Dealing directly with so many taxpayers and handling the frequent changes in the tax code requires an educated workforce, and the IRS considers investments in employee training and development a key priority. According to Dr. Linda M. McCullar, director of leadership and education for the IRS, the organization delivers around 8 million hours of documented training a year. She said that the IRS’ training mission is fourfold. “First is to reshape the workforce to efficiently accomplish the Service’s mission. Second is to reduce managerial and employee frontline burden of operation. Third is to increase the efficiency of human capital operations. And last is to leverage technology to gain efficiency,” she said. “And while all of those are equally important, my focus over the last year and also in the near future is going to be this notion of leveraging technology.”
In fact, the IRS uses technology to help it deliver blended learning solutions, offering instructor-led courses, as well as e-learning and self-paced training. The IRS recently began a phased implementation of the Plateau 4 Learning Management System to manage and deliver its new e-learning initiative, which aims to transfer as much as 50 percent of its learning material online in the next couple of years. “We do a blended approach,” said McCullar. “We have some classes that are just instructor-led, and some courses will always be like that, but we are moving more toward some classes being e-learning, some self-paced and then the blended approach. And what we’re seeing is that the blended approach is becoming the answer to our needs in different parts of the organization.”
Because the tax code is in a near-constant state of flux, training the IRS workforce presents some unique challenges. But with the LMS, the IRS will be able to alert agents automatically when the tax code is revised and retaining is necessary. “Besides changing every year when Congress implements the legislation, there are changes that occur over the course of every year that either clarify or amend as the year goes on,” said McCullar. “Keeping that current for our tax examiners, our revenue agents and all of our mission-critical employees who deal with the taxpayer to be able to provide the most accurate information to their questions is a huge challenge. That’s one of the reasons that we are really pushing hard to get technology as an integral part of the learning experience.”
Another benefit the technology will provide is a vastly reduced reliance on travel. McCullar said that when the IRS studied its training budget a couple of years ago, it realized that 70 percent of the budget was going to travel. This was a wakeup call for the Service, leading it to implement tools to lower travel costs. “What we’ve done is we put in an e-learning strategy, and over five years we’re hoping to be able to reverse that ratio so that 30 percent would be spent on travel and 70 percent on the development and deployment of the actual training,” McCullar said. “This is our initial implementation year for the LMS. We think that in another year we’ll be at about 50-50.”
While the IRS is already beginning to see some benefit from its push toward more technology-based learning, McCullar said that the initial development of e-learning courses—especially complex ones—drives costs up before it brings them down. “A lot of times you’ll see a spike in the budget before you’ll actually start to see some savings,” she explained. “That’s a natural kind of phenomenon, and that’s what we’re seeing here. So sometimes it’s going to take a us a little bit longer to get some of the bigger courses moved over to e-learning, but once they are moved it becomes a powerful tool in terms of updating and reuse of content.”
The LMS and the move to a blend of technology-based and classroom-based learning will also help the IRS address managerial issues. In the past, managers have been saddled with their employees’ training—whether personally training them or ensuring they got training from a vendor. The IRS will implement mandatory courses, such as ethics, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and prevention of sexual harassment, through an e-learning process, reducing the managerial burden of training.
McCullar said that the switch to e-learning will also help build computer literacy among the Service’s workforce. While computer literacy is less of a problem with newer, younger employees, e-learning will spur existing employees who are not computer-literate to become more capable, McCullar explained.
The move to technology-driven training will also help the IRS improve its workers’ performance. The Service is using the technology to build more performance support into the products its workers use. “They’ll have that information at their fingertips through a computer screen,” McCullar said. “So when a question comes in from a taxpayer, they can go to that screen, and all of the information is available there. And while that is not a training event, it is training that occurs on a real-time basis because that customer support rep can go to the computer and pull that information up immediately.”
The IRS will be able to integrate the LMS with its existing human resources and document management systems, allowing it to keep track of all of the information related to its workforce through one system. McCullar said, “We will eventually be connected into the system called HR Connect, which is our version of PeopleSoft, so all of the employees’ information will be resident in that one system. The learning management system will be part of it, so anything dealing with an employee—training history, their development profile—will all be resident in one location.”
The IRS is preparing to develop and deploy a learning content management system (LCMS) as well, with a pilot in process and plans to select a vendor and start moving content into the system by the end of the summer. The LCMS will allow the IRS to reuse content, saving development time and costs, and to update information for the whole system. “We won’t have to revisit a change multiple times. When the law changes, you’ll just have to enter it once, and it will automatically be changed throughout all the different content,” McCullar said.
For example, the IRS developed two fairly large, complex e-learning courses in the past year—one for businesses and one for individuals—on tax preparation and processes. “When we completed the two courses, we found that almost 60 percent of the content between the courses was reusable,” McCullar said. “So when you have the ability to reuse content through automation, it really helps to decrease your cost and also decrease your time for completion of a course to the user.”
To measure the success of its learning, the IRS uses the Kirkpatrick Method, which is integrated into all of the Service’s courses. Level One is applied to all training, and, McCullar said, “we’re just starting to get into Level Three, where we actually evaluate the effectiveness of the training after the employee has gone back to the job site and has an opportunity to work with it.” Data from 2002 showed that employees rated the success of the training slightly higher than 4 on a 5-point scale.
Training at the IRS is not only effective for individual employees though. The entire Service benefits. In the late ’90s, legislation was passed that required the IRS to change its practices. Some of the key changes included improving customer service and support, and providing more accurate information to taxpayers. Making more training available to its workforce was a key part of the IRS’ initiative in reaching these new goals. “Our previous Commissioner Mr. (Charles) Rossotti, focused on increasing the training budget so that we could have more training available to keep our staff up-to-date,” said McCullar.
In addition, McCullar said that leadership training has been a key element to building the organization’s success. “Training the leaders, having them look at the IRS in a different manner, is really important,” she said. “It’s been a multi-pronged approach to training, and that has been a big help in changing the way the taxpayer views the IRS.”
In addition to developing and deploying an LCMS in the near future, along with continuing its LMS rollout, the IRS is planning to focus on competencies more in its selection and training of employees. In addition, McCullar said the Service is diligently working to provide more mission-critical performance-support tools to its revenue agents and customer service representatives.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said McCullar. “But we’ve got a lot of great people. I have a wonderful staff, and it’s exciting to work here.”