail, leaders can impart a drive for learning among their teams. Getting employees excited to learn is the most critical step forward for closing skills gaps.