Are I.T. professionals getting the ongoing education they and their employers need?

Role- vs. Demand-driven Professional Education

Conrad Weisert, February 24, 2001
©2001 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Why professional development?

Just about every software development organization recognizes the need for continuing education of its professional staff. Allocating about six1 percent of each staff member's time to professional development is widely viewed as a sensible, if not essential, investment for the organization.

An information technology (I.T.) specialist may enroll in a course in order to learn some combination of:

To justify the investment, we expect the staff member in the future to be highly productive, to turn out work of high quality, and to employ appropriately a broad range of tools and techniques.

Staffing and equipment

Organizations employing more than about three dozen I.T. professionals usually establish a formal training or professional development function with a full-time director. A very large organization may have additional full- or part-time training staff, who may include instructors for some of the courses.

One or more conference rooms or computer laboratories are set aside to be used as classrooms, and may be furnished with presentation equipment or desktop computers. Some of the largest organizations dedicate a whole building to an internal company "university" with facilities many academic computer science departments would envy.

Proactive vs. reactive administration

Building upon that physical foundation, an organization's training director may pursue either of two radically different approaches to planning and managing professional staff education: the role-driven proactive approach or the demand-driven reactive approach. The choice between them, seldom made deliberately, depends on:

Those two approaches to professional staff education are described below:
- Proactive (role-driven) approach Reactive (demand driven) approach
Curriculum planning We begin by examining the roles that members of the professional staff are to perform.

For each role, we enumerate the skills the incumbent must have.

We then find (or develop) one or more courses for which the detailed behavioral objectives match those skills.

We can then relate curricula to recognized career paths, so that when an individual who has been successfully performing one role (e.g. programmer) is ready to move to another role (chief programmer/designer), it is clear which courses, if any, the staff member must take.

We may begin by conferring with managers to compile a list of skills they believe their staff will soon need, often for some particular project. Typically such short-term skills are both very detailed in terms of tools or products and at the same time naively vague in terms of concepts (e.g. "advanced Java programming").

We then find (or develop) one or more courses for which detailed behavioral objectives match those skills, and periodically publish a catalog of available courses. Finally, we wait until someone in the organization requests a course. If it's one in our catalog we put it on the schedule.

Course scheduling Courses are scheduled periodically in the sequence of perceived needs. A given course is scheduled when someone requests it.
Course content emphasis - fundamental concepts
- techniques
- programming languages and tools
- specific software products
Behavioral objectives quality and productivity mastery of detail
Relationship to organization's I.T. infrastructure Course content consistent with and supportive of in-house standards & methodology Little or no relationship; some course content may actually conflict with organization's standards
Course evaluation criterion Students' subsequent performance Student evalutations at course end

Long- and short-term needs

The proactive approach better serves the long-term needs both of an individual staff member and of the organization. In a perceived urgent need, however, it's tempting to set aside the well-planned curricula and scramble to find a quick solution.

Alas, there are no miracles in education. "This project needs 15 Java programmers by next month," a panicked project manager may proclaim. But programming is about solving problems, not memorizing syntax and patterns. There's no such professional role as "Java programmer". The project will almost surely be better off with a few competent programmers who understand Java and use good judgment in applying Java to their problems.

A reactive training director, pre-occupied with course technology, pedagogy theory, room scheduling, and vendor selection is effective in supplying rote-learning courses, such as Using Windows or basic Spreadsheet Navigation. However, in meeting the needs of professional software developers he or she can only act as a broker in matching hastily-chosen "hands-on" courses to ill-considered needs.

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1 Companies that develop software products are likely to invest ten percent or more.

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Last modified September, 2003