How to Get Your Boss to Support Learning

Think back for a minute to what you were doing five years ago. Now think about what you were doing ten years ago. Were you doing the same thing? Were you doing it in the same way?

Probably not.

Learning Key on KeyboardToday I run development teams and write Web applications using Ruby on Rails, Java, Ember JS and Backbone JS. Five years ago, I was writing mostly Perl to test storage applications. Ten years ago, I was mostly writing Java and a lot of that was in the context of QuickTest Professional. The one common thread is Java, but the Java I write today is very different from the Java I wrote then. We didn’t have generics and such ten years ago.

Getting from five years ago to now involved a lot of learning. Learning can come from many sources: formal training, self-guided tutorials, playing with toy applications or feedback from co-workers. In every case, though, it starts with you. It starts with saying, “I want to learn that.”

The idea is the easy part. “I want to learn a new language.” “I want to learn how to better deal with large volumes of data.” “I want to learn what DRY means and why I should care.” This article is about the hard part: getting support for the idea. How do we justify our need to learn, and how do we get it?

Is This Work or Play?

The first thing to ask is whether this is work learning or play learning. Work learning is learning that you can justify in the office to your bosses. It will help your day job today or in the next year or so. If you build Web applications and you want to learn about responsive design, that will probably help you in your day job. Thus, it’s work learning. If you build Web applications and you want to learn the inner workings of Kerberos, that’s probably play learning.

Both work and play learning are important. Work learning helps today, tomorrow and next week. Play learning won’t help today but will make you more well-rounded and can make job or career transitions easier. Work learning is frequently something your boss will find a way to support you in. For play learning, you’re on your own time and your own dime.

What Do You Want?

Let’s say you’ve decided that what you want to learn is work learning. Now the fun begins. You have to figure out what you want, so you can ask for it. Most people want one or more of the following:

  • Money.
  • Time at the office to learn.
  • Hardware or software systems.
  • A chance to use the new knowledge.

Of these items, time and a chance to use the knowledge are usually the two easiest for your boss to give. Money and systems are frequently harder, but not always. For everything you want, you also need to decide how much you want. Need money? $100 or $1,000? Need time? Are we talking a day or a month?

This is where research comes in. Yes, you’re doing the work, but after all you’re the one who will benefit from the learning. Figure out how you can learn what you’re interested in. Depending on how you learn best, consider classes, meetups, online tutorials or building a sample application and putting it up for public feedback. Then add up the dollar cost, systems/hardware/software/accounts you’ll need and estimate it just like you would any work task. Then write all of this down. You’re going to need it.

Create a Business Case

In business school and many organizations, you’ll hear people talk about a “business case” for something. A business case is a document that describes why an idea is a good idea. It lays out the costs — time and money — and the benefits — fame and fortune — that will come from implementing the idea. Your boss probably speaks business case, so if you want to learn something, give him a business case.

In some companies a business case is a big thing, but for our purposes it can be very simple — just an email or a quick plain text write-up will be fine. It should include several things:

  • A summary. Start with about three sentences describing what you want to learn in terms your boss will understand.
  • The cost — in time and money — of learning. This is the research you did when you were figuring out what you wanted. Write up each thing separately, with just a sentence or two about each. Cite your sources.
  • The benefits to the company. What will the company get out of this? “I’ll be smarter” is not helpful. Instead, point out that you can train your teammates, or that you’ll be able to help solve a problem the company has, or that you’ll be better equipped to handle a big upcoming project.
  • Alternatives. You might not get everything you want. There may be time but no money for a training class, for example. Be prepared with some alternatives so that your boss doesn’t have to say “no.”

Using Your Business Case

Now you’re ready to go to your boss or whoever approves training. First, send your business case and ask for a time to talk about it. If your company does meetings, then schedule a meeting. If you have a more “hallway conversations”-oriented culture, give it a few days and then go chat with the boss. Talk about why you want to learn this thing and hype the benefits a little bit. Acknowledge that both time and money are scarce, and invite your boss to work with you to make the training happen. Your goal isn’t necessarily to get exactly what you asked for. Your goal is to make your boss want to provide the tools you need to learn and work with you to make it happen. That’s when you can stop convincing — and start learning.