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Getting Schooled: How IT University Can Deliver Huge Returns

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Bill Russell, Founder & CEO, Health Lyrics (Former CIO, St. Joseph Health)

AI, IoT, Big Data, Machine Learning, Cloud, Automation, Digital Transformation. The only constant in Healthcare IT is Change. IT University, however, can help bridge the gap.

This challenge was elevated for my team at St. Joseph Health when we started our move to the cloud in 2011. There was a lot of nervous energy around the transition, even though there was broad agreement that the move made sense for our health system.

The source of the angst was in finding a future for the staff. It was clear to everyone that the skills required to run a hybrid cloud environment and an on-premise data center were distinctly different in many cases.

Education within IT had been disjointed. Some groups went to conferences ($$$), vendors conducted lunch and learn (bias), HR offered tuition reimbursement, and, quite frankly, many were too busy to attend any formal or informal training. There had to be a better way to provide opportunities for learning.

The concept of IT University isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used so often that I can’t give proper attribution. However, as with most good ideas, the ability to intentionally design and operationalize the concept will determine the value that is derived.

Here are a few things we did along the way.

Assign The Right Leadership

In order to implement an IT University-type concept, you’ll need to ensure that you have the right people in place.

You need an energetic, positive, and creative person who is passionate about talent and investing in people. Now, normally I wouldn’t be so specific — there are a lot of ways to get things done, and personality isn’t the most important criteria for most roles. However, this has to build and sustain the momentum of the program. That requires a promoter.

Heather Pease was that person for us. She was so energetic about the program that we would have to remind her to talk slower. Beyond having energy, the person has to listen well, think strategically, and implement effectively. The right person at the helm will make or break this program.

Set Success Criteria

At the start, our success criteria were simple: adoption.

Our program was not mandatory. The measurement for success would be the number of people who participated. Those who made the decision to take time out of their day to invest in education. In addition, it would be measured by the number of managers that found value in the program.

Mandatory programs lack courage.

Intentionally Design

The program’s courses were intentionally designed to meet the needs of the staff and the organization. We conducted surveys of the staff to determine what they wanted. Then, we looked at our three-year tech roadmap and our industry horizon to ascertain what the organization would need from the staff.

We had three career paths within IT: leadership, business, and technical. The courses aligned with the career paths. We offered leadership and management courses for leaders, requirements gathering and finance for analysts, and deep dive technical sessions for the engineers and architects.

Utilize What You Have

An inventory of our learning assets revealed that we didn’t have to invest much to get this started. We had experts on staff: people already attending conferences, vendors willing to conduct training, and a plethora of online training.

The first order of business was to establish a new policy. For people attending a conference, they would be required to conduct a session for their peers when they returned. This seemed obvious and logical.

We then asked our SMEs to conduct courses if they were willing. Obviously, some can teach and some can’t, but that would reveal itself a little later. We then pooled our training dollars and coordinated our vendor training to organize around our objectives as well as theirs.

We did this on a shoestring the first year. There was no learning management system and very little in the way of additional training dollars… that would come later.

Listen Intently

Anytime your success criteria rests with “adoption,” you will want to listen to the customer.

Our customer was the staff. We gathered feedback any way we could: surveys, discussions, reviews, and even gathering feedback during the presentation itself, to see if we were hitting the mark. Listening is the first part; you then have to act on that feedback to retain your relevance and credibility.

Demonstrate Your Commitment

I asked each of my direct reports to lead a class. Some led on their own, and others teamed up. A course on how we created budget creation and financial management was much better attended than I thought it would be. Analytics seemed to appeal to only a certain group of people in IT. We learned as we went.

For my part, I did a 12-week class on the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, a book that shaped me early in my career.  I learned that you really don’t know something until you have to teach it.

Get Started On Your Own IT University

“Perfect” is the enemy in this endeavor. You will learn a lot more by doing than by planning.

Once the core is in place, conduct a couple sessions and see how it goes. Don’t launch it as IT University; start by coordinating a few courses and see what you learn. Iterate to perfection.

We made some mistakes, as I alluded to earlier. For example, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Don’t do it to them and don’t do it to the people who have to attend. We also included HR far too late in the process (like 6 months after we kicked it off).

We spawned some professional students until we put in some guidelines. It also required some creativity to promote and make it available to everyone, including those in remote locations.

Disruption can lead to opportunity, as long as people have the opportunity to develop and adapt along the way. The value was great from so many perspectives — I hope at least one of you will grab hold of this idea, and begin to coordinate and be intentional about training.

This piece was written by Bill Russell, a former CIO at St. Joseph Health who now serves as CEO of Health Lyrics, a management consulting firm. To view the original post, click here. To follow Russell on Twitter, click here.

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