New curriculum empowers leaders

IRM College prepares leaders for roles in transforming their organizations

National Defense University’s IRM College Web

Senior federal executives and military officers face significant pressures to adapt and evolve — and to get their organizations to follow suit. Yet many civilian and military leaders say they lack the necessary skills to deal with disruption and unpredictable situations.

Recognizing those concerns, educators at the National Defense University’s Information Resources Management College organized a new curriculum last fall that has drawn more than 100 students. The college created a course of study in organizational transformation to expose students to innovative ways of thinking about change, communicating across organizational boundaries and managing risk.

The curriculum prepares students for the challenges organizations face, which include “not just incremental changes but revolutionary changes in their processes and organizational vision,” said Mary McCully, chairwoman of the Information Strategies Department at NDU’s IRM College.  “Our government has remained largely a hierarchical, Industrial Age bureaucracy. We have to start thinking in different ways.”

The certificate program has enrolled students from military services and several agencies. The courses also have attracted officers and officials from the Israeli Army and Israeli Defense Forces, the Bulgarian Army and defense contractor Raytheon.

In each course, students get a week to view online materials before each course and an opportunity to participate in 40 hours of classroom work during a five-day period. Students are expected to perform an organizational analysis or complete an individual or joint transformation project that involves finding a new solution to an old problem in their agencies.

Such end-of-course projects help students bring new skills back to their organizations, said Cathryn Downes, a senior research professor and coordinator of the Organizational Transformation Certificate Program. About 40 percent of students who have completed similar coursework in NDU’s Process Improvement and Process Management program have implemented their class projects or at least proposed them for implementation in their agencies.

Air Force Lt. Col. Marilyn Peppers-Citizen, chief of the Policy, Plans and Operations Division at the North American Aerospace Defense Command/Northern Command, has taken four courses in the new certificate program. She has not yet completed the program, but she has been able to sell some of her transformational projects to NORAD officials, she said. 

“The skills they teach you help you to focus on the task ahead, but it’s much broader than that,” she said. “Your way of approaching those tasks becomes much more open to new ideas, innovation and different ways of doing things.”

In a course titled “Multiagency Collaboration,” students must compile lessons learned from stabilization efforts in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and then develop alternative strategies.

Katrina relief operations are a classic example of a situation that required a culture of collaboration. Students study how to create effective multiagency teams quickly in response to crises.

In another course, “Leading Strategies for Disruptive Innovation,” Gerry Gingrich leads students through case studies and activities that illustrate how innovation can be more than simple process improvements. “You’ve got to not only design disruptive innovation but you’ve also got to lead it,” she said.

Students learn how to manage internal factors, such as organizational culture and budget issues, Gingrich said. The program also requires leaders to understand the external environment and assess and anticipate where it’s going, so they can shape the future of their organization.

Those are lofty goals and difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a training program, some leadership experts say. John Desenberg, consulting director at the Performance Institute, said he has witnessed the difficulty of transformation efforts at the Defense and  Homeland Security departments and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “I’ve got to ask, ‘Can you really teach someone about that in a classroom?’ ”

Others applaud NDU’s efforts to tackle a challenging problem with a new curriculum. “I just don’t think this is one of those areas where you can give somebody a cookie-cutter [set] of skills and expect them to perform,” said Fred Thompson, former vice president of leadership and performance at the Council for Excellence in Government.

The council’s Excellence in Government Fellows program offers a yearlong course with similar transformational objectives. Students learn new skills, try them at work, then return to the classroom environment to assess how they are doing, Thompson said.

Ron Sanders, ODNI’s chief human capital officer, is implementing another approach to organizational transformation. ODNI requires all intelligence analysts to serve stints in various organizations inside the intelligence community.

That’s a good approach, Desenberg said. “Getting people outside of their stovepipes and outside of their insulated worlds and into a more dynamic situation is key to getting them into the mind-set of organizational transformation.”

No one at NDU considers IRM College’s organizational transformation program to be a silver bullet.

“It’s all about helping them assess the environment and look well into the future and recognize that their new role lies in actually shaping that future,” McCully said. “These are all tough skills to learn.” People in government are often not accustomed to taking risks and innovating, she added. “We get students to really start wrestling with all the new ideas and new skills around organizational transformation and to take that back to their jobs.”

Peppers-Citizen said the greatest value of the program is the cross-agency networking that occurs when students from different agencies work together to solve a common problem. “It’s eye-opening to learn that the way I look at something with my DOD mind-set is often viewed very differently by students from other organizations,” she said. “You’ll end up with five or six different strategies for getting to where you need to go. Now when I am working on interagency issues, I really consider how agency partners may view the issue.”

Professors who teach courses in organizational transformation said the most difficult part of the program occurs when students return to work. Course content can help students bring their new knowledge into their organizations, Gingrich said. “But, honestly, a lot of how successful they are at that depends on the individuals themselves.”

Leaders can maximize their chances for success by listening to their instructors and leadership experts, who advise students of organizational transformation to:
  • Be realistic. “To think that you’re going to come back as your new, evolved self and the organization will suddenly bend to your new way of thinking is not likely to happen,” Thompson said. “Change is difficult, even when people want to do it, so patience is critical.”
  • Find support. Connect with a community of like-minded individuals within your organization and others who can provide support when you encounter cultural resistance.
  • Get a hearing. Students who graduate from transformational programs have a toolset and a knowledge base that is extremely important to organizations on the verge of transition, Downes said. Some students will return with a dissenting attitude. They will criticize the direction their organization is taking and push hard for change. Others will become advocates who softly but persistently push new ideas. “Both might get jumped on from a great height, but they also might get a hearing on their ideas,” Downes said.
  • Persevere. If you’ve got ideas for transformation, a critical success factor will be your commitment to seeing them implemented in your organization. “Any success, but particularly success in government, requires perseverance and more perseverance,” Thompson said. “It’s going to take a while, no matter how great the idea.”
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at [email protected].
Back to college to study transformationTo receive a certificate from the National Defense University’s
Organizational Transformation Program, students must complete eight courses within four years. Students take three mandatory courses and five electives.
The mandatory courses are:
  • Leading strategies for disruptive innovation — The course focuses on strategies that leaders can use to guide their organizations through disruptive innovations.
  • Multiagency information-enabled collaboration — The course teaches students how to identify, analyze and recommend strategies for multiagency collaboration to support homeland security and national preparedness.
  • Transformation as strategic alignment — The course investigates the difficult changes necessary for creating new organizational capabilities and exploiting new technologies. It also analyzes new governance models.
— Heather B. Hayes


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