Tapping Knowledge

Agencies use learning systems to cultivate careers and plug skill gaps.

In the past several years, federal agencies have tried to batten down the hatches for what government and nonprofit leaders alike have described as an impending "retirement tsunami."

As they prepare for employees to leave in droves, agencies have streamlined their hiring and on-boarding processes, ramped up advertising and outreach campaigns, and turned to outside groups for help finding employees to fill critical slots. Agencies also are trying to make the most of the employees they already have by figuring out what they know, what they don't, where they want to go and what they need to learn to get there. And learning management technology has advanced to the point where agencies can standardize training for hundreds of thousands of employees, or design individual plans tailored to one employee's career goals.

"With the clock ticking on the need to address both retirement and performance, federal human capital practitioners must move quickly to implement a solution," Rick Lohmar and Kristen Cooper of Arlington, Va.-based Plateau wrote in a white paper released in July 2008. "Talent management helps agencies recruit the right talent while also 'farming' high-performers from existing employees." Plateau, where Lohmar is vice president for the public sector and Cooper is marketing manager, provides agencies with tools to optimize talent.

Agencies with strong talent management, as Plateau calls it, are more attractive places to work because employees see opportunities to gain skills that will move them closer to their goals. According to the company, talent management systems help employees identify their skills so they can understand the criteria behind performance evaluation systems.

Never Enough

"There's never enough training. There is really never enough," says Wendy L. Frederick, chief of the learning technologies branch at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "There are limited training dollars, and you have to make the best use of those possible. So I think skill-gap assessment and competency is critical to make sure you're spending what training money you have most effectively."

With budgets tight, agencies are in desperate need of employees they can promote and get up to speed on the latest issues, regulations and technologies. Officials are looking for systems that will allow them to do everything from training employees in the basics to getting them ready for promotion to high-level positions and tracking their progress.

In 2004, the Agriculture Department combined seven learning management systems into one, AgLearn. When Stan Gray, program manager for AgLearn, came to the department in 2006, the system provided mostly mandatory training for new employees on topics such as sexual harassment and discrimination. Up to one-third of agencies were paying an outside company for course materials that cost almost as much as departmentwide rights to the material, he says.

Now the integrated system offers 3,000 courses and a 12,000-volume virtual library, so much program data that it took 60 hours to upload to the new system when AgLearn hardware was updated in October 2008.

That consolidation has put more material in one place, but Gray says, it also has forced the department to confront some of the challenges that prevented employees from taking full advantage of the system. It turned out employees lacked standard software needed to access AgLearn, and the multi- digit passwords were difficult to remember. Employees became resistant to using the system often.

Those lessons led Agriculture to design a marketing campaign to convince employees they could benefit from the system. Today, 40,000 employees are completing training regimens designed specifically for them. And Gray says the department will integrate an orientation program into AgLearn so it can track the skills and standardize training of the 15,000 employees it expects to bring on board soon.

ATF's Frederick says the bureau avoided some of the problems Agriculture experienced by maintaining an independent training office that had strong relationships with its information technology and human resources departments. The bureau built a model program called learnATF, which is being rolled out across the Justice Department. A committee of representatives from the training and HR offices has helped define the competencies the workforce needs and used learnATF keep track of the skills its employees have.

It helps, Frederick says, that Plateau has incorporated ATF's requirements into redesigns of its system, meaning the bureau has to request fewer tweaks to customize the system to meet its needs.

And now that they've got everything they need to deliver sophisticated courses on a range of subjects, Gray and Frederick say it's just a matter of getting everyone signed up and using the system, no matter where they are in their careers. "We're briefing the senior political and career top-level officials on the wealth of training that we have on AgLearn," Gray says. "It's going really nicely. We have not only a bottom-up thing where we're sending e-mails, [and] doing posters, but we're bringing it top-down, too."

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