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Individual self-development, believes Columbia University Professor Art Langer, enables IT staffs to successfully deal with today's dynamic and unpredictable technology projects. Here's how.
Langer Report: The Cultural Assimilation Of IT
Langer Report: Operating IT As 'Driver,' 'Supporter'
By Dr. Arthur Langer
IT change management poses some unique challenges to implementing organizational learning, mostly because managers cannot conceivably be available for all possible risks. Furthermore, the very nature of new technologies requires that IT staff members develop the ability to self-manage more of their daily functions and interactions, particularly with other staff members outside of the IT department. The need for self-development is even more critical because of the existence of Technological Dynamism, which focuses on dynamic and unpredictable transactions that often must be handled directly by IT staff members and not their managers. Finally, because so many risks during technology projects require business user interfaces, IT staff members also need to develop better and more efficient self-management than they are accustomed to. My previous articles on the concept of Technological Dynamism establish another need for change management theory. This need relates to the implementation of self-development methods. Indeed, part of the reason for the lack of success of IT projects can be attributed to the inability of the core IT and business staffs to perform in a more dynamic way. Historically, more management cannot provide the necessary learning and reduction of risk.
The idea of self-development became popular in the early 1980s as an approach to the training and education of managers and managers-to-be. Thus, the focus of management self-development is to increase the ability and willingness of managers to take responsibility for themselves, particularly for their own learning (Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell 1988). I believe that management self-development theory can be applied to IT staff members who need to practice self-management skills that can assist them in transitioning to operating under the conditions of today's dynamic technology projects.
Management self-development draws on the idea that many people emphasize the need for learner-centerdness. This is an important concept in that it ties self-development theory to organizational learning, particularly to the work of Chris Argyrus and Malcolm Knowles. The concept of learner-centerdness holds that individuals must take prime responsibility for their own learning: when and how to learn. The teacher (or manager) is assigned the task of facilitator-a role that fosters guidance as opposed to direct initiation of learning. In many ways, a facilitator can be seen as a mentor whose role it is to guide an individual through various levels of learning and individual development.
What makes self-development techniques so attractive is that learners work on actual tasks and then reflect on their own efforts. The methods of reflective practice theory, therefore, are very applicable and can be integrated with self-development practices. Although self-development places the focus on the individual's own efforts, managers still have responsibilities to mentor, coach, and counsel their staffs. This support network allows staff to receive appropriate feedback and guidance. In many ways self-development relates to the professional process of apprenticeship, but differs from it in that the worker may not aspire to become the manager, but perhaps just to develop better management skills. Workers are expected to make mistakes and be guided through a process that helps them reflect and improve-this is why self-development can be seen as a management issue as opposed to just a learning theory.
A mentor or coach can be a supervisor, line-manager, director, or an outside consultant. The bottom line is that IT projects require staff members who can provide self-management to cope with constant project changes and risks. These individuals must be able to learn, be self-aware of what they do not know, and to possess enough confidence that they can initiate the required learning and assistance that they need to be successful (Pedler et al 1988). Self-development methods, like other techniques, have risks as well. Most notable among them is the initial decrement in performance followed by a slow increment, as workers become more comfortable with the process and learn from their mistakes. However, IT staff members must be given support and time to allow this process to occur; self-development is a trial-and-error method founded on the basis of mastery learning (learn from one's mistakes). Thus, the notion of self-development is both continuous and discontinuous and must be implemented in a series of phases, each having unique outcomes and maturity. Self-development, in effect, becomes a method of indirect management to assist in personal transformation. This personal transformation will inevitably better prepare individuals to participate in group and organizational level learning at later stages of maturation.
The first phase of establishing a self-development program is to create a "learning to learn" process. Teaching individuals to learn is a fundamental need before implementing self-development techniques. Mumford (1988) defined learning-to-learn as:
1. Helping staff to understand the stages of the learning process and the pitfalls to not learning.
2. Helping staff to find their own preferences to learning.
3. Assisting staff in understanding their present learning preferences and how to deal and overcome learning weaknesses.
4. Helping staff to build on their learning experience and apply it to their current challenges in their job.
All IT staff members should be provided with tools such as the Kolb Learning preference instrument which makes individuals aware of their natural learning strengths and weaknesses. Kolb's instrument can be used with exercises to help IT staff overcome their limitations. Most important is that the Kolb system will make staff aware of their shortfalls with learning.
Next: The Second Phase: Establishing A Formal Learning Program