Navy petty officers learn 'soft skills' online

Training several thousand naval officers worldwide on the finer points of management in a matter of weeks is difficult enough. Making sure the officers learn what they need to know and use that knowledge in their jobs is even tougher. But Navy officials say they have used e-learning to accomplish both. Through a CD-based course, Situational Leadership II, the Navy has offered soft-skills training in employee coaching, management and development to several thousand chief petty officers. Ninth House, an e-learning company, developed the situational leadership course and others that the Navy uses for leadership training.

As part of its e-learning program, the service commissioned the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research center, to study whether the situational leadership course was effective. A report on the study, released in March, focused on about 4,000 of the 34,000 chief petty officers who took the course in 2004.

"Soft skills are a much more difficult thing to capture" than technical skills, said Robert Hausmann, principal investigator for the study.

Associating an emotional experience with the skills being taught is crucial to good teaching, said Ninth House's president and chief executive officer Jeff Snipes. People are more likely to remember what happens in a movie than the bullet points in a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, he said. "Our brains are wired to work like that," he said. "The courses are all designed to replicate that experience."

Special challenge

With sailors in 24 time zones, the Navy faced a unique training challenge. Officials needed to provide leadership training to more than 6,000 officers in seven weeks as part of the service's annual chief petty officer training program, Master Chief Petty Officer Terry Scott said. After exploring several options, officials turned to e-learning courses from Ninth House. The company specializes in courses composed of short vignettes or stories and interactive exercises. About 5,300 officers used the courseware.

The Navy didn't have a model to follow when it began its e-learning program, Scott said. He advises other agencies to allow sufficient time for planning how they will distribute CD-based courses.

To get the most value out of e-learning courses, supervisors and other managers should be able to track online learners' progress, Scott said. Snipes said agencies should focus on the specific results they want from an e-learning program. Many agencies choose online courses to save money, he said, but they should select courses that fill their workforce needs.

Navy officials say online courses help the service deliver standardized training. Previously, some sailors received high-quality leadership training and others received none. Soft skills took a backseat to mission-critical technical skills.

"The Navy is the No. 1 training organization in the world," Snipes said. But until recently, most training was tactical and functional. "Very little was done on the leadership skills," he said.

E-learning courses weren't immediately successful in the Navy. When the service first offered the CD-based courses, about half of the petty officers participated, partly because not everyone received them. Scott said Navy officials allowed too little time for resolving distribution problems before offering the situational leadership course, for example. Delivering the CDs proved more difficult than expected because many petty officers were at sea.

The center's study found that 29 percent of the officers experienced technical problems because of faulty Internet connections or delays in distributing the CDs. Changes made since the center completed the study enable sailors anywhere in the world to log onto the Navy's Knowledge Online Web site, order courses and receive a course CD in the mail within 10 days, Scott said.

Spotty Internet connections are tougher to fix, especially for officers stationed on ships. Without reliable access, they have a difficult time ordering and using the training materials. Navy officials are still exploring ways to fix the delivery problems.

In addition to connectivity problems, the Navy had to convince sailors that computer-based training could be effective.

"For most individuals, if they have never taken an e-learning course, they equate it to nothing more than flipping through a Word document or seeing a PowerPoint presentation," Scott said. "They were surprised by the fact that they could get as much out of computer-based training as they did."

The e-learning study found that the petty officers learned what they needed from the course.

According to the study, the officers who took the online leadership course increased their leadership understanding 44 percent, compared with their baseline knowledge. Assessing whether the course was useful, improved leadership skills and applied to the job, respondents scored the course an average of three to four out of five, the study states.

Many officers said their abilities improved in the areas of mentoring, career advancement and on-the-job training. More than half said they were able to save time on many mission-critical activities because of their online training.

Every e-learning course should include a tool for measuring the course's effectiveness, said Bill Rust, an analyst at Gartner. "Training does you no good unless there is an application at the job site," he said.

With the study in hand, Navy officials have measurable results on which to base their expansion of e-learning, Snipes said. "With this type of testimony to the efficacy, you will see an increase in usage and, more importantly, you will see an improvement in performance on the job," he said.

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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Good marks for leadership

The Center for Naval Analyses evaluated 3,968 chief petty officers who took Ninth House's "Situational Leadership II" e-learning course. It is the first time the Navy has studied the impact of an e-learning program on behavioral changes.

Here are a few of the findings.

  • Officers showed small but significant improvements in the four leadership areas: directing, coaching, supporting and delegating.
  • Officers still showed positive leadership changes after three months, an indication that they retained what they had learned.
  • Officers increased their leadership skills by 44 percent compared with their pre-course skills.
  • Officers rated the course 3.9 out of 5 in usefulness and 3.9 out of 5 for how much it improved their leadership skills.

However, 29 percent of the officers said they experienced technical problems because of unreliable Internet connections and delays in receiving the course CDs.

Source: Center for Naval Analyses

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