It was one year ago today that Howard Dean formally launched his campaign for president, building support and funding rapidly via the Internet, and becoming a real contender in the primary race. Dean’s voice helped changed the focus of the primaries, but what about his thousands of volunteers behind the scenes? How did they learn what needed to be done to run a successful campaign, and what can chief learning officers discover by taking a closer look at how political campaigns learn?
There’s no question that Dean got much of his early support via the Internet. This is the first presidential race in which the Web played such a strong role. According to David Austin, president and chief operating officer of ContextWare, the Dean campaign “got” technology better than many political campaigns, making it a perfect organization for technology-based learning. “What we did is we had a discussion with them around piloting a program in their Virginia region to actually help them with the training and the coordination and management of volunteers at the state level,” said Austin. “The intention was, should they have been successful in Iowa and New Hampshire, which as we know with months of retrospective they weren’t, we would have looked to roll it out at a national campaign level.”
ContextWare’s software serves multiple functions. As an authoring tool, it helps organizations “capture processes and the activities associated with those processes,” said Austin. It then links those in a Web environment to resources that help workers, or volunteers, accomplish those activities. As a portal, it takes the authoring activity and exposes it in a secure Web environment for users to interact with. “The proposition to the Dean campaign in the Commonwealth of Virginia was essentially to capture their volunteer processes, the things that they thought were most important for volunteers to do, to map those processes out in detail, along with the materials and assets used to complete those processes and then make that available to the volunteers at large to essentially train themselves and become familiar with what it was they were supposed to do,” Austin explained.
For example, a major activity for volunteers is registering voters. Like most processes, there are best practices for getting voters registered, Austin said. “We would capture that process and the subactivities associated with registering a voter, we would link specific activities, such as review campaign guidelines, so there would be an asset called ‘campaign guidelines’ that would be linked to that activity,” Austin said. “Voter registration regulations would be linked to the section that talked about rules and regulations. Our notion is that everything should be a click or two away from where you need it to be.”
As with any business, political campaigns experience specific challenges. “How do you quickly organize, train and help volunteers to become effective at the jobs that you want them to do?” asked Austin. “In the traditional political and campaign model, training is all done through face-to-face interaction, and while it can certainly take place in groups, what ends up happening is your very best managers in the campaign, who are also often volunteers but tend to be campaign operatives and have been in the party for a while, are out there doing that training.”
With the rapid growth in volunteer numbers that come on board as the campaign gets into full swing, the problem of getting them up to speed quickly grows as well. “Not only is it expensive, from just a pure cost perspective, but there’s also a significant opportunity cost,” Austin said. “If your very best managers are out training volunteers, they’re not out fundraising, and they’re not out doing some of the higher-value activities that the campaign literati are normally tasked with.”
Like many global enterprises, political campaigns are faced with a geographically dispersed audience. But even more challenging, volunteers can be dispersed throughout the state, in different cities and counties. In addition, there is a very short window of time to get campaign volunteers up to speed, Austin said. “Things peak in September and October, and if you’re not up to speed by then, you’ve lost your opportunity,” he added. Another challenge is the very wide range of skill sets of the volunteers. Learning for this audience must be developed so that the least skilled can use it, as well as the technology-savvy individuals on the campaign.
Volunteers present a unique audience because it is important for them to understand that their input is bringing value to the organization. “I would suggest that in this model, which almost becomes a command-and-control environment, volunteers would have very easily been able to see specific areas that they were impacting within the campaign, rather than showing up at a rally and trying to figure out at the last minute what they were supposed to do,” Austin said.
In addition to helping volunteers easily understand the value of their contribution, technology-based learning can provide other benefits to political campaigns, as well as other organizations. First is the obvious cost benefit, said Austin. “It’s cheaper to create one instance of a training program and then manage it remotely than it is to go out precinct to precinct, and county to county, and teach roughly the same thing,” he said.
Consistency is also a key benefit. Different trainers may vary, and a single trainer may vary depending on the day, Austin said. In addition, when one thing changes, the new process can be introduced system wide. “For example, if one of your activities is tabling, which is where you basically put a table in a public place and hand out bumper stickers and things, the flyer you downloaded associated with the topic called ‘tabling’ in July will likely have dramatically changed come August,” said Austin. “Rather than having to send out that flyer to hundreds or potentially even thousands of volunteers, you can change the one single asset within the system, and it’s done.”
“Another benefit here is the concept of command and control, in the sense that when you start the campaign, you might have seven or eight different processes that you want your volunteers to learn, but depending on national directives or local-level needs, you may decide to take those eight tasks down to the one most important one within that area based on what you’ve decided is needed in that region,” said Austin. “The ability to have quick command and control is pretty important.”
Finally, Austin said that capturing campaign best practices delivers a huge value to the campaign because that documentation can live on regardless of who’s available to train new volunteers.
So what can corporate learning executives discover about their own program by understanding how learning works on a political campaign? “In a high-pressure environment like a political campaign, where you are essentially creating an instant enterprise, I think corporations can learn some best practices, including the use of technology to speed on-boarding,” Austin said.
He added that political campaigns tend to rely on the most skilled campaign operatives to be responsible for capturing and disseminating best practices, whereas corporations may get stuck in consensus building when trying to build a process. “It’s much better to capture the process from the person that the business believes is the best at what they do and then let the organization take a look at it and chip away at it,” Austin said.
“The other thing is that simply mapping out process without understanding the assets connected to that process really just gives you a one-dimensional view of your business,” Austin added. “But if you can link process and activities to the assets used to accomplish them, you eliminate redundancy, you improve reusability and ultimately, I think you help your people operate more efficiently.”
For more information on Contextware, visit http://www.contextware.com.