Facing an aging workforce, the question of how to train the next generation of acquisition professionals is a challenge that federal leaders and industry managers have yet to solve. The need for training is great, but budgets and time are often limited.
Senior government procurement executives and practitioners say agencies have cut training dollars even though employees with less experience now have responsibilities that exceed their abilities, according to the Professional Services Council’s (PSC) 2014 Acquisition Policy Survey. And some said those who do receive training may just be “checking the box” with courses that don’t test critical thinking or include innovative practices.
So, how do you face the conundrum that experiential or case-based training, the very type that many people need, can seem cost-prohibitive given tight budget constraints? Integrity Matters talked with Mike Ipsaro, Technical Director at Integrity Management Consulting, who has developed and delivered training for multiple agencies in a wide range of formats. We asked him about how to deliver training that is cost- effective while also being customized. Ipsaro says modular delivery, simulation, and adaptation to emerging or customer-specific needs are all key.
Integrity Matters: What are your top recommendations for training innovation?
Mike Ipsaro: I think that we’re seeing some different ways of innovating in the training area coming from other fields. For example, we’ve seen the use of agile methods and practices born out of the software development industry extend into the greater digital service arena, and even into general professional services, including training. Using an agile approach allows you to deliver a product iteratively, which is in lockstep with customer needs and requirements at any given time. Another approach is the use of technology. So in addition to some practices and principles out of the IT domain, like agile, there are also methods, such as modeling and simulation, that you see applied in other industries, like training pilots to fly, or training pharmacists to apply therapeutics. A similar type of simulation-based approach could be applied as well to the acquisition arena.
Integrity Matters: Can you give an example of simulation?
Mike Ipsaro: Certain contracting and program management milestones could be modeled – for example, a training class that simulates a decision made to move from a planning phase to an acquisition phase of a life cycle, or the decision space and point of choosing among alternative solutions to a mission need. Or with respect to contracting milestones, building a solicitation, publicizing and working through the exchange with industry, and then the subsequent award. All that could be simulated in a role-playing, realistic environment, permitting safe experimentation, and yielding valuable insights about your people and teams. Learning can be achieved in multiple ways, and it doesn’t always have to be delivered in a highly formal way. Many effective ways of training in other fields have occurred through what’s often referred to as a natural style. Simulating realistic conditions can captivate the interest and attention of attendees as they learn from experience. You’re actually working through some of the real problems in a safe environment, with people present who can coach and guide the participants through those issues.
Case study approaches are often less expensive and intensive than simulation but can also yield benefits through the incorporation of practical exercises that apply or reinforce some of the objectives and principles participants have learned about in training. For example, we have provided scenarios such as an emerging need, threat, or problem where participants suddenly have to adjust and make careful tradeoff decisions on how to balance the cost, schedule and performance objectives to achieve the goal. Working through a case or practical exercises affords participants a realistic situation that they may encounter in their work.
Integrity Matters: How do you make sure training is not “off-the-shelf?”
Mike Ipsaro: Viewing training as a holistic offering that complements our consulting practice can yield benefits to recipients of both the training and consulting. Also, having a flexible delivery approach can differentiate the training in that it is exacting in meeting client needs. It could be modularly developed and deployed in a highly customized and personalized way. However, we know that organizations have many needs, including so-called off-the-shelf (or generic) training, which employees can participate in to obtain their continuous learning credits. That meets a need too. So we like to identify customer needs and map our training to it. For example, we hear our customers tell us they want reliable content consistent with Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) or Defense Acquisition University (DAU) competency requirements so that when their employees attend, they can be assured the certificates they receive are useful and can be applied toward their continuous learning. That’s key for participants.
There are other population segments within that same client organization, however, that may need a more targeted, customized approach to address some systemic risks or issues that they’ve had, or some initiatives that they’d like to capitalize on or improve upon. This calls for a customized approach through specific case studies, and perhaps some modeling and simulations and role playing for experiential learning. From the standpoint of a training provider, it can’t be one size fits all. Trainers must bring a holistic solution where they determine what the customer needs and when, tailor accordingly what they have, and partner with others as needed.
Integrity Matters: What argument would you make in defense of an investment in training?
Mike Ipsaro: Here are three reasons:
1. Safe place to think outside the box: First of all, we’ve found even the participants who are there to meet continuous learning requirements or have come for a refresher are able to look at a challenge in a different way and have the freedom to discuss alternatives in an environment where they can experiment and move beyond checklists. That’s the critical thinking that executives say is often missing in today’s workforce.
2. Agency-wide impact is possible: Second, we’ve worked with agencies that ended up scaling training. So for example, an organization requested training based on best practices espoused by organizations like FAI, DAU, the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), and the Project Management Institute (PMI). After the organization attained a level of maturity, they wanted the content adapted to their particular challenges or environment. So we work with them to adapt it until it becomes the standard for their organization.
3. Big A must adapt to emerging needs: Third, there is a need to learn and practice how to adapt and scale proven acquisition life cycle management processes, such as the so-called big A acquisition process that matured within the Department of Defense, to agencies and environments that are seeking a systematic, mature, holistic program management approach. For example, Health and Human Services (HHS) doesn’t buy weapon systems – many of its acquisitions are focused on health services, medical countermeasures, vaccines, etc… The Defense Acquisition University has a vast array of training pertaining to defense systems, but for medical countermeasures or health services and products, the lifecycle framework in many cases is significantly different from the production of a weapon system.
Though flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) are being used with contracting, we’re seeing the need for HHS to also adapt and customize proven defense acquisition lifecycle process to get health capability into the hands of clinicians and others at the right time in the most cost-effective ways. Customized or case-specific training can equip professionals to make mission-critical decisions.