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Cultivate a Learning Culture

In technology modernization, an agency can move only as quickly as its staff can adapt and learn.

Quality learning isn’t accomplished by attending a certain number of trainings or watching a certain number of videos. It comes from something bigger: the culture of the agency.

Below, three transformation experts share their tips and insights for building a productive learning culture.

Strategy + Time

It takes planning and strategizing to get teams “in the zone” for positive, engaged learning experiences. You have to set the stage.

Sara Hall, Director of Digital Services atPhiladelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology, leads UX advancements from a design perspective. Her team has focused on building more products in-house, including practical assets that demonstrate design with intent.

Hall emphasized that directors and staff need to make time available to address learning gaps and adapt to new products. When leaders put time into charting learning paths of three to six months, it helps employees develop and grow, she said.

“It’s really making a concerted effort to give time, but also plan what that looks like,” Hall said.

Jamie Crews, Senior Manager of Organizational Development for California’s Orange County, introduced an ambitious new talent management system, with opportunities for formal training and self-timed, self-directed learning. She urges supervisors and staff to maximize the time they spend together in meetings and trainings, so that contact is used for crucial, in-depth conversations. In her view, information learnable through a video or podcast does not require a facilitator.

“We’re going to be intentional and facilitating experiences where we’re learning from each other, and that also frees up some of our capacity and helps us better accomplish our mission,” she said.

“We can’t meet everyone’s needs with a rinse-and-repeat training program. We have to put the power in the employees’ hands,” said Crews. “It needs to be about teaching people the skills to find and fill in the gaps for themselves, so they can do the good work that we need in public sector.”

Decentralize Learning Sources

Prioritizing “top-down” learning is of the past, and did it really outperform other methods to begin with?

Not according to Chief Information Officer Lester Godsey, who leads cybersecurity for Arizona’s Maricopa County and the city of Mesa. He’s spent the past three years building a robust learning culture around cybersecurity awareness.

“When you have something coming down from up on high, it usually doesn’t stick,” said Godsey. Instead, he said learning should come from everywhere.

In that vein, Godsey’s team created a “security champions” program in which interested staff members met monthly to discuss cybersecurity threats, trends and updates. The champions then served as leaders in larger group exercises, such as ransomware scenarios or phishing attack simulations.

In Crews’ experience, a healthy learning culture includes experimentation, sharing knowledge and “decentralizing the power of knowledge from the leader” because “as the leaders, they may be the experts and they may have a lot of information, but that shouldn’t be the only power.”

Crews says a leader’s best teaching power is “to create a team structure where people are constantly talking about what they’re learning, processing it, applying it, trying it out and sharing it with each other.”

“When that happens at the team level, it becomes a catalyst for…a way of being,” she said.

Connect, and Make It Bite-sized

Busy staff can be inundated with information and experience overload.

In Crews’ agency, teams were delighted to have thousands of courses at their fingertips. But abundant resources can create a deer-in-the-headlights effect as well. As they sought to contextualize the options, supervisors determined what problems needed to be solved and what courses could help.

“Narrowing the choices actually drove user adoption,” said Crews. “We were better able to help our employees recognize the skills that they needed. And we saw that drive up the self-directed learning.”

Although Godsey’s agency observes Cybersecurity Awareness Month, he finds the more crucial effort is to release smaller engagement opportunities throughout the year, so that staff can participate without being overwhelmed and tuning out. When the observance month comes around, they can reflect on the learning they’ve already done, in addition to continuing to build their awareness.

“Just sharing the insights on things that are going on, whether it’s in a daily brief, weekly summary or through activities that they wouldn’t normally participate in, those go a long way in making people feel like they’re part of what you’re doing,” he said.

Hall finds that simply sharing knowledge through casual conversations is a good way to teach. She’s hosted multi-department discussions among people with varying levels of knowledge about what UX means for a city. Through those conversations, she promoted a general understanding of UX maturity so that all staff could participate actively, building and learning simultaneously.

This article is an excerpt from our guide “Unpacking Digital Transformation.”

Image by fauxels on pexels.com

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