Learning on the Job
When it comes to learning about information technologies, tools and techniques, nothing beats the kind of learning that comes on the job, be it certification-related or otherwise. But to maximize opportunities for on-the-job learning as they arise, it’s smart to plan ahead and to negotiate with your boss to work the system in your favor whenever possible. It’s also extremely smart to augment what you can learn or do in the workplace with additional after-hours study or activity and to keep track of your learning to build an “experience portfolio” that can help with senior certifications, certification maintenance or recertification, and with skills and career development.
Plan Ahead for Better Learning
Planning ahead to maximize learning is key, whether you’re aiming at one or more specific certifications or just trying to improve skills and knowledge. Either way, an investment in learning will help to improve your employability. This is always a good idea, but in these tough economic times, ongoing skills and experience upgrades can help you keep your current job if you like it or increase the odds of finding a suitable replacement position if you don’t.
Planning is important because it helps you define a set of objectives, which may be to obtain one or more specific certifications, to pass one or more exams or to learn certain skills or tackle new topics. When it comes to planning, whatever gives you a target to aim for and ways to measure progress or accomplishment is essential because it lets you set goals and then track your efforts in reaching them.
Sometimes, it makes sense to plan a yearly calendar for yourself. This is especially true if learning counts toward your job performance or evaluation. In that case, you’ll want to work with your manager to set goals and to determine what kinds of milestones you must reach to attain them. You’ll also want to plan over a longer time period as well. Typically, working with your learning goals for the next three to five years will help you understand how much time and effort you can devote to investigating new subjects or pursuing new credentials because it will also help you understand how much time, effort and expense you must allocate to maintaining existing credentials or knowledge bases.
Negotiate Workplace Learning
Properly couched, no manager in his right mind is going to outright refuse an employee’s request to develop new skills and knowledge or to improve on existing skills and knowledge. The key here lies in figuring out how to fit your desire to boost your skills and knowledge to your manager’s needs and goals as well.
If you’re lucky enough to work at a company that provides support for employee training, learning and skills development, this won’t be as tough a sell as it will be otherwise. If support is available, you need to work with your manager to figure out how to marry your personal development goals and objectives with the business goals and objectives both within your local workgroup and within the framework of the tools and technologies your employer has adopted for use in the workplace. If obtaining certification is required or supported, so much the better. If not, you may have to educate your boss about the benefits that obtaining certification can confer. Your improved earning capacity and increased job options don’t really count in this perspective. What does count is your increased productivity and your bettered abilities to do your job (or to take on new work) and to add value to your employer’s bottom line.
If you don’t work at a company that provides support for employee training, you can still appeal to your manager to set goals and objectives that require you to learn and add or extend skills and knowledge. Be prepared to offer some of your free time to indicate that you are also willing to invest in this effort, and you’ll increase your chances of obtaining your manager’s support and assistance. Here again, it’s important to sell the value of what you’ll be able to do for your employer when you’ve reached those goals and to do your best to prove (and then later, to demonstrate) that these value-adds exceed whatever costs your employer must incur to help you climb your learning curve.
One more thing: Look for emerging initiatives, research into new operating systems, platforms and applications, new technology evaluations and other forward-looking activities already underway where you work. These kinds of things not only encourage learning and developing new skills and knowledge, they very often demand such things. If you can find a way to get involved in such efforts, you’ll be able to adapt your learning plan to fit them and do some good for your employer at the same time you are developing additional career potential. Win-win situations like these are much easier to sell than trying to get permission to move in directions that don’t match up with your employer’s long- or short-term goals.
Additional Study and Efforts
Although learning on the job offers great personal value and benefits, it can produce even better outcomes if you are willing to pursue your learning, skills and knowledge development objectives during off-hours as well. Of course, this leads to two important questions: “Why do I say this?” and “What does this mean?” which I’ll also attempt to answer.
To begin with, the old maxim “You get out what you put in” applies to learning as it does to few other things in life. The more you invest of yourself in developing your knowledge and skills, the better your long-term return on that investment will be. There are plenty of things you can do at home as well as at work that will help you climb your learning curve faster or with a greater understanding and appreciation of what you’re learning. For one thing, background reading and study almost always helps learning, especially when you’re grappling with topics, tools or technologies that are new to you, or when you’re trying to understand them deeply and thoroughly. For another thing, activities like planning, researching study materials, organizing your notes and information and spending long hours exploring topics, tools or technologies as thoroughly as possible are often easier to accomplish when the phone isn’t ringing all the time and you’re not distracted or interrupted by the normal hustle and bustle of an average day at work.
In general, outside activities that can help aid the learning process will include some or all of the following:
- Researching, identifying and obtaining information, study materials, tutorials, labs and exercises and other things to help foster learning and skills development.
- Reading through materials, working through labs and exercises, practicing installation and configuration, tackling troubleshooting problems and scenarios and so forth.
- Taking notes, reviewing key information and tracking activities and learning efforts.
- Playing around with new tools and technologies to understand what they are and how they work and to gain familiarity with them (gaining experience, in other words).
This also explains why I’m convinced that whether you’re going for some certification or just trying to learn about tools, technologies or platforms, it makes sense to design, fund, install and use a personal test lab to augment your learning experiences. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do this at work, good for you (after-hours access may still be a good idea anyway); if not, be prepared to do this at home—it will pay off in all kinds of important ways.
Building an Experience Portfolio
As you’re learning new concepts and technologies, mastering new skills and acquiring new or expanding on existing knowledge, it’s a great idea to keep track of such things along the way. For one thing, it provides the most detailed record of your progress and acti