A little education goes far inencouraging valued workers
- By Walter Houser
- Jun 24, 1996
Have you ever been given an assignment for which you had no training or experience? How
did you feel? Was the experience frustrating, maddening or depressing?
It can be quite discouraging to take on a new responsibility without training and
coaching. Employees who must quickly get the impression that management doesn't care;
consequently their motivation and morale can plummet.
Yet this deplorable circumstance is more common as federal employees get RIF'd into
unfamiliar positions and told to reinvent their jobs.
After decades of campaigning against federal bureaucracy, politicos are impatient with
the high cost and slow pace of change. Change is mandated from on high. So a growing
number of federal employees are pushed into the deep end of the pool without swimming
lessons or a life preserver.
As most GCN readers know, information technology is reputed to be a magic potion for
reinvention. We IT managers and staffs are the front-line grunts in the battle to
"make government work better for less cost." In this capacity, we get to rally
reluctant technophobes and urge them to adopt new technology, often at bayonet point.
Meanwhile, the technology changes daily; today's solution is tomorrow's anachronism.
With increasing pressure to cut the federal deficit and reduce expenditures, it's
typical for training budgets to get slashed to nothing. Mission-critical systems employing
the latest technology arrive on the desktops of ill-equipped customer communities.
People are told to learn new application systems when they can barely understand what
they already have. Unless project managers factor in the time and cost of basic training
on navigating a computer desktop, trainees will be rapidly overwhelmed and burned out.
Given the long lead times for procuring and fielding information technology, IT
personnel aim to install state-of-the-art systems that are not hopelessly archaic on
arrival. But the training needed to maintain a high level of professional capability is
costly in dollars and time.
It's reasonable to spend $10,000 annually to maintain one's technical skills. Yet some
agencies spend a twentieth of that or less; little wonder that the resulting systems are
outdated, inefficient or even abandoned.
If we can't train our people, why not hire contractors who will train their people?
That way the contractor bears the cost of training. To a limited extent this can work
well. For example, one-time efforts requiring scarce expertise may be perfect contracting
opportunities. But this approach becomes quite costly for routine activities that are
contracted out because federal employees are not trained to do their jobs.
Besides, personal services contracts (where contract personnel are used as employees)
If we don't train our employees, we put our agencies at risk to contractors who may
choose solutions based more on what is good for them rather than what is good for the
Agency employees must have solid skills to define and evaluate contract deliverables.
Otherwise in our ignorance we may buy the emperor's new clothes.
A vigorous training program can be the most encouraging statement management can make
to employees. It builds employee confidence and courage. It says, "You are valued, we
are willing to invest in you, and we want you to succeed at this new endeavor."
Training is far more effective than slogans and threats, which are quickly discounted
as meaningless and ineffectual.
But how can a typical beleaguered federal IT manager have a decent training program for
the pittance allocated to his staff?
The first step is to make training a priority. We need to stop assuming that people
learn by osmosis or magic. We need to inventory our current intellectual capital, identify
gaps and set up solutions.
One commonly proposed solution is to train our staffs on how to train others. We make
professional development and training an integral part of job descriptions, performance
elements, standards and appraisals. We institute in-house workshops, seminars and classes.
In some organizations, everyone who gets external training is expected to bring that
knowledge in-house. Although teaching appeals to some technical people, many shun the
opportunity. If we require recent alumni to train their colleagues, some people will avoid
needed training to avoid the obligation and potential embarrassment of instructing others.
Even those willing to bring their lessons in-house can't single-handedly replicate the
professional training environment they just left. Experienced in-house instructors need to
coach and mentor the presenters, or the presenters soon become frustrated and discouraged.
If we don't provide support and facilities, all we will accomplish is teaching our people
to avoid training.
Training is costly, whether paid for in dollars or time, internally or externally. But
failure to train is more expensive. It is training that makes the difference between
effective solutions and inert hardware and software.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpug.org/user/houser.