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State Department used tech to find help for tsunami victims

In the wake of the tsunami that devastated much of Southeast Asia last December, the State Department stood ready to help the relief effort. To identify employees best suited to the task, department officials wanted to find people who spoke Thai or had worked in Sri Lanka. They had a list in only 20 minutes.

A year ago, officials would have needed days to collect that information. A new database, managers say, has made the department's response to disasters and staffing needs quicker and more effective.

Employee Profile Plus (EP+), a voluntary system introduced last summer, contains a searchable skills inventory. State officials have asked employees to use the system to update their records. As of April, 76 percent of full-time employees, including those working overseas, had added their expertise to the electronic mix.

"The department had enormous resources but didn't know where they were...and couldn't make quick use of them," said Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, director general of the Foreign Service. Managers felt the effects. Pearson said, finding employees fluent in Farsi to teach language classes "took a month using contacts and old records."

Those old records, or corporate biographies, contain a general history, including information on former assignments, promotions, tested language abilities, educational background and in-service training. The job descriptions were broad, and managers had to write a computer program to search the database. "It took us so long to find what was already there," Pearson said.

Department officials wanted to speed up the process. Modeling their solution on NASA's skills database, they developed EP+. The system supplements the corporate biography with details, such as additional foreign experience, organizational affiliations, occupational credentials, untested language abilities and specific skills, Pearson said.

Managers need to know their employees' specific skills to make the best use of their abilities. Employees can select from 221 choices to indicate their competencies in subcategories such as refugee resettlement and disaster response.

"The real purpose of this is to tap into all the talents of civil servants and the Foreign Service," Pearson said. An employee in economics, for example, might also have an expertise in trade or energy.

"It helps the department manage its workforce and plan for needs such as training, special types of projects, task forces and emergency response," said Bruce Freedman, vice president for the systems development division at AlphaInsight, which helped develop EP+. "It turns what might have been a laborious, manual process or an ad hoc process into something that is electronically enabled ...and more current."

State officials plan to extend EP+ to active retirees, Pearson said. They also want to include spouses with relevant experience. Managers could use the system for training and hiring purposes or to spot trends. Pearson said they could ask "do we have enough Indonesian speakers?" or they could "see if the distribution of resources is right."

Human resources experts say the department has moved in the right direction.

"Agencies that are not using skills inventory/matching systems will soon find themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage in increasingly dynamic job markets and also running the risk of becoming obsolete by not constantly updating the skill sets of their current workforce in response to changing missions and evolving technologies," Rich D'Adamo, president of Workforce Solutions, wrote in an e-mail interview.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and Justice departments are working on similar systems.

"If you allow yourself to envision these inventories being developed and implemented on a cross-agency platform," D'Adamo said, "you can begin to see how the government's human capital assets could be leveraged much more efficiently by creating a readily accessible, governmentwide talent pool."

For example, using a system to identify workers who fit a specific job, an IT manager at Commerce would be able to tap into the skills inventory at other agencies to find a network security specialist with expertise in administering firewalls.

"The inventories could work almost like one of the online dating services by matching employer needs with prospective employee interests," D'Adamo said.

Lisagor is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Got skills?

The State Department's Employee Profile Plus (EP+) contains a searchable skills inventory. State officials have asked staff members to voluntarily use the system as they hire new employees and to update records.

Employees can choose among numerous descriptors. EP+ contains 17 broad competency categories, such as consular, economic, information technology, military, multilateral diplomacy, justice and humanitarian.

Employees can select 221 specific skills among those categories. For example, someone listed as skilled in the consular category could indicate a more specific expertise, such as anti-fraud issues.

Workers can mark other special skills, such as experience with disarming combatants, defusing landmines, resolving conflicts, negotiating and training.

— Megan Lisagor

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