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
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.