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As resources tighten, strategic learning offers advantages

Feb. 17, 2013 - 02:30PM   |  

The year 2013 will most certainly bring increasing pressure on federal budgets. Top leadership is already changing in many of our institutions, as is the case every four years, and staff changes are likely to follow. We are also likely to see a spurt of new policies as well as new legislative mandates, similar to those we saw during the 1990s with the last major government reform efforts.

These changes, mandates and policies are already in the works due to sequestration drills. Some will undoubtedly take place. Taking care of our federal workforce and improving government performance in the face of these changes and constraints is critical. Leaders need to seize the opportunity for strategic learning and proactively position their organization for the “new normal.”

Strategic learning ties each employee’s development to the organization’s mission and goals. Individual performance plans link directly to organizational goals, and learning and training dollars are matched against those individual plans. In periods of significant budget constraints, this linkage becomes critical. However, it’s not sufficient to link only to today’s goals; it’s equally important to link to long-term goals. Training must support today’s goals, but it must also support tomorrow’s goals, thus building agility and flexibility into the performance of your organization.

In addition to linking each employee’s performance plan with the organization’s goals and strategy, each employee should have a specific goal addressing his or her professional development. Professional development may consist of the traditional training and education classes offered by outside training and educational institutions, but in a time of budget constraints, leaders need to be more innovative with the learning opportunities they offer their employees. Monetary resources are shrinking in the new climate, and thus new sources of professional development are required.

The most readily available source of professional development is “in-house” resources. In-house resources might consist of: mentorship programs; opportunities for “shadowing”; training during brown-bag lunches; or on-the-job learning certificates or badges developed by experienced employees and informal leaders. Everyone in the organization can be a teacher or a learner, or both. Indeed in the 21st century, “leaders as learners” is the mantra for agile and adaptive organizations.

Once strategic learning has occurred, your organization needs to focus on the practical outcome of that learning. Can the learning be shared with the employee’s colleagues, or with leadership or subordinates? Can it be worked into a course, a certificate, or a brown-bag lunch for those employees who were unable to take advantage of the original learning? How can the learning be used to support existing projects or processes, or to create new ways to support the organization’s business and improve government performance? The critical point is: Put the learning into immediate use in your organization. Otherwise, it is time and money ill-spent.

Finally, measure the practical outcome of your strategic learning opportunities. Did it increase your mission effectiveness? Improve the efficiency of your operations and execution of your programs? Increase the knowledge and skills of your workforce? These types of questions must be included in any assessment of strategic learning. With positive answers, you’ll know that your strategic learning is moving your organization forward. With uncertain or negative answers, you’ll know that your strategic learning is not aligned with your organization’s goals and mission, and that it must be retooled to fit your key organizational objectives.

In summary, strategic learning is key to organizational foundations, leadership and organizational performance in our new climate of tight budgets. Each employee should have performance objectives that align with your organization’s goals and mission, as well as a performance objective that focuses specifically on strategic learning. Leaders must identify new learning opportunities for their workforce, put them into action, identify the outcomes of those learning opportunities, link them to organizational performance, and measure the success of those outcomes. Any lack of alignment or success in moving the organization forward should be tackled immediately by revising or modifying the learning opportunities to obtain a maximum return on investment.

Robert D. Childs is the chancellor of the iCollege at the National Defense University and can be reached at Gerry Gingrich is director of the Advanced Management Program at the iCollege and can be reached at

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