U.S. Army grows learning communities, focuses on 'talent discovery'

Posted: 09/12/2013
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Patric Conway

Over the course of their career, the U.S. Army's 450,000 soldiers and civilians have acquired numerous skills, some of which they no longer use regularly in their current position. Patrick Conway, Chief Knowledge Officer at U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command, calls the unearthing of these hidden skills "talent discovery." "Many of us don't know how much talent actually resides in our organization," Conway said. "And much of what we need to be more successful at what we do is already here, we just don't know it." Patrick will be speaking about this and how the U.S. Army implements new learning technology, without jumping at the next shiny object to enter the space at Corporate Learning Week 2013, November 12-15 at Disney's Yacht Club Resort in Orlando, Florida. To learn more about Patrick click here. Be sure to check out our video interview with Patrick above or the transcript of the Q&A below.

This video cast includes discussion about:

  • Socializing learning theories for the workplace
  • How the U.S. Army constructs learning communities
  • The process of "talent discovery"
  • How the U.S. Army determines which new technologies to implement
  • The steps Patrick and his colleagues take to show their department's ROI to leadership


What will you be speaking at Corporate Learning Week 2013?

In general terms, I'm going to talk about three things. One is incorporating learning, if you will, into our corporate strategy and making it as important in our corporate strategy as the other business objectives that we have in our particular organization. The second thing I'll talk about is how do you use technology in a resource-constrained environment, what I call a resource-informed process to assess what technology fits where, at least in our experience for our learning needs and supporting our population. And the third thing I'll talk about is: How do you assess that? How do you measure not only the performance of what you do for training, development and the processes that produce the learning objects, but how do you measure the value at the end of the pipeline?

What do you see as the biggest challenges you face in your role of chief knowledge officer? What are the things you're doing to address those challenges?

These are very big issues that we're wrestling with — not to say that they aren't issues wrestled with by any corporation. I think the largest one is really taking a step back and thinking about learning in the context of what it means today. And for us, that was extremely hard, predominantly because we are quick to gravitate to the term learning, but we are slow to disavow ourselves from the inhibitors that really look at learning in its truest context, so we have approached it as learning in its fundamental terms is about a change in behavior or a change in cognitive understanding. If you think about that for a moment that means a lot because it means a lot in terms of how do you cause learning to take place?

If you look today, learning is going on all the time. People are learning something — whether it's good or bad — through a lot of different sources, a lot of it powered through the Internet, a lot of it powered by gaming technology, a lot of it powered by the social media trends. So the question becomes: How do you leverage that to ensure the training that might be important for your members of an organization in terms of their performance and their productivity? How do you leverage that to cost effectively improve their learning and obviously, the organizational learning as a whole? Getting that message across is hard. You have many different generations that have learned in different ways and they're not all the same. So how do you master that? How do you define learning objectives and how do you make sure that what you invest in is what can get you the value at the end that you're after?

Can you explain what you've done at the U.S. Army in terms of learning and training operations in the last few years?

Over the last couple of years what we've wrestled with as we socialize this theories, these concepts and actually put them in practice is we've reached out and looked at what was going on in other avenues, in other learning venues. A good example: University of Phoenix. That's one of the largest universities in the United States in terms of population that has fully grasped the concept of learning communities. And most of the students in the University of Phoenix are using communities — online communities — to actually conduct their courses and actually interact with one another and collaborate as teams to learn a given objective or a certain course that they got to be able to master to get their degree. That's one benchmarking avenue that we took to look at how we can leverage that.

Over the last couple of years, we've expended a lot of effort and time building those communities around our target population, which about 450,000 soldiers and civilians all over the globe, and built into the construct of communities, the ability for them to share experience with each other at the point of need. So, if I went out there and I'm sitting in Iraq and I'm a mechanic and I don't know how to fix a piece of equipment, I've got reach back capabilities to the experts and the expertise right then and there on how to do something. That delivery of knowledge that annunciates learning at the point of need is one of the heavy investments that we placed on our learning efforts here.

How do these learning and development programs fit into an overall talent management strategy?

I'll give you an example to think about when we talked about communities. A community that is focused on a particular practice or a skill often times has members in it that have, as you know, an a sundry of other skills or learning that they've acquired over their careers — maybe even totally unrelated. But it is talent inherent in our workforce. And what we've uncovered is that many of these folks have talents that are necessary elsewhere in our workforce. So by developing these collaborative communities, what's popped up are these other skill leaders who have the talent necessary to support an objective that they perhaps aren't working on given their location, given their job or given the function they've performed. And I call that talent discovery because we often times focus on talent retention in the context of the people leaving, but I would offer to you that many of us don't know how much talent actually resides in our organization today. And much of what we need to be more successful at what we do is already here.

We just don't know it. So we spend a lot of time on discovering talent, further developing and re-applying that talent and then making sure that recruitment of talent from the external sources, the new people coming on board are fully woven in that process, so that talent retention become a primary objective of our strategic plan. We call it succession planning.

You'll be speaking about how technology is playing a role in your learning and development program. Can you explain to us what learning and development technology you use right now?

I think I need to couch it first to say our approach to technology, we've gone through some learning curves. Initially, it was very easy to jump to the newest technology that popped on the screen. But it also becomes quickly recognizable that approach is not very resource conscious. So we backed off a little bit and basically took the approach that before we adopt a technology, we look at some things. Primarily, what's that technology pursuit for? Give it a purpose. Why, in fact, do we need this technology? What business outcome are we trying to achieve, and oh, by the way, how do you measure it?

Once we know that, we start peeling back the onion to figure out, okay, what are the processes by which this technology will be applied? Is it internal? Is it a management structure technology that will help us do things more efficiently? Is it something that will help students learn in a quicker way, in a more intuitive way? Now we peeled all of that back to look at all the processes and systems and then the final analysis is: What does it take to sustain that technology? And by doing so, we look at the bill at large. It's easy to grab on to something today, but with the shelf life of technology being what it is, we have to take a very insightful look at how do you maintain the technology? How does it integrate with out technology? Oh, by the way, what's the future look like for that technology?

By doing that, we've gotten a bit more prudent and fiscally responsible way of approaching technology and it's led us down the road to adopt things like gaming, virtual multi-player, multi-lever exercises, which are globally dispersed in terms of our combat operations, all of it online with analytics.

You've mentioned a lot about measurement. Within the L&D community, there's been a lot of discussion about return on investment. From your perspective, how do you show your department's worth to upper-level management in the U.S. Army and how do you show the ROI to them?

I realize how complicated that is, and I don't want to paint the picture that we're done. This is a journey, not a destination. So it's a constant revitalization of determining metrics, and generally we use two areas. One I call efficiency, and that is: How well are we performing the functions, the processes that lead to the production of our training materials and the execution or delivery of our training and education in learning? Those processes are very complicated; they're hard to measure, but we started assessing in terms of things like man hours and programmatic costs, what does it take to produce that which is needed to train and educate? And how well is it performing? How are we expending on updating our training support package or building the objects or videos within an interactive or multi-media instruction bin?

Once we've captured how well we're performing that, the other category of measurement is how much value is there to what we have produced in the eyes of the customer? So as in an example: How well does a solider perform once they leave here and go to their first unit to Iraq. Not how many graduate, that's an efficiency number, but a value effect is how well they're performing once they get to where they're going. In terms of apps, the amount of ours expended one enveloping a mobile app is then compared to how many times the app is downloaded. And those two numbers give us indicators, and then we sit, my leadership and others look at that and determine whether that investment is in fact producing the value intended in all of that of course is tied to the strategic plan because all of us are driven by budgets. We have to balance and use our fiscal resource s in a manner that is dually supportive elf our missions and the things of that nature. We can't just have things that we would pursue that are nice to have--they have to have value at the end of the day towards our mission. So when we balance all of those out, that gives the leadership the ability to make decisions on what to invest in and what not to invest in based on the feedback of the commanders and the organizations by which we provide those soldiers those capabilities.

So it's a very important business to measure and I think that's probably in the business world, they do a much better job at that because they have a bottom line they've got to reach but it's been a little bit harder in the academic arena to wrestle with that because we often times think, well, we're not going to measure that because it's a sum cost and therefore, we're just going to train and educate and the value is how many walk out the door with a certificate of graduation or a diploma in their hand. At the end of the day, it's how well they perform in their organizations. So that's both externally and internally. That's how we approach these two categories of measurement. It's not a perfect science. There is a qualitative aspect of all of this that we certainly have to recognize and make decisions on. My boss and the others that make those resource decisions are the ones who kind of gauge that. And as long as they have fact-based data in front of them to make assessments from, then I've done my part to contribute to the cause.

Looking to the future, what do you see as the emerging trends in learning and training?

I think this question gets the notion of we're going to have to embrace the fact that the knowledge economy, the digital way, if you will, the speed by which technology changes and the learning needs, the ever-evolving learning needs of our digitally-enabled workforce. Those three factors to include the larger factor of a resource-constrained environment, are going to drive us to have to embrace a more holistic approach to learning and using all of the avenues that have emerged of the information age and the knowledge economy to leverage learning opportunities.

Right now, there are so many knowledge sources out there, ways by which you can learning — reading, whether it's reading, whether it's videos, whether it's online communities, whether it's gaming, whether it's tweeting. I don't care what it takes. There are knowledge flows every day where people are learning something. The question becomes: Are we leveraging that to ensure our workforce is learning what they need to learn to be productive in our organizations? If we are not, and we're myopically approaching what many would say is an industrial-age construct of training and education and usually only that, we're going to be hog tied because learning is happening faster than our ability to keep up with it. So, I really think holistically getting at the notion of adopting and racing and capitalizing on the various knowledge sources that are out there, the means by which you can learn, then that will open up new avenues and new ways of accomplishing learning in a corporate sense and a structured sense that adds value to organization.

A good example I use with an interview yesterday: I was discussing with a good friend of mine the use of social media in an organization and good friend, but in his organization, social media was a no-no. And the claim was that use of social media would in fact detract from the organization's performance and quite frankly, my counter to that was, well, that's because you haven't given it a purpose. If you look at social media and you were to assess how you can use social media to instill learning through those knowledge flows than you can accomplish some of those objectives, not all, but some that are contributors to the performance of the organization, not distracters. And that's a different way of looking at things. Gaming is another approach. You can use gaming as a distracter because it's entertaining or you can instill learning objectives through gaming. You're choice. But I guess my point is we've got to figure out a way to adopt it and use it in a credible way, not disavow or push it aside because people are learning through it everyday.