Silicon Valley North #35                                       September, 2001


The Way I See It… by Michael C. Volker


It’s Back to School for Tech Companies


Now that it’s Fall and back-to-school time, I thought it appropriate to write about an interesting and somewhat novel corporate philosophy I found while traveling in Europe this past summer.


I visited a small software engineering firm near Zurich and was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered to be a cornerstone in their corporate culture. This firm does not only offer – it mandates – that its employees allocate ten per cent of their work week, i.e. a half day per week, towards personal and professional development. Employees’ weekly calendars must clearly show this as a scheduled activity. It is not something that can be deferred. And, it applies to everyone in the company starting with the CEO.


This does not mean that they have to study related work skills such as new software methodologies that one might argue is an obvious benefit to the employer. Indeed, a programmer could study time management, accounting, a foreign language, or for that matter ancient history if she wishes to do so.


The CEO explained to me that by actually scheduling time for this activity, he was not simply expanding his already busy week. By making learning a high priority, other tasks and activities might be forgone.


It is the emphasis on learning in general as distinct from specific work-related skills development that I find interesting. Most university-educated professionals will tell you that one of the most valuable aspects of higher education is that they have learned how to study and discover. The specific knowledge acquired is secondary. So, why should this process stop after one graduates? People with broad interests and inquisitive minds tend to be innovative and creative.   


Although professional development is a core tenet of the engineering profession, and whereas engineers must take personal responsibility for their on-going personal development and education, I rarely see this deeply ingrained in corporate philosophy. Companies are content to leave this responsibility entirely in the hands of its employees.


While competitive compensation packages often include attractive monetary components such as stock option plans (notwithstanding current market conditions) and various other benefits such as training allowances, I have not seen any North American companies go so far as to insist that all of its employees actually commit a chunk of time to this on a weekly basis. And, in the Swiss case, ten percent is not small change.


What I find appealing about the idea of providing this to employees is that it could be a particularly attractive perk that smaller, non-public companies can offer. For non-product, low-growth firms (e.g. systems integrators, consulting and contracting firms) for whom the provision of stock options is not a particularly meaningful lure to attract employees, I suspect that the promise of such a substantive personal benefit could be a compelling alternative.


In the case of the Swiss firm, which operates in an economic environment in which unemployment is in the one to two per cent range, the inclusion, and prominence of, a personal improvement policy has resulted in increased loyalty – as evidenced by low turnover - and productivity.


The way I see it, a company mandated personal development allowance will not only provide a meaningful perquisite to employees, it will serve the company through the development of its most valuable asset – its people.


Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser U's University/Industry Liaison Office. He oversees Vancouver’s Angel Technology Network and is a director of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at