A new solution for an old problem
- By Heather Harreld
- Apr 24, 2000
The aging federal work force presents a massive management challenge, plunging
agencies into a cycle of retirements and training of replacements.
A perfect example lies in the Department of Veterans Affairs. At the
VA's Veterans Benefits Administration, 40 percent of 12,000 employees will
become eligible to retire over the next three years.
"These are people retiring who have significant experience and skills,"
said George Wolohojian, director of employee development and training for
the VBA. "We have begun an aggressive recruitment process. [But] we can't
hire people from the outside that know our business. We're too unique. We've
got to create a system that will help us deliver training as well as track
and manage training."
The VBA has turned to Saba Software Inc., a provider of Internet-based
learning networks, to help develop that system. The agency soon will launch
two pilots using the Saba Learning Network Solution, a World Wide Web-based
system that VBA managers and employees can access via a desktop browser.
The system will be loaded with a customized matrix of skills the VBA has
determined that employees should have, Wolohojian said.
David Martin, vice president of marketing for Saba's federal division,
said the system captures information from annual manager assessments and
uses them — combined with employee self-assessments — to compare with the
VBA-defined skills matrix.
"The system is designed to, as unobtrusively as possible, begin to understand
which skill level each person should have...and where they are," Martin
said. "We want to fit in with nature...observe things that are going on
anyway. It basically targets the required skills managers say are the skills
people need to be successful."
By combining the manager's assessment with an employee's self-assessment,
the system can create a personalized training and development regimen for
each employee. According to Martin, this method eliminates mass training
courses that are not tailored to individual employee needs.
"Eighty percent of claims agents may already be good enough," Martin
said. "Why send all of them to a class? While they are all in the same role,
their skills could be as unique as snowflakes."
After the system determines an individual's training needs, it can automatically
take actions — such as placing an electronic order for a book or training
manual or automatically enrolling an employee in a class — to help the employee
access resources he or she needs.
To monitor an employee's progress, the system can be used to gather
feedback from an employee's peers, managers or customers. For example, customers
can be sent e-mail messages asking them to click on a Web link and comment
about an employee's customer service skills.
All aspects of the system are geared toward ramping up customer service
with better-trained employees, Martin said. However, as the employee profile
evolves, a manager can use it as an indicator of return on investment for
In addition to using the system to validate training expenses, the agency
will be able to assess the skills gaps created by retiring employees and
gear recruitment efforts toward plugging those holes, Wolohojian said. The
employee development programs also will aid the agency with its retention
efforts, he said.
"Today's worker is very much concerned about development," Wolohojian
said. "The planning and implementation of their training is an investment
in that person. That should result in a more satisfied employee, one who
sees a reason to stay. Those better-trained, happier, more developed employees
will provide better customer service."
The two pilots will encompass the VBA's education support offices in
New York, Missouri, Oklahoma and Atlanta, and its information technology
staff in Washington, D.C. Those pilots are to be completed before the end
The agency plans to roll out the system to its housing, insurance and
vocational rehabilitation employees at the end of the year. In early 2001,
em-ployees of the VBA's largest program, which provides compensation and
benefits to veterans, will have access to the system.
This system is being developed as the VBA is undergoing a major business
re-engineering initiative that requires the agency to improve customer service
and employee development while deploying standard performance measurement
systems, Wolohojian said.
Gregory Mason, director of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Regional VA Office, says
the Saba tool will help his office compare its progress in employee development
with other VA offices. The VA, as part of its re-engineering initiative,
will measure agency progress via a national scorecard in five areas, including
customer service and employee development.
During performance reviews, supervisors and employees only talked in
generalities, he said. Now they will be able to discuss specific skills.
"We're going to be able to sit down with each employee and talk about
skills that they feel are lacking and talk about the skills the supervisor
feels are lacking and reconcile those," Mason said. "In the past, we really
didn't have a way for us to evaluate an employee on the broad array of skills.
It takes you to the next level — not only technical skills, but relationship
skills...the full range of competencies."
— Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.
Features of the Saba Learning Network Solution:
* Sets skill and certification requirements for each role in the organization.
* Prioritizes each skill.
* Assigns the required level of proficiency for each skill.
* Measures skills gaps for teams and individuals.
* Captures manager and self- assessments.
* Provides testing for skills.
* Develops team and individual learning plans and learning budgets.
* Offers online learning.
* Measures closure of team and individual skills gaps and cost of doing
* Determines performance improvements and the return on investment