Fastrak Training Inc. -- Training Software Professionals Worldwide


Transforming the Workplace into a Learning Organization

By Eileen Steets Quann, Fastrak Training Inc.


(Editor's Note: This article is based on a speech presented by Ms. Quann at the Software Engineering Process Group Conference held in Boston, Mass. May 23, 1995.)

Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy said, "Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read, he will be the man who has not learned how to learn." While I doubt anyone here today would consider himself illiterate, I wonder how many of you would consider yourselves to be lifelong learners? How well do you think the following statements describe you?

  • I enjoy learning new things.
  • I am a good listener.
  • I am not afraid to ask questions in a group when I don't understand something.
  • I feel comfortable saying "I don't know" or "I was wrong."
  • I read articles and books about my profession on my time.
  • I have acquired several new work skills in the last year.
  • I look forward to new assignments that require a learning curve.
  • It's easy for me to give credit to others when it's due.
  • I try to offer only constructive criticism and don't criticize managers, coworkers or subordinates to others.
  • I like to share what I have learned and to help others to learn.
  • I like to look for better ways to do things and to solve problems creatively.
  • I consider myself a fast learner.

The Learning Organization

Let's face it - none of us is perfect. A learning environment is demanding. A learning organization fosters the environment, but it also places demands upon us. We must be confident of our ability to learn, willing to take on new challenges, respectful of the rights of others, and continually work to improve ourselves. To the extent that we cannot or do not choose to become lifelong learners, we are partly responsible for the barriers that prevent our workplace from transforming into a learning organization.

Why do we need learning organizations? If the software industry in the United States is to mature, we must mature in the way we "grow" software engineers. We are all too aware that technology evolves more rapidly than our ability to deal with the change. Human beings have been around for about 7 million years, but 80 percent of the advances in technology have occurred in the last 100 years. This rate is accelerating, not slowing down. More information was produced in the last 30 years than in the 5,000 years that preceded it. Those two words "information technology" put together describe our industry.

In the March 1995 issue of Money magazine, an article entitled "The Fifty Hottest Jobs in America" included four computer-related jobs: Computer engineer is the fastest growing career in the United States. Computer systems analyst rated No. 2, computer repair rated No. 18, and computer programmer rated No. 44. The magazine also said that U.S. corporations will need about 447,000 computer engineers by the year 2005, more than twice the number in the country today, and that engineers with 10 years of experience are in the top 6 percent of all U.S. full-time wage earners. Systems analysts were in the top 10 percent of wage earners. These career fields are both fast growing and relatively lucrative. For these reasons, computer-related jobs globally will also be highly competitive.

Technology today has a shelf life of about five years. That means obsolescence occurs at the rate of about 20 percent per year. The software organizations that succeed in this highly competitive environment will be those that recognize that the only constant is change. Dealing with change as the constant demands that we rethink the way we develop the people who will manage and contribute to that change. Constant learning and relearning are critical to be competitive. The ability to think, to analyze, and to learn better and faster than the competition becomes our discriminator. Dealing with change as the constant demands that we create learning organizations that acknowledge the changing nature of knowledge. Every plan to grow and every plan to stay alive in the competitive environment must be a transition plan. How we transition will determine whether we can compete.

If our workplace is not a learning organization, it will die. Only the ability to change can provide stability. The longer we resist change, the farther behind we get, and the more difficult catch-up becomes. Speaking at the Software Technology Conference in April, Lloyd Mosemann said that in the near future, the Air Force will no longer look just for Level 3 organizations in its procurement process; it will separate the high and the low Level 3 organizations for contract awards.

Actually, in the software industry, we deal with change daily. We know software will change; we expect it to. I once heard a programmer complain about software constantly changing. An older and wiser programmer responded, "If you don't like change, go teach Latin; software is supposed to change." We must recognize that organizations today are no different.

Being Competitive

The child who cannot or does not learn cannot grow. The child that cannot grow cannot mature and cannot compete with peers. The organization that cannot learn cannot grow. The organization that cannot grow cannot mature and cannot compete.

The bottom line is we must be competitive. How many people here work for state or federal government, industry working on government contracts, commercial industry, or academic community? Although each group shares common problems, each group has unique issues, strengths, and limitations.

Government organizations in a fee-for-service environment must learn to compete -- a frightening prospect for many of them and a reversal from the way many of these organizations have done business in the past. One government accounting definition tried to apply a hardware standard for productivity that they understood -- the number of units produced -- to the software environment, which they did not understand. The government defined a software production unit as an hour of work. Productivity, therefore, is the number of hours directly charged to projects. The more hours charged to a project, the higher the production count, and the greater the organization's productivity. A new paradigm is needed here.

Global Competition

U.S. industry has always had to compete, but we have competed among ourselves. That is changing. An article in the November 1994 issue of Windows magazine begins with, "American software companies -- including some familiar Windows publishers -- are using Russian programmers to bring their customers lower software prices, quicker upgrades, and better technical support." The article also said that organizations in Russia could hire doctorate-level programmers for about $300 a month. A Wall Street Journal article recently estimated that in Russia it costs about $1,000 per month for U.S. companies to employ a programmer. In either case, it costs substantially less for the services of a Russian programmer than it does for a programmer in the United States. Have you noticed the number of Russian and other non-U.S. resumes listed on the Internet lately?

A TV show recently talked about U.S. firms outsourcing programmers to India, Ireland, Australia, and the Philippines to develop software for use in the United States. Before we write this off as only "body shopping", I will tell you about the September 1994 issue of Ed Yourdon's newsletter, Guerrilla Programmer. The issue is devoted entirely to the software industry in India. He defines a Stage 1 industry as an industry that is "selling bodies", and a Stage 2 industry as an industry that sells the expertise of the company in managing an entire project. Stage 2 companies are now emerging in India. Motorola in Bangalore, India is a Software Engineering Institute Capability Maturity Model (SEI CMM) Level 5 organization with about 200 software engineers. Yourdon claims that several other Indian companies are almost as good. Yourdon also identified Peru, Chile, and South Africa as developing emerging software industries. By Yourdon's definition, many U.S. organizations are Stage 1 -- the customer buys hours, then gets whatever work is accomplished for those hours. Level-of-effort contracts tend to produce Stage 1 organizations.

Because the software industry started in the United States, the United States has dominated the software industry throughout the world. But we may be like the automobile industry in the 1970s -- complacent and smug because we "own" the market. Software is an easy market to lose because there is much room for improvement. Anyone willing to invest in the improvement of the industry can make it better. Anyone willing to question the underlying assumptions about how we do business and not constrained by the limitations we have places upon ourselves can do better than we have done. Competing with us may not be that difficult.

In academia, there are some positive trends. My son, Sean, started at the University of New Mexico last fall. At the parent orientation in the fall of 1994, I was surprised to learn that the average age of the students there is 28. This is certainly different from when I was in college. Not only does this indicate a changing market for academia, it also says a lot about the concept of lifelong learning.

We will continue to be told to do more with less, and often we downsize by laying off people. Then we are told to do the same work with fewer employees. We expect productivity increases to occur miraculously, simply because there are fewer people. Doing more with less requires a transition plan. How do we increase productivity? How do we enable the people who are left to complete the tasks that were once performed by many more? How do we identify and keep the most valuable employees, keep them current, and allow them to meet the needs of our customer and our organization?

The most successful people in the next five to 10 years will not necessarily be the smartest today, or who know the most. Success in the Information Age will be defined not by what you know at any given moment, but by your ability to learn. Knowledge will quickly become obsolete, and the only survivors will be the lifelong learners. The critical skills we need are the abilities to think, to analyze, and to learn. The best learners are becoming the most valuable people in our organizations. Lifelong learning is becoming the single most important ingredient for success, and the responsibility for learning begins with the individual.

Institutionalizing the Learning Process

Although we recognize the responsibility of the individual to learn and to be competitive in the software marketplace, individual learning may make the individual competitive with peers, but it cannot save the organization. To be competitive as an organization, we must institutionalize the learning process.

What does it mean to institutionalize ? The SEI CMM talks about institutionalizing processes and practices, but this is my view of what it means to institutionalize.

When you got up this morning, did you debate whether you would brush your teeth? Did you wonder if anyone would know if you had not? Did you think about whether you could "get away with it"? Probably not; you just did it. To brush your teeth is a habit. You have institutionalized brushing your teeth.

How do you institutionalize a practice? Again, using brushing your teeth as an example, think of how your children acquired the habit. First, perhaps they watched you brush your teeth -- you led by example. Then, you brushed their teeth for them. Next, you helped them brush their teeth -- you were teaching them how to do it. Then, you watched them do it alone -- this is the on-the-job training. When you were satisfied that they knew how to brush their teeth, you reminded them every morning and every night and checked to make sure they had brushed their teeth. Occasionally, you send them back to the bathroom when they failed the breath test. This is quality assurance -- when practices are instituted and before they become institutionalized. How long does it take to institutionalize a practice? A father in a recent audience told me that based on that example, it was at least 17 years. We don't have 17 years.

Suppose you gave a toothbrush to some five-year-old children and told them to read the instructions on the box and that from now on, they are to brush their teeth every morning and every night. Three months later you asked them if they have been brushing their teeth. Should you be shocked if they have not? Unfortunately, that seems to be the way we try to institutionalize change in many organizations. We must find ways to communicate new learning quickly and effectively and then ensure that people are following the new practices, leading them patiently and consistently. Last year at the Software Technology Conference, I spoke about how I could tell within a couple of days of working with an organization whether they would ever become a SEI CMM Level 2. I gave an example of two organizations I had worked with. I would like to retell that story and give you an update.

In the first organization where we had given classes in project planning and tracking, requirements management, quality assurance, configuration management, and a variety of other courses, the classes were always filled -- by the technical staff. On the evaluation forms they frequently said, "My boss needs to hear this." Yet when we scheduled classes or even short interviews for the managers to tell them what their employees were learning, not one manager attended -- they didn't have the time or the interest.

In the second organization, at the start of every class, the director came in, told the employees why they were there, outlined the goals of the organization, and tied the class objectives to the organization's goals. The director then encouraged the employees to learn everything they could and to come back ready to apply what they had learned to their job. The students were enthusiastic and many of them were clearly in a learning stretch. The contrast between the two groups was striking. I predicted that only one group would succeed.

Last November, the second organization was assessed at CMM Level 3, the first Level 3 organization in the Air Force. The first organization was recently assessed and was still a Level 1; little progress had been made.

Process Improvement

Process improvement and the creation of a learning organization are closely linked. Learning organizations see process improvement as a normal part of the maturing process. These organizations expect change, they institute change, and they are capable of institutionalizing change. Who has the responsibility to create the learning organization? The leader of that organization. An organization's ability to improve is directly proportional to its leader's commitment to create a culture that not only invites learning but also demands continuous learning. Learning organizations must be led by learning leaders -- people who are actively committed to their own learning. Learning leaders attend training with or before their employees. These leaders define the goals for their organization, then commit the resources to make it happen. These leaders understand that the only competitive advantage an organization in the Information Age will have is its ability to learn faster than its competitors. Organizational change is blocked unless and until the major decisionmakers learn together, share common beliefs and goals, and make the commitment to take the necessary actions for change. These leaders make the commitment to spent the money required for training, but only after they make sure that the training is linked to their business strategy; they don't waste training dollars.


Who has the responsibility to train? The organization. But to the extent that it is the responsibility of the organization to train, it is the responsibility of every employee to learn.

Who should pay? Everyone who benefits -- the employee, the organization, and the customer. A few examples of how employees might pay are they could be required to attend classes half on company time and half on their time, homework assignments performed on their time could account for some percent of the total effort, books read on their time could be prerequisites to attend formal training, or completion of scored computer-based instruction could be prerequisites for formal classroom training.

Before you get excited and think that training is the solution, make sure you have a plan for those training dollars. If I want to blast a hole through a mountain, and I plan to do it by giving everyone a stick of dynamite and tell them to throw it toward a mountain, I should not be surprised when at the end of the dynamite toss there isn't a hole. Given the same amount of explosives, I need to lay out a plan that focuses on where the hole needs to be. Bottom-up training is something like giving everyone a stick of dynamite. The Level 1 organization I referred to used this approach. Senior-level management must take responsibility for creating the plan, and determining where the hole will be. If senior management cannot define the vision, the mission, and the direction of their organization, they cannot expect employees to know where to aim. When vision and mission are not clear, even the best and brightest employees can only guess in which direction they should aim. The June 1994 issue of the American Management Association Management Review published the results of an Arthur D. Little survey of 350 chief executive officers and senior executives in 14 industries. Ninety-five percent said that a clear vision was the most important factor in the successful implementation of change. Demonstration of senior management commitment ranked second.

The aerospace and defense contractors seek government procurements. The winner, more often than not, has the lowest overhead rates. Training budgets typically come out of overhead. The Request For Proposal requires trained people. Finding a way to pay for training requires some combination of a corporate commitment to continuous improvement, a Machiavellian approach to proposal writing, or an enlightened customer. Because most training experiences have been doing something like giving everyone their own stick of dynamite, and our metric has been how many people have thrown it (how many days of training have they attended), little value is associated with spending shrinking dollars for training. Even in the best of plans, training funds often disappear by the end of negotiations.

Acquisition strategies must change. Instead of demanding trained people for every job category on a multiyear contract, then negotiating training expenses, acquiring agencies should consider an incentive to companies to maintain a staff of well-trained people. Identify evaluation criteria that reward learning organizations. Ask for evidence of ongoing programs and metrics that demonstrate cost, schedule, or quality improvements that are the result of those improvement programs. Require training plans that demonstrate an understanding of the customer's mission and the relevance of the training to that mission, and acknowledge the changing nature of learning.

Evaluating Training Costs

When evaluating cost, customers must be careful to not just look at overhead rates. A client recently told me that his customer wanted to know how much this "process improvement stuff" would reduce his overhead rate. The organization had been under heavy pressure to reduce overhead because their customer bought hours. The less an hour cost, the more hours he could buy, the more he got for his money. (Yes, this is part of the production count as a measure of productivity problem.) There was little in the overhead that my client could control. Since the software engineering process group (SEPG) was an overhead cost, he considered proposing it as a direct cost, but the overhead reduction was minuscule. The real problem was that his customer failed to understand that the benefit of process improvement was not in the reduction of overhead but in the reduction of hours required to do a job. The real productivity increase was potentially greater than even the elimination of all overhead. We must ask the right questions, teach our customers the right questions, and be careful of how we answer the wrong questions.

The SEPG's Role in Training

What is the role of the SEPG in creating the learning organization? SEPGs, their working groups, and management steering committees must participate in instituting and institutionalizing change. Although planning is critical, do not wait for the perfect plan or the perfect time before you begin -- nothing will happen.

Individual learning starts from the bottom up. Organizational learning starts from the top down. Think of your role as working from the middle out. If your leadership is truly committed and employees are lifelong learners, you have overcome the first hurdle, but there is still much to be done. If not, your initial challenges are greater, but your job is to be a problem solver and not just a problem finder.

Expect to justify your existence. Your organization or your customer or both are investing money in you. SEPG members often tell me that they don't feel that management supports them. Have you ever told management exactly what you need them to do? Have you ever given management a list of the responsibilities of the sponsor? Have you ever told management exactly what you expect to be able to do for them? Are your goals and objectives consistent with management? Do you know management's priorities? Are you approaching process improvement within the framework of management's needs? If not, how are you relevant to management? Your job is much more than just producing and distributing documents. Work to create organizational memory. People can learn, projects can learn, but if the work processes do not support the implementation of new learning, organizational learning does not occur. Create teams to review projects, develop case studies, document lessons learned, and develop and maintain asset libraries. Support organization-wide dialog so that the organization's growth is greater than the sum of individual learning. Create vehicles to transfer knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization so that new projects can incorporate best practices.

If an organization is to learn and to grow, the organization must be willing to take risks. We must learn to view every new project as a study in risk management. Formalize the risk management approach. Help work teams understand, address, quantify, and mitigate risks, and capture what they have learned.

Instead of only trying to define processes and procedures that solve every problem, help to define a problem-solving process that encourages creative thinking, analyzing, and learning.

Look outside your organization for processes and experiences from which you can benefit. Learn from others. Read what they have done. Network. Ask hard questions of those who have succeeded.

Actions to Create a Learning Organization

How do we create a learning organization?

  1. Senior executives must frequently and with conviction define the vision and mission of the organization.
  2. Each employee must define a vision of their own that supports the vision of the organization.
  3. Develop a realistic plan to transform the workplace into an organization that can support the visions of the employee, the organization, and the mission. Perhaps a 10-year plan but no less than a five-year plan. Intermediate goals are necessary, but arbitrary, unrealistic expectations only mock the plan and probably doom it to failure. The plan must assign roles and responsibilities, schedules, and budgets. Move authority to the same level as responsibility and give people the opportunity to succeed.
  4. Use the CMM to define your approach to software process improvement. It is a software-targeted model, has widespread support, and is well documented. It has well-defined levels of maturity and well-defined activities that describe the behavior of the organization. But remember, the CMM is a model, not a bible.
  5. Set priorities. Don't just set up six working groups because there are six key process areas for CMM Level 2. Do what makes sense in your organization. Look for the biggest return on investment. Identify those changes that will improve your organization the most. Start with two or three improvements, then see them through. The initial success will make future improvements faster and easier.
  6. Implement before you attempt to institutionalize. Because we want quick solutions, we often prescribe how everyone will perform before we determine whether anyone can perform that way, before we know if it is reasonable. Assume that every project is in some way a pilot, because actually it is. Treat the project intentionally instead of accidentally, then institutionalize best practices.
  7. Commit to continuous learning and training. An organization must have a training plan consistent with its mission and vision. Employees should have their own personal training plan consistent with their vision and the organizational training plan. Once developed, the plan must be implemented. In Motorola India, software engineers receive 42 days of initial training on software process and an average of 80 to 100 hours per year of ongoing training.
  8. Create partnerships with learning institutions, colleges, universities, and training suppliers. By working together, you can achieve the training goals of the organization.
  9. Require employees to be responsible for their personal learning. Provide the opportunity and the environment to learn and reward the learners. Employees who continue to learn are the most valuable people in the organization.
  10. Educate your suppliers and your customers. Their success is your success.

You must make the conscious decision to become a lifelong learner not just for the organization but for yourself. Don't allow yourself to become "tomorrow's illiterate" or the person who doesn't know how to learn. Help yourself. Don't expect the organization to get help for you. Organizations need people who adapt fast, not those who resist change. Opportunities will go to individuals who have the capability to adapt and be flexible. You must add value to the organization. You must contribute more than you cost. Experience adds value only if it makes you worth more. Obsolete experience loses value. Could someone else do your job better or cheaper? Be entrepreneurial. Think of the kind of person you would want in your organization. Are you that kind of person? Are you willing to become that person?


If you are a manager, your success depends upon your ability to inspire the best in your employees, to expand their competence and capacity, and to create the right conditions so that they can learn. You are the link between executives and employees. You must encourage staff learning and development and share the insights and innovations with your executives. You directly influence the ways in which vision, strategy, and business goals are implemented. When people make mistakes, it is your job to work with them to fix the process, not to punish them. It is your responsibility to ensure that the training the employees receive is adequate, appropriate, directed at the goals of the organization, and not wasted. Training creates a more stable and loyal work force of skilled people and reduces turnover, which directly benefits you.

If you are the leader of an organization, you must recognize that the competitive edge in the 1990s will go to the learning organizations. You must define the goals for your organization, broadcast them, and show personal commitment to them. You must allocate the resources to support those goals. You must identify and implement a reward system that supports your goals. You need to create a framework in which risk-taking is acceptable, then reward the risk takers, not those who refuse to take risks.

If you are the customer, you must be willing to create strategic alliances with your suppliers and look for organizations that can do more than solve today's problems. Those problems will change. You must actively seek organizations that will grow with you, that are capable of responding to tomorrow's needs, that can adapt to your new business strategies, new requirements, and new technologies. Alliances with suppliers that continually look for better solutions are your best strategy.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. None of us can do it alone, but it can be done. And I would argue that it must be done. Thank you and good luck.

Return to Fastrak Training Home Page

View other Articles

Return to Fastrak Press Home Page


Fastrak Training Inc.