Workforce planning without the guesswork

Learning management systems help states and counties analyze their workforce data

Before Irish Kennedy Smothers left the private sector to become Mississippi’s chief human capital officer, she asked whether the state had a learning management system that could help officials track and manage the training needs of state employees. Smothers, who had been using such a system for years, learned that the state relied on paper and a few spreadsheet databases to request and track employee training courses.

“I don’t want to say we were in the Ice Age, but perhaps it might be a good description,” said Smothers, who leads the state’s Department of Employment Security.

The state has installed a Web-based system — the Mississippi Enterprise Learning Management System — that electronically speeds the registration and approval process for employees enrolled in classroom instruction and more than 4,000 online courses. Smothers said the system, which uses software that SumTotal Systems developed, will revolutionize the way the state administers training for its 30,000 employees.

On the West Coast, Los Angeles County officials developed a strategic plan that included workforce excellence as a major objective. That plan calls for establishing a training academy for its 38 county departments and 90,000 employees. It also requires the county to install a Web-based learning management system to provide online courses for employees, track and evaluate their progress, and capture the institutional knowledge from those who leave government, said Lu Takeuchi, senior human resources manager at the county’s  human resources department.

In Mississippi, Los Angeles County and cities and counties nationwide, officials’ interest in learning management systems and e-learning has been growing for several reasons, workforce experts say. Much like their private-sector and federal counterparts, state and local officials must try to reduce their training costs and still train a large workforce in a timely and efficient manner.

E-learning advocates cite other reasons for the growing public-sector interest in learning management systems: the onset of baby boomers’ retirement years, the need to retain and better compensate public-sector employees, employers’ interest in mapping the skill levels of their employees, a greater emphasis on aligning workers with an agency’s mission, a need to improve readiness among the public safety workforce, and a growing online culture that expects innovation.

In 2006, the market for learning content, technology and associated services reached nearly $8 billion, said Peter McStravick, a senior research analyst at IDC’s learning services group.

“Certainly government, if I had to take a guess, would account for a significant wedge of that pie,” McStravick added.

New organizational model for learning
Michael Morrison, senior vice president of corporate development at GeoLearning, a prominent e-learning vendor, said most state and local governments offer some e-learning opportunities. But learning management systems are a distant goal for a majority of those governments, Morrison said.

“The biggest challenge within any government environment is that typically business processes and organizations are highly fragmented, and you don’t see a lot of standardization,” he said. “Every agency has its own training budget, people and missions unless you go to a state where they are providing shared services.”

However,  Morrison said the public sector is beginning to shift toward consolidation and standardization of learning activities under one person, such as a chief learning officer or director of training.

Bobby Yazdani, chief executive officer of Saba, one of the major players in the learning systems market, said those training positions existed in the past. But now organizations are consolidating related business processes and systems under one person because they recognize they can’t make good workforce decisions without aggregating information.

Those decisions are part of a larger trend in states that are trying to govern more efficiently and effectively. Wayne Bobby, vice president of finance and administration solutions at Oracle Public Sector, said state governments installed enterprise resource planning systems to improve transaction-based processes, such as hiring and promoting employees and processing purchase orders. Officials only recently realized that they could extract workforce trend information from those ERP applications, he added.

“You start asking questions of these human resource applications: How many people work for me? How old is my  workforce? How many people have these certain skills?” Bobby said. “These are obvious questions you ought to be able to ask and answer, but we primarily rely on these systems to process transactions and not to be informational.”

Meeting that need will create a new integrated systems market, some experts say.

From hire to retire
James Gill, SumTotal Systems’ government solutions director, said new developments in workforce management strategies, combined with learning management systems, are creating a new market for talent management. Talent management encompasses the entire life cycle of a worker from hire to retire, he said. For managers, it means recruiting workers, training them, documenting their skills and skills gaps, evaluating their performance, and then compensating and promoting them appropriately.

Takeuchi said Los Angeles County is acquiring system capabilities for employees to map their career paths and know what skills and courses they need to get promoted or move into another line of work. County officials will be able spot employment gaps in their agencies.

Smothers said Mississippi’s learning management system will record employee competencies and skills gaps so that state officials can develop a workforce plan. They expect to use that blueprint as the basis for succession planning, leadership development and curriculum design.

Talent management systems are an ambitious goal, but state and local governments can achieve immediate benefits from learning management systems, Yazdani said.

The return on investment “is not one of those things that’s going to take three years to prove,” he said. “You’ll be able to get to that lower cost of operations and a better experience faster.”

Sarkar is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Focused e-learningPlateau Systems now offers iContent, which distributes e-learning content for specific organizational needs.

“The way content has been sold traditionally doesn’t fit how federal, state and local government users want to purchase,” said Ed Cohen, the company’s chief technology officer. “You can buy an [Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)] or information technology curriculum, but you’re buying by curriculum. They want to buy something very focused.”

Plateau developed the iContent Web portal to introduce organizations to learning management and e-learning, Cohen said. IContent is modeled on Amazon.com, which he described as a distribution mechanism for published material. People can go to iContent for curriculum materials from different content producers or publishers.

“We’ve essentially normalized the metadata so you’re getting the same kind of description of all the different titles,” Cohen said. For example, six vendors might offer the same OSHA course under six different descriptions. IContent provides a standard course description and lets the user test drive the content before purchasing it.

“We’re going to let you play with the content … and then when you do decide to purchase it, it’s all inside this one infrastructure,” Cohen said.

IContent, which uses an Akamai platform for delivering content, lets users access thousands of titles worldwide. Organizations can post proprietary material in iContent so that only authorized users can view it.

Organizations can either purchase content through an annual subscription or buy individual courses, Cohen said.

— Dibya Sarkar
Roseville, Calif., undertakes a systematic approach to training, identifying skillsRoseville, Calif., which has a population of about 105,000, purchased a learning management system from SumTotal Systems to help city officials track employee training activities throughout 18 departments. Lisa Achen, the city’s training and development manager, said the city plans to use the technology to deal with an anticipated workforce shortage. The city employs 1,200 full-time and 600 part-time seasonal workers.

“The city estimates that approximately 60 percent of its workforce could potentially retire in the next five to 10 years,” Achen wrote in response to questions. “To provide a structured approach to deal with the potential loss of organizational knowledge and allow our employees to prepare for promotional opportunities, we need to establish a systematic mechanism of identifying specific skills and competencies inherent in a successful performer within our structure.”

— Dibya Sarkar

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