Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

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Creating a Culture of Learning and Innovation

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Creating a culture of innovation is a difficult challenge in any company. Management can't just wave their hands and tell everyone they must be innovative from this day forward and declare success.  Nor is it likely that employees will convince their leadership to follow Google and give employees 1 day a week off from normal work to focus on their own creative and innovative ideas. While an instantaneous shift to a culture of innovation is unlikely, a slower migration path is possible. This article will introduce some of the steps the employees of a large engineering corporation took to begin building a culture of innovation by fostering continuous learning in the workplace.

In an environment where engineering tended to wait for business direction and execute to that direction, we are now seeing engineering selling the business on new directions to explore. The changes from making continuous learning part of the culture haven’t been immediate or easy, but they have been dramatic.

Why a Culture of Continuous Learning is Important

A culture of continuous learning is vital to an organization that strives to be innovative. Knowledge is the foundation for new ideas, and the learning that produces knowledge is what keeps brains malleable to create innovative and disruptive solutions.  So why build a culture of continuous learning in the workplace? 

  1. Prerequisite to being Innovative.  Being innovative requires a workforce with creative and malleable brains, and continuous learning is key to making that possible.

  2. Job Satisfaction.  One of the primary reasons employees leave their current company is lack of professional growth.  If knowledge workers aren't being constantly challenged with new problems, they will get bored and look for new challenges elsewhere.

  3. Being Adaptable.  Today's business world moves much faster than it did 20 years ago.  Businesses must be able to adapt, pivot, and grow into new market spaces if they hope to survive.  Employees who are learning new technologies and solutions are the employees who will help solve the problems a business doesn’t yet know it has.  Knowledgeable employees make a business flexible.

The Obstacles

Creating a culture of continuous learning, however, is not a simple task.  Trying to change an organization's established culture from within is a lot like trying to steer a battleship with a rowboat paddle...  It's possible, but it requires a lot of people rowing.  Three of the biggest hurdles that must be overcome are time, money, and the status quo.

  1. Time. The biggest hurdle to make learning part of the company culture is time.  People are busy.  Work hours are filled with deadlines and fighting fires, such that employees tend to learn only what is necessary to complete their current assigned workload.
  2. Money.  Quality training usually costs money, and companies don't want to spend money unless they can easily see the return on investment.  Spending money to train engineers on Hadoop, because the next project will be using that technology, is easy to see the return on investment.  Spending money to train engineers on Hadoop when the company does absolutely nothing (yet) with Big Data, however, is a different story.
  3. Changing the Status Quo.  Trying to change a company culture is an uphill battle.  Most requests will get a "No" response simply because change is a threat to the status quo.  This type of obstacle can be especially painful because no amount of logic and reason will be enough to overcome a person's fear of change.

The Idea

Given the obstacles of time, money, and the fear of change, we decided to approach the problem from the bottom up.  The idea was simple. We would ask engineers to teach others the concepts that they themselves find interesting.  Getting business directors to sign off on thousands of dollars on professional training, while taking people away from the projects that earn the business money, is always a difficult task (especially when there may not be an obvious return on investment for a particular type of training).  But getting a fellow engineer, whose background is in Machine Learning, to give a "brown bag" lunch meeting on the topic of similarity classifiers is a much smaller hurdle.  A company's very own people already have a great deal of knowledge; they just need to share it.

Crowd-Sourcing Technical Training

In order for a cultural change to take root, it needed to be driven from the bottom up.  We needed our peers to not only give the training, but encourage others to teach in order to keep the initiative moving.  To build that sustainable model, we looked to crowd-sourcing as our template.  We wanted our people to tell us what they wanted to learn, and allow people to sign up for the training even before anyone agreed to teach it.   The hope was that seeing a large group of peers interested in learning a topic would motivate someone to teach it. 

While the crowd-sourcing concept was simple, a workable solution was not obvious.  We needed to present the information in a way that was easy to use and passive.  If people had to visit a web site, or perform some action to post a topic or see what topics others have posted we would fail.  We can't dictate that everyone should visit a website or take some action everyday.  The idea wouldn't work if people had to do anything outside their normal working routine.  The approach we decided to use was a simple push-pin board that we hung on a wall in a high traffic area.   That, combined with a stack of notecards and a sharpie marker, we had the means to communicate our crowd sourced training initiative.  By publicizing the information in an area that people typically walk past many times a day, we were able to reach a large audience.  People were stopping to read the topics and soon offering up new topics they wanted to learn or teach. 

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The mechanics were simple.  Anyone could post a note card listing a topic they are interested in learning or teaching.  And anyone can sign up as being interested in attending if someone were willing to put together the training.  The net result was when enough people signed up as being interested, someone would find the motivation to put together the training.  A person might not be willing to put together 8 hours of native Android training ordinarily, but when that person sees a large number of their peers or people they respect wanting to learn, it proved to be a powerful motivator. 

Use Training Formats that Fit with People's Lives   

Too often training does little more than use people's time, and make them feel like they are falling farther behind on their current workload.  We needed to use formats that didn't add to people's current workload, and made every second of the training feel valuable.  We ultimately settled on the "brown bag lunch" for topic introductions, and "deep-dives" for more in-depth training,

  • Brown Bag Lunch - The Brown bag lunch is a pretty common training practice in the work place.  Everyone brings a brown bag lunch to a conference room to attend a 1-hour presentation on a particular subject.  The format is long enough that someone can give a good introduction to a topic, and short enough that people don't feel like they had to sacrifice anything to attend. 
  • Deep Dives - The deep dive is a training session that takes 2 hours, 1 day a week, for several weeks.  The idea is people will go to a lab in 2 hour increments, and gain a deep understanding of a technology by doing interactive exercises.  2 hours per week is not enough to negatively impact people's normal workload, but it is long enough to actually walk through 1 or more small exercises.  And over the course of several weeks, it is possible to train people to become proficient with technologies like HTML, Native Android, or Apache Flex.  

Keep Momentum with Training Champions

Every revolution needs its champions, lest it lose momentum, and a movement to change the workplace culture is no different.  As projects and home lives get busy, it is very easy for people to postpone or procrastinate giving that lecture or lab they had intended to teach.   And if the weekly training stops, it will never become part of the company culture.  The champions were the people who bought into the concept completely and were willing to throw together a brown bag lunch seminar at the last minute just to keep the momentum moving.  The champions were also the people who were out encouraging their peers to give talks and pushing others to keep the training initiative moving forward.  Those few people are the people who enabled a cultural change to happen.


The results of the training initiative were impressive and immediate.

  • Employee Happiness - Employee overall happiness rose significantly with the training initiative.  I've been stopped in the halls many times by people who tell me that they no longer feel trapped in their current positions because they had not been able to keep up with technology.  Their fear of the unknown disappears because they realize these new technologies are not hard to learn, and much of their other technical skills directly apply.
  • Attrition was Reduced - Since beginning the training initiative, there has been a noticeable reduction in people leaving the company.  One of the primary reasons intelligent people leave their jobs is because they aren't growing professionally.  Lack of professional growth was one of the top reasons people specified in their exit interview as to their reason for leaving.  And knowing some of the people who left recently, I'd say it was the top reason they left.  But with an environment where people are constantly learning new concepts and technologies, that reason is significantly diminished.
  • New Innovation - One of the welcome side effects of a well trained staff is an influx of new ideas.  After each training session we are seeing participants put together interesting and creative demos just to test their skills, or find new ways to incorporate the new knowledge in their existing projects.  Projects that may have been stagnating are starting to see movement in their "good idea" backlog.  And one of the most remarkable aspects regarding innovation we saw was that many of the innovative ideas and demos were coming from our most introverted engineers.

Next Steps

  1. Growing the training initiative - Currently the training initiative has been constrained to our section of a few hundred developers.  But in order to change the culture of a company of several thousand we need to expand the training effort.  Unfortunately this is not a simple task because we have found that the training initiative requires a physical presence to promote crowd-sourcing (the push pin board), and champions to keep things moving.  And neither of these requirements work well in an easily scalable format like the internet.
  2. Growing the Teacher Base - Much of the early training has been taught by the champions, or people that wholly buy into the idea of changing the culture.  However, we are really starting to make progress in getting people to volunteer to teach subjects that they know.  As people are attending the training and having a good time, we are getting more people offering to teach a brown-bag lunch on an interesting topic, or run a deep-dive lab and teach the details of a specific technology.


Making innovation part of a company's culture is not an easy process.  It takes a lot of time and effort, but the change in the environment is very rewarding.  And making continuous learning part of the company culture is a relatively simple step towards that end.

About the Author

Jeff Plummer is a Software Project Lead, Software Architect, and Innovation Evangelist at General Dynamics C4 Systems where he leads high performing teams building collaborative battlefield management systems. His technical background is in building highly partition tolerant distributed NoSQL data systems, software architecture, and general web development. He holds a Master of Science from Arizona State University with a focus on software architecture in games and simulations.

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