Archive for May, 2011

That 20% (What you can do if you don’t get it or give it)

Forward thinking and moving companies usually give their employees actual time to think, learn and innovate. In companies that foster a culture of innovation, this isn’t just some imaginary time-allowance that gets built into the employees’ unpaid overtime, it’s actually built into their schedule. This time cannot impede upon employee’s productivity, but savvy leaders and managers know that innovative and creative employees need time and tools to develop, learn and investigate the answers to problems that interest them.

Google encourages their employees to use a percentage of their time to solve problems or develop products that pique their interest or that they feel a genuine need for. Many of these tinkering efforts resulted in some of the signature products that Google is known for today such as Gmail, Google News and Adsense to name a few. In fact, the company estimates that at least 50% of Google’s products are a direct result of this “20% time.”

Unfortunately, not all companies can aspire to be Google, but with help and guidance management and employees can create their own culture of learning for innovation’s sake. There are at least five things they can do to foster this in their own organizations.

  1. Make learning a part of the professional development process
  2. Give employees easy access to learning resources
  3. Call out life-long learning as part of the company’s charter
  4. Model life-long learning
  5. Reward employees who demonstrate the behaviors of life-long learning

1. Make learning part of the professional development process:

Some workplaces actually allow employees to identify areas of interest for professional development in their own yearly development plans. For many employees with heavy workloads, it’s difficult to find the time they need to explore these interests unless they can be directly applied to their work.

Managers can help their employees develop their business plans by helping them identify their professional interests and working with them to integrate these interests in both their current work plan as well as helping them finding opportunities to apply their interests to efforts that may help current business goals.

2. Give employees easy access to learning resources:

Management can also provide ready access to learning tools and resources. Not just internal documentation and training, but content that is available from external resources. Some examples include:

Skillsoft Books 24×7

For the self-directed learner Skillsoft Books 24×7 presents a virtual treasure trove. This collection has books and periodicals for management, IT professionals and other job areas. Employees can learn just about everything from programming in Ajax to applying the principles from the Book of Five Rings into their work practices. Their company or organization has to pay for the subscriptions, but even if one paid the $459.00 out of pocket, access to this collection is like being able to take almost any book out of Powells, Barnes and Noble and Amazon at any time.

At $25.00 a month for a subscription to a huge library of online tutorials complete with demonstration/simulations. You have to pay a larger premium subscription rate to have access to the development files for say a Flash course. Though arguably you can learn just as much by creating the development files on your own.

3. Call out life-long learning as part of the company’s charter:

Peter Senge, author of The Learning Organization, coined the term life-long learner. According to Senge the life-long learner spends their entire life acquiring skills and knowledge. Senge also maintained that organizations can embody life-long learning in their culture and practices.

An organization can write the goal of establishing a culture of life-long learning into their own mission. This goal can be embodied both explicitly and implicitly in the company values, but the company or group needs to define a list of examples of behaviors and accomplishments that demonstrate the achievement of this goal.

4. Model life-long learning:

Leaders of an organization need to be the first to model this behavior of constant learning. Demonstration of their efforts can be presented to their employees both subtly and directly in their communications. They can provide examples in sharing their own professional development goals with their employees in addition to explaining what they wish to achieve with these goals both personally and professionally.

5. Reward employees who demonstrate the behaviors of life-long learning:

Sharing one’s own aspirations for professional development may provide an example and possibly inspire employees to take up the cause of learning on their own. However, calling out an employee’s success in implementing their own learning can provide positive reinforcement for the behavior. Management can be coached to give this feedback by giving positive feedback to their employees when they see it developed.

They can also recognize employees who exhibit the behavior in staff meetings or perhaps even designate specific awards for employees who demonstrate life-long learning. Here’s an example of one such employee:

Jeanie, a web developer in the IT department, expressed an interest in learning more about usability testing. Jeanie took it upon herself to review books and articles from the company online library. She also took some time to take advantage of external sources from the web including community forums on usability.  Jeanie then created a proposal for implementing usability tests throughout different parts of the the web development process. With her management’s approval she was able to implement a simple paper prototype test as well as a formal usability assessment.  Her testing efforts and knowledge gained resulted not only in a more efficient and pleasing user experience for customers, but also the start of a testing process that was later implemented by other staff on the web development team. Jeanie’s manager recognized her learning efforts in a staff meeting by presenting her with a “Life-Long Learner” award and a $50 gift certificate to a local bookstore.

While it may be difficult to adopt the Google 20% practice, organizations and companies can still take steps to build learning for innovation into their culture and practices. Not all employers are ready to adopt Google’s 20% rule. Their company culture may not be ready for such a shift, or they simply many not be able to readily adjust their business process and goals to accommodate spending this much time to what they consider research and development. Perhaps Google’s other secret to success is that they seem to be skilled at hiring people who are inquisitive, life-long learners, and natural experimenters.  These are people who take to using the 20% time to explore and discover the same way a duck takes to water.


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