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Future-readying the federal workforce

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An FCW article earlier this year on defense technology innovation outlined concerns that the U.S. was falling behind its rivals. To remain a global leader, the U.S. must be fast, smart and constantly innovating. Technology drives productivity, which drives innovation.

We must "future-ready" our federal workforce to take advantage of and to foster technology-led innovation. Technology is simply latent potential otherwise.

At the same time, the federal government is struggling to attract and keep young workers. One government survey found that the percentage of federal workers under the age of 30 dropped to 7 percent in 2015, which is the lowest percentage in almost 10 years. Some might question those statistics, but the number of young workers in government agencies clearly is shrinking, and the implications are serious.

It is particularly concerning because 31 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to retire by 2017. If those employees cannot be replaced by younger workers, it will limit agencies’ ability to achieve their missions.

The government cannot offer the same compensation packages as the private sector, but agencies can take some important steps to attract and keep young workers -- and help future-ready the federal workforce.

1. Adopt modern technologies

Agencies are losing young workers in part because of their failure to adopt advanced and emerging technologies. Because of the role technology has played in young workers’ entire lives, open standards, crowdsourcing, cloud and mobile computing are the ways they want to work.

Yet many agencies have been slow to adopt those technologies, and that reluctance has the potential to undermine agencies' strategic goals through workforce attrition and vacancies. Agencies should advance the tools they use, as well as their mindset about technology, to attract young workers.

Those efforts should include:

  • Open-source technology. One of the benefits of open-source technology is the potential of the collective -- for example, achieving the best algorithm by allowing a larger pool of brainpower to work on a problem. The approaches of open standards and open data apply the same concept to data portability and data transparency, respectively. In other words, datasets are most valuable when as many people and applications as possible can see and analyze them.
  • IT as a profit center. For many agencies, IT is considered a cost center -- a requirement and cost of doing business. Yet technology now has a direct role in driving innovation, as exemplified by the adoption and use of big data. In both the private and public sectors, leaders are beginning to shift their view of technology’s role in the organization. Forward-thinking leaders see IT as a profit center and actively fund it to drive revenue, insight and innovation. In an agency, approaching IT as a profit center can lead to cost optimization that underwrites further insight and innovation, resulting in increased service to the public.
  • Self-service analytics. In agencies and enterprises alike, the main beneficiaries of analytics are employees outside the IT department. Yet the IT department is largely responsible for choosing the tools and creating and analyzing the reports. Self-service analytics can open business intelligence and give more people greater access to data and the analytical tools while freeing precious IT resources for more technology-heavy tasks.

2. Adopt a data-driven culture

Another reason agencies might be losing young workers comes down to culture. Many of today’s successful businesses see culture as a strategic advantage and take a deliberate, top-down approach to establishing and reinforcing their culture across the enterprise. Particularly when it comes to technology, firms project cool, fun and disruptive uses of data as central to their cultures.

How they think of their business, their processes, their people -- in short, the very essence of their companies -- revolves around a culture that embraces data.

Unfortunately, the perception of the federal government's culture is that of an "old guard" that is plodding and reactive to the value of its information. We know that view is myopic, but many agencies do embrace data in that manner. There is no reason government agencies couldn’t establish and promote a similar data-driven culture, however. It starts with a few foundational concepts:

  • Agility. This is powered by the very core of current innovation in data management: agility in terms of computing and storage capability and capacity. IT teams in the private sector have long relied on the agile frameworks of systems such as Apache Hadoop to directly address flexibility and risk mitigation in application development, which allows them to keep an application relevant and up-to-date in a constantly changing environment. Agencies, too, must be agile and find ways to continually advance so they can meet changing expectations.
  • Testing. One aspect of the emerging culture of data is a variation of the standard hypothesis/experiment process. One has an idea about something, tests that idea and updates it, and the next test is based on the results. That cycle is not new, but today's approach builds on the culture of agility and allows for much faster, tighter iterations in the process. Simply put, organizations can get to the answer more quickly. Becoming more hypothesis-driven requires a culture that facilitates taking risks and managing failure, both of which are fostered by embracing agility.
  • Engagement. Open source thrives on the easy and fluid engagement of many to develop and update the best solution. The same concept can apply to creating a culture of innovation at a workplace. Counter to the ill-conceived perspective that the highest-paid person in the office is the most innovative person in the office, the reality is that great ideas come from all employees, and embracing openness in its various colors encourages that innovation. Such efforts are often tied to self-service analytics to give the right people access to the right data and tools at the right time.

Many agencies have begun to adopt a forward-looking data culture to help achieve their missions. Yet fostering that approach is best viewed as an evolution, not a departure from traditional approaches to IT.

A great deal of domain knowledge is wrapped up in conventional ways of articulating datasets, applications and processes within an organization. That hard-won knowledge is incredibly valuable as agencies create a data culture to attract young workers at a time when many baby boomers are transitioning into retirement.

Paired with the right technologies, that know-how can be shaped and brought forward in forms well suited and familiar to young government workers. That shift will help the U.S. maintain its leadership in defense and across the board.

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