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CHIPS Articles: Partnership in Professional Development

Partnership in Professional Development
By James Ward - January-March 2001
"Tight budgets and continuing pressure to reduce or at least limit the growth of the Federal workforce make it more critical than ever for managers to invest in developing and enhancing the skills of their staff." - Government Executive magazine, December 1998.

Employee Training as an Investment

The preceding quotation is now two years old, but it is still very true. Few would dispute its conclusion. Of all Federal agencies, the Department of Defense has been forced to absorb the greatest staff reductions. This operating climate has accelerated the loss of senior personnel while limiting the input of younger employees to the workforce, increasing the average age of the population and raising questions of "retrainability" in relation to emerging technologies and evolving work demands. It is probably true that carefully focused training and professional development should be given higher priority in most DoD organizations.

Yet, managers who eagerly invest in the latest technologies for their information management systems are often hesitant to make comparable investments to develop the capabilities of their people. It's not that they don't appreciate and respect their people. On the one hand, there's the simple trust that the newest software will pay for itself...somehow.

On the other hand, investments in employee training and professional development demand more planning and thought on the part of the manager. And most managers would also admit the nagging feeling that past investments in employee training have too often failed to provide the expected improvements in employee performance.

How should managers approach decisions on professional development and training? There are so many options to consider. Training for what? and who is to be trained? Training decisions by government managers and supervisors cannot be perceived as exhibiting prohibited bias. The planning process obviously involves some complex considerations.

Managing Intellectual Capital

I have given a lot of thought to training and professional development, because I am firmly convinced that the knowledges and skills of my department's employees constitute the department's most valuable asset — its intellectual capital. If the organization is to survive and prosper over the years, this intellectual capital cannot be allowed to atrophy; it must be nurtured, fed, exercised, and developed, and this development must be planned and carried out on a structured and logical basis. It cannot be left to chance. Like other responsibilities of professional managers, employee development must be carefully planned and actively managed.

It has become clear to me that professional development is most successful when the innate interests of the employee have been identified and stimulated. We increase the probability of success if we determine which aspects of the current position excite the employee. Which assignments make the employee want to accumulate and digest more and more information? What stimulates the employee to actively seek more challenging tasks and more responsibility? Are there previously unrecognized skills and interests of the employee that are not now being exercised?

Training that is "pushed" on an employee, in a direction in which the employee finds no intellectual or personal stimulation, too often results in a waste of resources. Conversely, professional development and training in areas that excite the employee's enthusiasm are most likely to produce the gains in productivity and intellectual capital that the organization needs.

I am further convinced that successful professional development is best approached as a partnership of employee and employer, in which both partners are required to invest. My conceptual framework for professional training and development is shown by Figure 1, in which I have attempted to show:

•New employees will likely be overwhelmed by new responsibilities and new work environments for a while. If they possess the basic education and skills required, their capability and value to the organization will rapidly increase, given adequate supervisory oversight and on-the-job guidance.

•Within a few months of employment, new employees should be encouraged to define and work toward challenging career goals, in order to give focus to the personal investments of time, energy and resources that they will make in their professional development.

•As technology marches inexorably onward, the employee’s capability in a given position will tend to reach a plateau, requiring selective inputs of job-focused training to maintain acceptable performance and avoid “employee obsolescence.” A series of such plateaus will likely have to be surmounted during the employee’s career. These infusions of training are appropriately assigned and financed by the employer, since they are overwhelmingly job-related.

•Each plateau becomes a launch pad for the next performance-enhancing training. Satisfactory job performance at each plateau and satisfactory completion of coursework supply the justification for continued government investment in the employee’s professional development.

•Employees should not expect the government, or any other employer, to define their personal career goals for them, nor to plan and finance every step of their professional development. To do so would relegate employees to the status of machines that are owned and maintained by management, and occasionally upgraded… until the machines become too outmoded for further use and are scrapped. Successful professional development, benefitting both employee and employer, is a partnership in which both must invest.

•Because managers must avoid perceptions of bias in training, government-sponsored training must be distributed evenly among employees of similar grade, title, responsibilities, and performance. Therefore, the employee’s own investments in training and development are likely to be the major determinants in progress toward senior technical or management levels in the organization and major career goals.

Employee’s Future Identity Curve

In my MBA course of study, I encountered the term, “future curve,” and appropriated it to characterize the first step in my approach to partnership in professional development and training. Let’s look at what the employee’s future identity curve is, as I define it, and also what it isn’t.

An Employees Future Identity Curve isn’t:

  • A replacement for the Individual Development Plan (IDP); it’s a preliminary step to the IDP.
  • A process designed to guarantee the employee’s next promotion in grade level.
  • A training regimen forced on employees without their participation and investment.
  • Biased either for or against younger or older employees.

An Employee’s Future Identity Curve is:

  • A front-end process that demands that the employee think about and articulate career aspirations, i.e., the employee’s personal vision. (Where do I want to be in two years, in five, or 10?”) Many employees have to be strongly encouraged to do this.
  • A front-end interaction that promotes supervisor awareness of employees’ perceptions of their own capabilities and their potential for higher achievement.
  • A front-end process that demands serious dialogue between employees and supervisors (who should be their principal mentors), with the twin objectives of bringing employees’ personal career goals into focus and into convergence with the legitimate needs of SPAWAR Charleston.
  • A partnering process that emphasizes that successful professional development demands substantial personal investment in time, energy and resources, in tandem with the government’s investment.

Partnership in Professional Development

In summary, the employee’s future identity curve is the first step in a process that orients employees training and professional development in directions that are most likely to produce the excellence in performance that every committed manager earnestly seeks from his staff.

Each of the Command and Control Systems Department’s employees begins the employee’s future identity curve process by completing a simple form, providing answers to the following questions:

  1. What are you very good at and enjoy doing?
  2. In your current position which types of assignments do you most enjoy?
  3. What do you envision as your career path? What is your ultimate goal? What milestones do you see along the way?
  4. What education, courses and training will help you move toward your vision and goals? In which of these are you willing to invest your own resources?
  5. How will your development benefit the command, taxpayer and the warfighter?

Written answers are required to stimulate employees to organize their thoughts. Employees’ answers become the baseline for a candid discussion with the immediate supervisor and for subsequent documentation of the training and professional development plan in standard IDP format.

The face-to-face discussion is key to the whole process. In it the supervisor will counsel the employee, evaluate his or her responses, ensure that the government will receive fair return for its investment, and ensure that the employee is prepared to personally invest in his or her professional development.

The supervisor should also help the employee to establish challenging (but not unreasonable) career goals.

While implementing this approach, I determined that it is not enough to ask employees these types of questions without providing guidance as to where I believe our department is heading. Therefore, my staff and division heads have developed a series of charts to help employees orient their personal development toward capabilities that our department will require today and into the foreseeable future.

These charts are tailored to various broad categories of the department’s work, for example, technology, warfighting and business operations. The technology chart is shown in Figure 2. The height of the bell curve represents the current intensity of demand. The capabilities listed in the center of the curve (its highest portion) may be thought of as today’s demand. The capabilities to the left of the peak are diminishing in importance; those to the right are expected to dominate the department’s skill requirements in years to come.

These technology demands are derived from our best assessment of the functional needs of the department’s warfighter customers, as broadly indicated in Figure 3. Readers of this article are encouraged to develop their own future curve charts to define the capabilities that will become critical to their organizations into the future.

Federal employees who do not take the time to look at the future—their own as well as their agency’s—are making a serious mistake. In this era, no one can be assured of lifetime government employment, but managers can certainly help their employees enhance their employability while simultaneously developing the workforce to meet the government’s evolving workload demands.

Two years ago, I established these three goals for the personnel in my department: “Equip, Challenge, Enfranchise.” I have often been complimented for my sincere desire to advance the career aspirations of all the employees in my department.

But I am also frequently asked, “What if all of them say their goals are to be program managers, division heads and department heads? They can’t all be promoted to managerial positions, can they?”

Well, no. They can’t… but we will do all we can to see that more of them will be qualified and equipped to compete for these key positions when the opportunities come along.

James Ward is the head of the command and control systems department, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Charleston.

TAGS: ITAM, KM, Workforce
Figure 1 shows partnership in professional development. At the start of employment, there is rapid initial growth in the job.  There are successive government investments in job-related training and development, as well as the employee's personal investment in life-long professional development.  While the employee's performance may plateau, several training and development sessions help the employee to reach his or her career goals over time.
Figure 1: Partnership in Professional Development.

Figure 2 shows a technology future curve chart.  The chart is a bell curve plotting from yesterday to today along the x-axis.  Technology is moving from a PC and system centric model to a network centric and knowledge centric model.
Figure 2. Technology Future Curve chart.

Figure 1 shows a warfighter future curve chart.  It is a bell curve plotted from yesterday to tomorrow along the x-axis.  Warfighters will go from JOTS and post-Cold War joint operations to the global information grid, coalition forces and inter-agency operations.
Figure 3. Warfighter Future Curve Chart.
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