An Important Lesson Most IT Leaders Have Forgotten

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 07-23-2014
knowledge worker

An Important Lesson Most IT Leaders Have Forgotten

By Charles Araujo

"You need to get a good education if you want to get a good job and go anywhere in life. Don’t forget that and don’t ever give up." I still remember these words. My grandmother was having one of her "talks" with me—those talks that I just loved as a kid. It was one of those talks that I’m still lucky enough to get every once in a while these days.  

She would share events of her life with me and out would trickle these little words of wisdom. This particular bit of astuteness about the necessity of a good education stuck with me for two reasons. First, because I learned it from my grandmother at a time in my life in which I was struggling with my own education—and very frustrated about it. But, second, because these bits of advice weren’t just words to her. She had lived them. Growing up in the era of the traditional housewife, my grandmother had not even graduated from high school. However, as she got a bit older, she decided she wanted to change that.

She went back to get her high school diploma and walked across the graduation stage with pride, graduating in the same class as my mother (but at a different school). It was a unique moment for a mother and daughter to share. My grandmother went on to college and earned a degree and teaching credential at the age of 46. With her teaching credential, she began what would be an almost 20-year teaching career at Evergreen Elementary School in East Los Angeles, becoming one of the school's most beloved teachers. I spent countless hours in her classroom as a young boy, mesmerized by how she interacted with "her children" and how much they loved her.

While my grandmother was talking about formal education during our talk, throughout her life she has demonstrated her love of learning and the teaching that often accompanies it. And it’s a lesson that I think far too many of us, as IT leaders, have forgotten.

IT Has a Learning Gap

It is somewhat ironic that in an industry in which technology is in a constant state of change, there seems to be a learning gap. Even in the most technical realms, IT professionals typically are not perpetually learning about the latest technology. Instead, learning seems to be a bit of a leapfrog approach. You get trained in a certain technology and, because it requires deep skills to master it, you continue to invest in developing your skills in that one technology. As new technologies appear, it is typically other people who come into the organization with skills in those technologies—while you continue to focus on your technology. This state of affairs continues until the tide shifts and it becomes clear that your technology is on the downward slide toward IT obsolescence, so you pick a new technology and the process begins anew.

In IT's management realms, of course, it’s far worse. In many IT organizations, the management practices have hardly shifted in the last 30 or 40 years. "That’s how we’ve always done it" remains a valid justification for continuing a business process in the same fashion. I’m not sure if it is because of the complexity of the technology that we develop, deploy and support or just a by-product of working in large, complex organizations, but there is a significant learning gap in most IT groups today. And this learning gap is beginning to threaten the foundations of the IT organization.

We Need a Renaissance of Learning

This is the third article in a series entitled “What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man.” In these articles (like this one, "Creating the IT Organization of the Future"), I am exploring why we need a new generation of Renaissance Men and Women to rise up as we enter this digital age—and what that means for us.

I believe one of the key requirements of being a Digital Renaissance Man or Woman will be to unleash an unbridled, lifelong love of learning. In some ways, this love of learning is an innate trait, but it is one that I believe most of us hold deep inside ourselves. Ask almost any parent of a young child about how their offspring learns and you will hear something to the effect of, “They’re like a sponge. They just absorb everything!” As children, we love to learn and we constantly seek out new opportunities to learn and explore. Our curiosity is as large as the sky. But as we get older, we seem to forget and neglect this innate trait, but it remains inside us. It just needs to be rediscovered and unleashed.

An Important Lesson Most IT Leaders Have Forgotten

The stakes are huge.

In the digital age, life and business are moving at a breakneck, never-ending speed. Any knowledge we possess may lose it value or become worthless at any moment. The days of deeply learning a single skill and letting it carry you through your career has long since passed. In fact, many progressive IT organizations are beginning to look past specific technical skills during the hiring process and are focusing their attention on the ability to learn new technologies as the most important competency to possess as an incoming employee.

To be a digital leader in this fast-paced and ever-changing era, you will need to unleash a continual love of learning within yourself, embrace it as a way of life, and pass it on to your team.  

A Future of Continual Learning

I am not alone in my belief that continual learning and a focus on how to learn is going to become vitally important in the near future—and, in fact, may change some of the foundations of formal education itself. Vishen Lakhiani is about to launch what he calls Mindvalley University. And through it, he hopes to reshape higher education. His basic belief, which some may consider heretical, is that higher education must shift from teaching facts to teaching students how to set and reach goals, how to create the right attitude, how to learn, and how to live life. It’s an experiment, but an intriguing one that is attracting a lot of interest—a sure sign the world is recognizing that the old approaches are not working well enough to remain relevant in this rapidly changing digital world.

Whether you think Lakhiani is a genius or a bit outlandish, the fact remains that the days of obtaining an education and being done with learning are long gone.

To have an impact, to be a leader in this digital age, you will need to be someone who is well versed in a broad range of constantly changing subject areas so that you can synthesize ideas from across this broad spectrum to find unique ideas and solutions. That will demand that you exist in a constant state of learning and exploration—learning from everyone and everything around you. It is the hallmark of a Digital Renaissance Man and Woman and will become one of the primary barometers for every hiring manager in the near future.  

Hear that bell faintly ringing in the distance? It means that school is in session. So what will you learn today? 

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the third installment of a six-part article series titled "What It Means to be a Digital Renaissance Man." To read the second installment, "Creating the IT Organization of the Future," click here.