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Best practices from the field

Eric Geis

Driving any kind of initiative in a large or growing company can be a challenge. This especially holds true for implementing tech skill development programs at scale. We’re tempted to build a distinct organizational structure to oversee the program—or else wrap it into Human Resources, where they already know how to implement training programs—and we’re often inclined to ease the effort by making it uniform throughout the org.

Those paths may be the easiest, at least at the start. But they are not the best practices for cultivating a powerful and useful skill development strategy at any kind of scale. At Cerner, we find that bringing learning initiatives closer to the technical teams, partnering across L&D and IT to create alignment with the org, and allowing education to grow at a grassroots level are critical to our success.

The following strategies have enhanced our technology skill development, and they are adaptable for almost any engineering organization.

Bringing L&D into the technical fold brings your people closer to the skills they need

Historically, HR (or whatever you call your primary people organization) owns almost everything related to education and training. Compliance, after all, is their domain. So that’s often where tech skill development ends up.

However, HR’s education efforts tend to focus more on compliance and regulations for the entire company. They’re not as versed in tech skills. Yet when tech skill development is housed in HR, it lives in a world apart from Engineering and R&D and all the other technical disciplines. So at Cerner, we decided to create an L&D team closer to development.

L&D now sits in the organization we call Product Life Cycle Services. Whether or not your company has this separate branch of the org chart, bringing tech learning closer to the engineering team improves its accessibility and impact for your people. Even a small L&D team can focus on tech skill development efforts, from entry-level onboarding all the way through reskilling the current population, based on the objectives the org is trying to deliver.

Making the request to move technology skill development closer to home was a pretty easy ask. Our HR team understood the benefits of relocating resources closer to the people they were servicing—and to the problem they were solving.

That said, the best people for the L&D team aren’t necessarily technical people—although they could be. The people best suited to running tech skill development have a deep understanding of things like project management and change management. You want people who can partner with you and your tech leaders to identify the skills your people need based on your tech strategy, and help drive an upskilling and reskilling initiative toward what you’re aiming to accomplish.

Partnering with TSD leaders greases the wheels for efficient tech skill development

While L&D is closer to Engineering, it’s still a distinct entity: Our goals and operations are different, even though they’re aligned in the same direction. We definitely collaborate between the tech side and the skill development side, and I view L&D as a partner of mine from both an operational and a strategic standpoint.

At Cerner, we decided to create an L&D team closer to development.

Here’s how we establish a roadmap together:

  • We start with an annual company-wide assessment. The leaders throughout the company put together organizational placemats, detailing our imperatives and initiatives for the year. As the technical stakeholders, we assemble our key initiatives and focus areas; from those, we can determine the skills we need to grow and learn. Some of those carry over from the previous year, and we always identify new ones.
  • We then review the content resources we already have and fill the gaps where needed. We take what we have at hand, from our onboarding program down to the on-the-job learning experiences we offer, and adjust those as needed for our goals. We see what content and capabilities already exist within our technology learning platform. Then we try to align these resources with subject matter experts on our end—people with domain knowledge and some level of tech leadership.
  • The learning organization facilitates the skill development. L&D can help do things more programmatically at scale. We need people to organize events, coordinate the attendees and handle communication. They have developed a blueprint for how to coordinate the skill development we need, at the scale we’re at. They benefit all of us by making the whole process more efficient.
  • Bi-weekly touch-ins keep us on track. We meet with the learning organization every two weeks to go through what skills we’re working on and how it’s all going, and to adjust our annual plan as needed.

Grassroots skill development ignites the natural desire to learn

As a company scales, these strategies naturally evolve. We have about 8,000 people in various tech roles, and some of them need more emphasis than others on upskilling. It’s our job to pilot new programs, find success within and then provide them at scale. It’s also our job to help these initiatives play out from a grassroots level instead of implementing everything from the top down.

My philosophy and experiences are that top-down efforts work better with regulatory compliance. When 100% of people need to check these boxes, that’s a perfect HR effort. The tech space, though, works differently. Different people in different roles need different skills. We try not to crack the whip on enforcing their skill development. Rather, we want to continue to give people the tools, processes and mentors that will help them grow. We want them to have access to the content they need in a range of areas. We want to serve up opportunities and make it easy for our people to gain knowledge and learn.

Yet even the most motivated learners benefit from some guidance. We’ve purposely positioned technical leaders—both managers and people who still code on a regular basis—to use the same tools and processes as their team members. That way, they can help connect people to the skill development they’ll benefit from.

Having a community of learners that includes on-the-ground leaders drives these efforts. It also builds champions, and word spreads quickly about how some course or tool or process helped them improve their skills. That kind of grassroots marketing does a better job than executives ever could.

Not every organization has an L&D team sitting as close to the technology team as we do. If yours doesn’t, work toward it. This tight partnership has given us clarity, alignment and focus, with a path for how to deliver value to our population now and in the future. It’s been critical to our ability to continually build new skills, leverage new technologies and drive health care innovation.

As Vice President of Clinical Product Development, Eric Geis is responsible for the engineering organization dedicated to developing and enhancing Cerner’s clinical products. Eric’s knowledge and background of Cerner solutions and the healthcare and technology industry put him in a unique position to lead and drive solutions forward.

Eric keeps clients in the forefront of the development process. By applying his background and experience to advance Cerner’s offerings, he enables clients to focus on their primary objective of providing excellent patient care and safety.