Article
16 minute read 26 October 2022

The future of learning in government

To get the most out of learning, it should be designed around the learner. Here are five design principles that can help do just that and transform employee upskilling in the public sector.

William D. Eggers

William D. Eggers

United States

Amy Titus

Amy Titus

United States

Amrita Datar

Amrita Datar

Canada

Over 24 years in the military and seven years as a federal civilian employee, John Pahnke had always been willing to work where he was needed. He had served in roles from aeromedical evacuation to health services management. As a budget analyst for the United States Transportation Command, he noticed that the line items for cybersecurity kept going to contractors. They just didn’t have enough in-house talent.

So, when he heard that a collection of government agencies was pilot testing a Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy (FCRA), he leaped at the chance. “I saw the FCRA as a terrific opportunity to finally jump into cybersecurity,” said Pahnke. “I believe that I can best support my country and enhance my professional path by shifting my career to the cybersecurity sector.”1

So Pahnke began a rigorous program to learn how to defend his nation’s digital infrastructure.

A few years earlier, it would not have been possible for Pahnke to transition so easily. Fortunately, he rode a wave of impending changes to how the public sector trains employees.

With unemployment still at near-record lows, the fight for talent can be ruthless. And learning opportunities—or the lack thereof—have a key role to play in who wins the talent race. Consider this:

  • Data from Gallup shows that 48% of American workers would switch to a new job if offered skills training opportunities.2
  • Almost 30% of respondents in Deloitte’s Global Millennial and Gen Z survey said that learning and development opportunities were the top reason they chose their job.3
  • The No. 1 factor that workers say defines an exceptional work environment is opportunities to learn and grow, according to LinkedIn data.4

In this environment, it is increasingly important to develop and retain current employees, while making sure new hires can learn quickly enough to fill gaps. This often means enhancing talent development, which should include moving learning programs from a nice-to-have to the forefront of agencies’ people strategies.

The public sector’s need to transform its L&D has been evident since the digital revolution. What’s less obvious is how. At its core, learning is a human behavior (rather than a mechanical process) and should be approached as such. This means ensuring learning programs are outcome-based, self-directed, flexible, accessible, multimodal, personalized, agile, intuitive, and rooted in optimizing the learning experience according to needed skills.

In the sections that follow, we explore how applying a set of design principles to workplace learning can give L&D in the public sector the long overdue upgrade it so desperately needs.

Putting the human back into learning

Humans were born to learn. In fact, we start learning in the womb even before we’re born, and it’s in our nature to learn throughout our lives.5

To get the most out of skill-building, learning should be designed around the learner. But workplace education systems, as well as many K-12 and higher education systems, are not entirely in sync with how most humans learn best.

Dr. Malcolm Knowles, father of andragogy (the study of adult education) theorized basic principles of how adults learn:

  1. They are self-directed learners
  2. They accumulate experience that becomes an increasingly rich resource for learning
  3. They are ready to learn, especially to support their social role
  4. They want immediate application of knowledge (problem-centered orientation)
  5. They tend to be internally motivated
  6. They need to know the reason for learning something6

Think about how we learn things outside of work or formal learning. For example, how would someone approach learning to cook something? The inspiration may begin with the expectations of a social role: parent, boyfriend, self-sufficient adult. They would probably use multiple sources or modalities—perhaps a cookbook or written recipe, or a short video, maybe asking that friend who’s an excellent chef to teach them. Once they learn the recipe, they’d likely make the dish multiple times—testing, experimenting, and improving each time. Then they might make it for a dinner party where it can be enjoyed and praised by friends. They might even teach others how to make it. There are so many elements to this—learning-by-doing, context (the how, where, and why), impact, tools and technology, trial and error, feedback and iteration, socialization, emotion, and past experiences, all play a part. That interplay of approaches is why it usually works.

Organizational L&D can be structured to reflect and complement natural learning behaviors. Consider something like learning a new data analysis technique in the workplace. Workers might first be asked to do some self-directed learning through a curated catalog of materials, including slide decks, video tutorials, etc. That would get them familiar with basic concepts. Knowing that they’re preparing to perform a simple, practical task for the class can motivate their studies. Self-directed learning could be followed by instructor-led sessions (virtual or in-person) where they apply data analysis to a dataset from their job. By solving a real problem that impacts their work, they can become more invested in learning and can more easily see how to apply what they’re learning to their job. By learning in a group, they would automatically have a community of peers to consult, and with whom to share tips, tricks, and challenges—something they can continue to do even after formal training has ended. The same cohort of learners can be brought back together for refresher modules as new data tools are adopted. Once they are sufficiently fluent with their new skills, they can be tapped to train others.

Human-centric learning in the public sector

To transform workplace learning and skills development, government agencies should apply a human experience lens to learning and professional development, guided by a set of design principles for learning (see sidebar, “Five design principles for learning”). Aligning workplace learning programs against these principles can play a role, giving L&D in the public sector an important upgrade.

Five design principles for learning

  1. Outcome-based: Anchor learning against business objectives, capability needs, and performance objective
  2. Skills-focused: Create personalized learning journeys and solutions based on skill needs, using human-centered design and adaptive learning and pathing
  3. Balanced: Employ the right use of holistic modalities, enabling learning in the flow by emphasizing smaller, modularized, and point-of-need assets
  4. Adaptive: Proactively and rapidly identify future-focused learning needs, and ideate and iterate solutions to quickly test, assess, refine, and implement
  5. Optimized: Prioritize content curation before new content design, and streamline and automate content for a targeted and intuitive learning experience

1. Outcome-based learning

Connect learning to mission objectives

To incorporate our human desire for purposeful learning, workplace education should connect to tangible mission outcomes. For example, a worker learning a new survey analysis technique will fare better with a goal: analyzing data from a recent customer feedback survey. Learning toward a purpose can motivate workers while directing education resources toward concrete mission objectives.

Outcome-based learning requires some preparatory work. It means studying missions and breaking down, at a granular level, the skills required as well as articulating how learners will apply them toward a real mission outcome or problem.

Reskilling and upskilling in high-impact areas

Learning programs that focus on reskilling and upskilling are good examples of outcome-based learning. They often will deploy specialized learning to accomplish a specific mission objective—for example, protecting the nation from cyberthreats.

In November 2018, then US Federal CIO, Suzette Kent, knew that part of the solution to the cyber shortage would be to “build”—or train from within. In coordination with various federal agencies, the CIO’s office developed a pilot program for the FCRA. They received more than 1,500 applications, tested the applicants for cybersecurity ability, then initially trained 25 individuals.7 While it was just a pilot program, the results were excellent—100% of the students achieved industry-standard certifications in just three months.8 The next trick was moving these workers into cybersecurity roles where their new skills could be applied (see sidebar “Procuring capabilities—build, borrow, or buy”).

Procuring capabilities—build, borrow, or buy

Once managers identify the skills necessary to complete a mission, they can take a build, borrow, buy approach to obtain the skills they need in the workforce. Ideally, an organization can build the skills and capabilities needed to sustain it—as in the case of OPM and cyber discussed earlier. But they also have other options.

Buy: Hiring new employees or contracting for needed skills

Skills needed only temporarily can be purchased; for example, hiring a contractor for the duration of a project. Sometimes obtaining a skill set is so urgent to the agency that the only option is to recruit, or buy, the talent directly.

Borrow: Expanding details for skilled workers

Borrowing can also be a way for organizations to access skills that are hard to find, difficult to train, or too expensive to hire permanently. Coming back to the example of cybersecurity, most high-paying government cybersecurity jobs require a year of experience in the field, which meant the trainees would take a pay cut for an entry-level job. Kent approved several cybersecurity details, allowing workers to try out careers in cybersecurity at their old pay grade, with the option to return to their former role if cybersecurity didn’t work out.

Meanwhile, the OPM created a clearinghouse for detail opportunities across the federal government. Sometimes described as a bulletin board for federal details, the Open Opportunities page matches candidates with skills and suggests relevant positions in agencies or agency divisions they wouldn’t have previously considered. “We found some incredible candidates,” said Adam Anicich, from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “Previously, there wasn’t a mechanism that allowed ad hoc and part-time details to be disseminated across the country.”9 Anicich now regularly borrows talent using OPM’s clearinghouse, providing experience to veterans that they can carry with them to further enrich the federal workforce.

For Keeli Otto, who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a detail working for the National Weather Service showed her where her normal work ended up. “This opportunity really put the interconnectedness of government work into focus for me,” she said. “I personally can get caught up in my work and lose sight of how it all plays into the bigger picture.” The detail revealed how her work outcomes connected to larger mission objectives, motivating further education. “I was able to rejuvenate that sense of service to the public,” she said. “Sometimes we just need that small shift in perspective to better understand our purpose.”10

Incentivizing learning by connecting it to career growth

Outcome-based learning is happening worldwide—and has also taken root in Argentina. The Government Lab of Argentina’s Design Academy, a project to develop a flexible, data-fluent public sector, educated more than 15,000 public servants in its first three years.11 Employees are given the opportunity to attend classes, events, or lectures according to their interests. They can learn from instructors, ranging from Harvard professors to veterans of Argentine public service.

The program strives to train public servants in three main areas: knowledge, skills, and culture.12 Subjects range from prototyping to agile methodology to data visualization.

An in-game economy of education credits incentivizes the students to participate. They may earn anywhere from 2 points for attending a lecture to 100 for an in-depth class. Each employee must earn 60 points annually to qualify for promotion.13 By offering and tracking education in soft and hard skills, Argentina’s program laid the groundwork for an outcome-based approach that can adapt to challenges.

2. Skills-focused learning

Create personalized learning journeys

Skills-focused learning is about creating personalized learning journeys that are tied to skill needs and learner experiences.

Learning is more than cramming information into an employee. Ideas tie together. Think back to the new cook learning from friends and online videos. Tending to sourdough starter will make a cook quicker to understand sauerkraut. The overlaps between skills will reveal the underlying science of fermentation, helping the cook improve at both. If visualized, learning often takes the shape of a web rather than a straight line.

The more experience a person has, the more frameworks they have for organizing new concepts. Attending a startup weekend event can familiarize someone with the lean business model canvass. Even if they don’t draw from that experience for years, suddenly it counts when they’re asked to pick up iterating with agile development. Skills feed into each other. It’s up to the organization’s leaders to help students practice the skills they need—now and tomorrow.

Self-directed learning journeys (personalized, user-driven, and adaptive)

The Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) designed its education system to let public servants shape their own education path. Rather than being pushed to learn topics in a specific order, students may explore a massive catalog of classes according to their interests, like a video game character moving through a skill tree. While CSPS suggests a progression for some topics, most of the modules are simple to peruse online at a self-directed pace. Supervisors can track employees’ progress if necessary.

Similarly, Singapore’s Civil Service College launched a new program to develop newly appointed director-level executives. The 10-month-long blended learning program prepares first-time directors for new responsibilities and helps them navigate their transition into the role.14

Self-directed learning journeys like these hand power to the learners. They channel intrinsic motivation, but with institutional guidance about which lessons suit their journey, (unlike online videos, where autoplay suggestions are less likely to keep them on topic). Students can then adapt to the changing demands of their job, skip parts they understand, and re-do sections that gave them trouble. Unlike a typical classroom, where each student has to move along at the pace of the class average, self-directed study allows students to learn to mastery.

Identify foundational skills

Often, an organization’s anticipated needs rest on a few key foundational skills. These skills, such as data literacy and analysis, agile development, data ethics, or a basic understanding of user-centric design, lay a foundation for other, more specific skills, from machine learning to predictive analytics.

To build this foundation, CSPS’s Digital Academy splits lesson plans into bite-sized “busrides,” which are designed to be short enough to complete on the bus to work. Busrides make skills acquisition flexible and less daunting. CSPS can adapt the curriculum to anticipated needs, and users can follow their own learning journey. These shorter modules explain the basics of important skills that workers may or may not decide to pursue in depth. Students are then prepared for serious study if they wish. If they decline, they still have the background to understand partners in an increasingly collaborative work environment.15

The US Department of Treasury provides an online modular-based data literacy program for its workers. The curriculum offers 25 data literacy courses at the beginner level and spans across five modules: data visualization, big data, data-driven decision-making, data and analytics literacy, and data and analytics at work.16

Understanding different types of skills (and nurturing enduring human capabilities)

New hires at Toyota plants are required to physically assemble car parts before they are allowed to just stamp them out in a machine.17 Toyota wants them to understand how the steel bends, and what force it requires. It’s not trying to train automatons who know how to do a task. It wants employees to understand the fundamental principles behind a task, giving them the capabilities to solve problems and imagine improvements.

A widely repeated maxim from the 2015 book A New Culture of Learning, argues that the half-life of a skill is five years.18 As former federal CIO Suzette Kent told a reporter, “Because what’s relevant in the space changes so quickly, I’d take somebody that had a certification in the last 24 months for the role before someone who had a degree 10 years ago.… If I’m putting somebody on the playing field, I want somebody who’s been in the game recently.”19

But not all skills lose relevance at the same speed. Durable skills, such as critical thinking, communication, and leadership, remain relevant longer than semidurable skills, such as a coding language, or perishable skills, such as knowing the trick to connecting to the office printer. Like Toyota managers, to get the most out of L&D, trainers should develop learners’ enduring capabilities as they train for perishable skills.

Training enduring skills can mean tapping into innate human qualities (figure 1). We all have imagination—we don’t all use it to imagine how other humans will view negotiations. To develop enduring skills into fundamental capabilities, encourage questions, curiosity, and mistakes—just enough messiness for workers to learn about the forces underlying their mission. (See more in our study on developing capabilities.)20 These enduring capabilities can help employees adapt as missions change and technologies evolve.

3. Balanced learning

Use the right mix of modalities

Research has shown that adults have a variety of different learning styles—one size doesn’t fit all. As workplace L&D grows more continuous, self-motivated, and skills-based, L&D programs are increasingly adopting every educational opportunity available to them. Education can happen in self-paced online courses, in bite-sized pieces, through mentorships or hands-on experience, through custom boot camps, and in virtual reality (VR) (figure 2).

As employees increasingly demand remote work, multimodal education expands educational possibilities. Multimodal education has been around for a long time, but with the leaps in distance work technology since the pandemic, it offers a wealth of opportunities for training, and incredible potential for those willing to experiment.

Macrolearning

Macrolearning involves carving out time to learn through structured learning modules like MOOCs, online courses, and assessments as well as more immersive learning methods like the use of augmented reality and VR environments.

Virtual reality training

Virtual reality can be especially useful when training for situations that are either dangerous, expensive, or unexpected. Medical students are learning with virtual reality surgery. Medical professionals facing a new condition, like monkeypox, can use VR to practice assessing new symptoms before the condition reaches their hospitals. The military is piloting a program to use VR to train warfighters on how to intervene and respond to sexual harassment incidents.21

VR allows learners to get multiple repetitions in simulated environments. It lets employees work the kinks out before a dangerous situation—and because they were immersed when they practiced, hopefully, they won’t feel too out of place when immersed in something serious.

Flight training before bed

The US Air Force entered 2020 facing a shortage of thousands of pilots.22 Prospective pilots spend months using US$26 million simulators before they take their first real flight in a fleet of training jets.23 But in 2018, the Air Force bought off-the-shelf virtual reality components and built simple simulators at a cost of US$6,000–8,000 each.24 Aviators practiced with the VR simulators in their quarters.

This mix—of cheap VR simulators, full simulators, classroom time, and real-world experience—yielded excellent results. In the trial run, VR training cut overall training time for most pilots by about two months.25 The first two pilots in that class to move from VR to live aircraft qualified to fly solo after just four sorties, instead of the normal 10–15 flights.26 All graduating pilots did as well or better than their peers in the traditional program.

In addition, the Air Force is developing a system to provide immediate biometric feedback. In its fourth year of testing, the system tracks factors such as cognitive load levels, stress levels, and, via eye-tracking, attention.27 Researchers hope to eventually identify biometric markers that indicate mastery of a task.

Microlearning

A common educational modality in the digital era is microlearning. Workers can acquire small nuggets of knowledge as they go, honing skills not just through practice but through increased context at tough parts of the task. Microlearning can take many forms, from videos to immediate feedback to formal feedback at the end of the day.

Kelly Barrett, a knowledge management specialist at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) saw the potential of microlearning and decided to bring it to his agency. For the past seven years, Barrett has created short, narrated video tutorials to help IRS employees navigate commonly used tools such as Skype, WebEx, and ConcurGov, as well as topics like leadership and paid parental leave. He called the program Self-Help Online Tutorials (SHOTs) and created a video library accessible to 80,000 IRS employees. Now a servicewide initiative, SHOTs has 520 videos with more than 360,000 views. In addition to appreciation from colleagues, the program won the Federal Government Distance Learning Association’s (FGDLA) 5-Star Award in November 2018.28

Public sector organizations can make the most of microlearning by awarding and tracking credentials for skills learned. These credentials can not only clarify more specifics of a person’s technical knowledge than a degree, but also help motivate learners.

If an L&D program is going to be continuous and multimodal, an organized credentialing system can paint a picture of the results of the multiple different forms of education. The province of British Columbia has instituted a stackable, transferable microcredential system for postsecondary education.29 The framework of this system is open to other organizations to adopt in case they want a seamless integration with it.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is a government agency supported by the ministry of education that delivers a unified vocational education system. It invites industry to work with higher education institutions to develop microcredentials. For instance, to build practical skills in forestry, microcredentials in forestry operations were developed. As of January 2022, there were 203 NZQA-approved microcredentials, and 65 learners were awarded a microcredential within the first year of introduction in FY19–20.30

In Canada, the Ontario Student Assistance Program introduced more than 600 microcredential programs, including a virtual skills passport. The passport keeps track of learners’ credentials and allows them to share digital credentials with potential employers.31

University learning via partnerships

Digital learning makes it increasingly possible to partner with universities to create a custom curriculum for public sector upskilling. Whether it’s administered in-house, like OPM’s cyber reskilling, or through distance learning, like the Design Academy by the Government Lab of Argentina, a traditional college course has its benefits.

Many agencies, like OPM and the Department of Commerce, offer a senior executive service candidate development program (SES CDP). Such programs may send an employee to study graduate courses at universities like the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A classic example of this model is sending officers to study at the Army War College. American University even tailors graduate programs to suit an agency’s specific training needs.32

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) partners with a large swath of “land grant” universities that were established in 1980, especially state agriculture schools. These universities research topics of interest to USDA, send students to internships and jobs at the department, and help train its employees. The USDA’s Foods and Safety Inspection Service offers US$5,000 of college tuition reimbursement to employees who study at universities, provided they get at least a C.33

Experiential learning

As doctors say, “learn one, do one, teach one.” Experiential learning, based on learning from direct experiences, is an important aspect of workplace L&D. But that valuable hands-on time can be made more valuable when combined with supplemental context. This learning mode has proved vital for NASA and other agencies which make extensive use of rotations and special projects to expose employees to different tasks and jobs.

NASA, whose turnover hovers around only 5% a year, must contend with its high retention rates through continued education.34 NASA employees can engage in experiential learning through NASA’s talent marketplace, which advertises project-based opportunities within the agency. “It really just pushes open the doors of opportunity to our workforce to consider projects, rotations, details, and these kinds of experiential learning opportunities that [we] might not ever have even considered before,” said NASA’s chief human capital officer, Jane Datta.35

Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense and private sector defense organizations jointly created the Public-Private Talent Exchange to share talent across organizations through temporary projects and assignments.36

Public sector apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a time-honored experiential way to develop talent. Apprentices study on the job, earning pay alongside more experienced employees—who tend to learn from teaching as well. It’s popular. Australia has invested in the creation of 100,000 apprenticeships, the EU dedicated 22 billion euros to apprenticeships, and the UK has a goal of getting 2.3% of its workforce into apprenticeships.37 Studies show that 93% of apprentices retain employment when the apprenticeship ends.38

In America, many apprenticeships introduce troubled teens into manual labor. Kentucky’s recent pilot apprenticeship program expands on that model. While the state trained several mechanics to repair the state vehicle fleet, apprentices also trained for technical and administrative roles.39

What governments are doing to help train the private sector workforce by incentivizing apprenticeship programs, they should apply to their own. Agencies should tap into the apprenticeship model so that workers can learn on the job and seamlessly transition to full-time work.

4. Adaptive learning

Continuously and dynamically improve learning

Modern work, whether in the public sector or private, is about constant change, constant improvement, and constant adaptation. Effective learning methodologies in this environment are agile, an approach that started in technology, and spread. It emphasizes fast iterations, feedback, and continual improvement. It’s about prioritizing users and testing little changes, every day, to give users a smoother experience.

Adaptive learning means planning ahead. It’s testing to see which learning practices and content improve performance, inculcating a culture that’s tolerant of controlled risks, and anticipating which skills will apply to a workplace that could, very quickly, change.

Planning L&D can be tricky. Technology and work evolve so rapidly, the skills the next five years will require may barely have names today, much less a comforting certificate. Whether it’s the Department of Transportation seeking infrastructure resilience in the face of global warming, the military’s recruitment outlook slipping in a hot job market, or the pandemic changing expectations for remote work, public sector managers can’t merely respond. They should anticipate future needs based on changing business and technology conditions.

Anticipating skills needs by developing sensing capabilities

To stay ahead of the curve, government agencies should think about their workforce’s future readiness in the face of technological and societal disruption.

For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) undertook a 20+ year future forecast, looking at the exponential increase in self-driving cars, demographic changes, and new technology for public transport. As part of a larger, detailed plan, they identified positions they would probably need in the future. These included artificial intelligence analysts, urban/rural mobility managers, and autonomy engineers. With these needs in mind, they can work toward acquiring the necessary skills, and make room on the org chart before the future sneaks up on them.

Agencies should develop internal sensing capabilities to keep up with the latest disruptions as well as convene experts and business leaders to understand what skills they anticipate rising in prominence, that will shape the future workforce.

Understanding evolving learner needs

The Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) education catalog iterates with agile practices. In keeping with a customer-focused mindset, CSPS requests feedback across its website, maintains an ever-evolving suite of education modules, and has conducted extensive research into its user base. Most recently, a survey of 4,775 public servants sought to identify user segments and set a baseline to test against future progress.40 It also sought to understand public servants’ learning styles and what topics users desired to learn and in what format.

“The age of data science is here,” announced Neil Bouwer, a former vice president at CSPS. “It is important to have data literacy in the public service. Literacy in AI and data will become a new staple of public policy and public administration in the future; so we’re going to have to take some measured risks.”41

By taking measured risks in the service of improving performance, CSPS sets an example of the digital skills it hopes public servants will learn.

5. Optimized learning

Curate, automate, and streamline learning

Technology makes it increasingly possible to optimize L&D to the needs of learners. L&D programs can curate from the sea of existing content, personalize content delivery to employees’ learning styles, track educational achievements with digital dashboards, make learning more accessible, and assess effectiveness.

Consider Air Methods, a 2,800-person helicopter rescue company in Englewood, Colorado. It needed to train pilots, medical personnel, dispatchers, and other team members on everything from safety protocols and technology advances to bird migration forecasting. In a fast-paced, high-risk environment, every member of the team needs not just to be competent at skills, but to use them so predictably that other team members can anticipate their actions. The company adopted an aviation training system built on artificial intelligence (AI), including VR training for both pilots and medical personnel.42 With more than 250 courses, it tracks each user’s progress, and awards microcredential certificates the company has customized to reflect its educational needs.43 For AI to optimize suggestions, it should first assess two things: the skills the organization needs, and the skills employees have. Ideally, an L&D program will also identify a user’s most effective learning styles.

There are high-tech ways to collect this information—some marketing surveillance companies may already have a profile of your learning style for sale—but it can also start with something as simple as requesting self-assessments.

Based on these assessments, AI can make recommendations for not just training courses but curated learning journeys or pathways that can—much like a YouTube playlist— bring together a selection of courses for a learner to build fluency around a topic or skill.

Prioritizing curation over new content design

Often, the time taken to create new training programs from scratch is too long. Agencies can instead try to optimize learning where possible by using available tools—for example, curation—to speed up the training process and deliver training content to those who need it fast and in an interactive way.

One success story in quickly adapting workplace L&D starts with the pandemic. The Co-op Group is a collection of 2,600 small and medium-sized grocery stores, a major food wholesaler, a provider of legal planning, and the main provider of funeral services in the United Kingdom. It is the country’s largest consumer cooperative.

The pandemic created a skyrocketing demand for groceries while online orders quadrupled and delivery became common. Meanwhile, funerals increased, and regulations about the safe way to conduct funeral services continued to evolve. The co-op had to quickly onboard 5,000 employees. L&D resources were stretched even thinner, as employees moved to new roles to reflect the changing business.

The co-op, luckily, had recently centralized L&D for its 23,000 employees and multiple stores. They swiftly assessed skills and employee needs. Mandatory food safety trainings were separated from trainings that could wait. Online training could scale across the country, while external videos could be curated. That left resources free to focus on the creation of absolutely necessary content: education programs to keep up with the new policy for funeral services. By moving completely online, it was even able to redeploy its in-person education team to check in on sick employees.44

Multimodal education provided flexibility. A continuous training philosophy cut down on the time it took new hires to hit the stores, as further education accrued on the job. A thorough inventory of employees, training materials, and needs allowed them to optimize training. And their feedback systems let them tell, roughly, how well it all worked.

Prioritizing curation, leveraging technology, and targeting resources where they are most needed can enable a swift response to unexpected disaster, not to mention making the most of workers’ time and talents. Optimizing learning sounds like a gift to employees, but really, it’s an investment in an organization’s long-term success.

Tapping into the learning ecosystem

Key to optimizing learning is to not reinvent the wheel, and instead leverage the capabilities of partners within a wider learning ecosystem (figure 4) to achieve your L&D goals.

For example, the US Department of Defense which offers an AI career path, uses a range of digital learning platforms, operated by schools and businesses, to help personnel keep pace with AI developments in the private sector and train them to adapt to new roles. These programs are available across levels and roles, from junior personnel to AI engineers to senior leaders, and combine digital content with tailored instruction from leading specialists.

Working with the right partners can help agencies tap into leading technology, learning resources, tools, and providers to build an optimized learning environment for the government workforce.

As the future of work meshes work, workers, and the workplace to prepare for new challenges and requirements, a key to optimizing learning is to build a strong core for the learning ecosystem that includes these five critical components:

  • Learner experience: For the generations of digital natives now joining the government workforce, learning is expected to be mobile, interactive, and immersive.
  • Learning technology: Instead of traditional learning management systems, integrated learning systems, course catalogs, learner records, andrecommendation engines can all tie together in a data-driven learning environment—and artificial intelligence will soon play alarge role as well.
  • Personalized learning: Curated learning steers learners to the right resources based on immediate needs or long-term goals.
  • Learning in the flow of work: You don’t leave work to “do learning;” it’s something you do every day as part of work to augment a current skill or develop a new area of expertise.
  • Integration with the talent management system: From recruiting and onboarding through their entire career, an employee’s learning journey should be inseparable from their career path.

Designing L&D for the future means designing for the learner

Utilizing these strategies may sound like a daunting task. But like any task, break it down into components, as well as the participants involved, and it can become manageable. Understand the individual components of the learning ecosystem, and the whole becomes simpler.

Designing learning for the future means designing for the learner. Humans are born to learn. They enjoy learning, and they enjoy it even more when they see how a lesson applies to their work. Take education apart. Make small pieces available, in a variety of formats. Try VR, apprenticeships, self-directed reading, and hands-on experience. Let employees learn continuously, as they grow, reinforcing lessons and refreshing their work in new contexts. Identify the skills you need, connect them to the outcomes you desire, and let AI or the students themselves customize their own learning journey. Collect feedback. Provide feedback. And by utilizing the new technologies available for education, you can partner with employees for their education. They can bring a renewed understanding of the fundamentals of their work, and perhaps stay around a little longer.

And hey, if they leave, and your organization instead develops a reputation for training some of the best talent the private sector can poach? That draws bright minds in for the next round of L&D.

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  2. Gallup, “The American upskilling study: Empowering workers for the jobs of tomorrow,” accessed October 13, 2022.

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  3. Deloitte, Striving for balance, advocating for change, 2022.

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  4. LinkedIn Learning, The skills advantage, accessed October 13, 2022.

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  5. Molly McElroy, “While in womb, babies begin learning language from their mothers,” University of Washington, January 2, 2013.

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  6. WGU logo – online college, “Adult learning theories and principles” April 7, 2020.

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  7. Phil Goldstein, “New cybersecurity reskilling academy to train feds for security roles,” FedTech, January 7, 2019.

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The authors would like to thank Aishwarya Rai and Apurba Ghoshal for their for her critical contributions to this article.

They would also like to thank John O’Leary, Bruce Chew, Maggie Pavelka, Graham Thompson, Anna Duncan, Eric Flamer, Maria Demeke, Deanne Watts, and Will Arnold for their input and feedback.

Cover image by: Emily Moreano

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