The Future for Federal Agencies Requires Visionary Leadership a.k.a. “Things ain’t what they used to be!”

This interview with Tony Holmes, Practice Lead for Solutions Architects Public Sector at Pluralsight, a tech workforce development company for Government, focuses on what’s needed today from agency leaders to support modernization in the future, the role of AI and data, and how industry can help.

What does “Modernization” Mean for Upskilling Federal Heath and Civilian Agencies? 

Modernization is a buzzword across Government. When we look at staff and upskilling, we are stuck in very old ways of doing things, still using old ways of measuring skill development and progress. As we modernize our approach to development of systems and architectures, and we look for ways to shift cultures within organizations, we need to apply that same thinking to upskilling and training. Instead of looking at whether someone completed a course, we need to understand whether they absorbed what they learned, whether they can apply skills from a course taken, and where the skill gaps are.

What are the Challenges Facing Upskilling/Reskilling?

One of the biggest challenges in moving to a more responsive and more agile approach to skills and skill development will require a change within the executive levels. We need to find a way to instill a culture of learning in which training and upskilling are  expected, an integral part of the job.

There must also be a more humanized approach to training. As agencies, including Veterans Affairs, are focused on tailored user experience and customer experience, as they look to leverage human-centered design in the rollout of new products and features, that same individual, humanized approach must be applied to training. We cannot assume that the needs of all people, regardless of their backgrounds, with their own learning styles and individual job responsibilities, can be met by the restrictions of a generic curriculum, and achieve success, in the same manner, as that of more personalized training.

How does Artificial Intelligence Play a Role?

Using artificial intelligence and a short assessment, we have been able to identify specific skill gaps within individuals and then bring focused training to those specific areas. Not only does this create better employee engagement, but it delivers better return on investment, and a more detailed understanding around knowledge strengths and weaknesses.

The skill gap analysis provided is based on narrow technology verticals, and delivers a granular focus and a decreased time to value of training. When we can compress the learning and focus on extremely specific skills gaps, the speed to successfully achieving those skills increases. We found during COVID that there were very specific skills organizations needed to refocus on, and speed to skill was critical to success.

How Does an Agency Create a Culture of Learning?

Success in upskilling requires a culture of learning that must come from the top. Across organizations there must be a willingness to say training, and upskilling are a significant part of any technologists’ job role.

A great example is within the Department of Justice. They repurposed an empty room, converting it into a dedicated learning environment and in doing so, they gave employees permission to walk away from their desk when they have time, to focus on some dedicated learning time. The employee is still at work, still focused on their job, just from the learning view. When we give people explicit permission to learn, the employee is more invested, more efficient, and our missions tend to have better outcomes.

This approach to agency-encouraged upskilling allows a whole new breadth of learning, opening people to broader skills exposure. This is incredibly valuable in many areas. When we think of cybersecurity for instance, bringing skillsets from a variety of other technology disciplines creates an opportunity for more creative problem solving. This is true across all technology verticals.

Consumable Learning is a great technique to upskill. Short courses focused on specific skill gaps can be considered as highly consumable micro-learning sessions that can be fit in as time allows. The employee now working at home due to COVID can spend a small chunk of time on a brain break from an otherwise arduous task and instead of surfing the web, can get in a focused bit of training. Ten minutes here, 20 minutes there, can turn otherwise unproductive time, into valuable career investments.

How can Agencies Leverage Data for Upskilling?

It used to be that point in time data was the measure of skill completion. All we had to know was that Joe had completed certification for X at a certain point in time and we were covered. That point in time training could have been two years ago and Joe may not have had the opportunity to apply, develop, or perfect those skills since, but he had the training.

Under the individualized model, an assessment at the end of the session measures the successful absorption of the material. Ongoing assessments influenced by an agile methodology give people a clear view of their skills and where the gaps are, and directed and focused learning aims to close those specific, personal skills gaps.

The data also removes the subjective aspect that can come from team leaders who may prefer one personality over another and infer skill ability in relation to their personal bias. Within larger agencies, such as VA and the Department of Homeland Security, they may rely on tribal knowledge to build out teams for missions, but that discourse between leaders as to who might be recommended to support a specific task, can now be guided by the skills inventory which brings objectivity to the discussion and is based solely on who has the shown proficiency in the actual skills required.

Working to the Federal Data Strategy

Supporting the Federal Data Strategy in planning for future activities is critical.

By having this open data in a tool that provides insight, unencumbered by subjective views, there is a reflection of trust within the leadership. From an employee view, access to this kind of data creates an environment in which staff get more job satisfaction, and the data can advocate for that employee. People often leave the Government for the private sector when there is no opportunity for growth or career mobility. With open role requirements and the opportunity to see those roles, they have the ability to build skills towards the career they are aiming for, and objectively demonstrate their skill preparedness for those new opportunities.

Leaders can also identify easily who possesses specific skills to enable team building focused on specific mission needs, and uncover skills they were previously unaware of, to pivot to and address novel challenges as new technologies emerge.

Advice to Government?

Smaller agencies may find they are in a better position than larger to adopt this kind of leadership change because they are less bound by old ways, more able to implement new ideas from the top down. Whatever the size of the agency, it is critical to understand that the focus must be on recruiting and hiring expert generalists, entrepreneurs, that is to say technologists who have both depth and breadth. We are constantly asking people to pivot as technology changes, and this expert-generalist perspective is what will allow agencies to do this.

Advice to Industry?

Industry is in a unique position to help Government move forward, by thinking, not about what Government wants but what they will need in the future and focusing conversations around that. Many agencies are still focused on certifications, that point-in-time learning, which still has a valid place. Industry must find ways to demonstrate more up-to-the-minute knowledge and skill benchmarks, recent proficiency, rather than only relying on past performance. This will help the Government grow technologists organically from outside of the tech industry, rather than relying on fighting for talent from the already significantly limited pool of candidates.

My favorite approach to problem solving is to think not about the problem, but instead to focus on the biggest barrier to moving forward with a solution. When we remove one barrier at a time, approach things from a more granular level, we can react differently and find solutions and innovations needed to move ahead.

June’s Executive Order asks Federal agencies to focus hiring based on the skills job seekers possess, rather than focusing on whether they earned a specific college degree. This removes a significant barrier to filling a sizeable quantity of technologist roles, which up until now have been considered difficult to fill. Private industry can develop tools which help Government execute on that plan.

About Pluralsight

Pluralsight is the tech workforce development company that helps Government agencies keep up with emerging technology, safeguard against cybersecurity threats and modernize legacy IT systems. Using its Skills product, teams can consistently deliver and quickly adopt new tools by building critical tech skills. Its Flow product gives engineering teams actionable data to improve workflow efficiency. Visit them at www.pluralsight.com/industries/government.

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