For a moment, presume the employees you are responsible for developing are involved in one of the most technical and advanced disciplines in the world. (For many readers, this probably isn’t too much of a stretch.) Now, imagine that the workforce you’re delivering learning to isn’t really a workforce, but rather is an assortment of workers who come from many different contractors and are spread out over numerous geographic locations. Then, picture every task that they (and you) perform being bound by extensive and tedious bureaucracy.
If you can conjure up this byzantine scenario in your mind, then you have a pretty good sense of the kind of environment that Cheryl Ann Seminara works in. In her role as the training and organizational development lead for Apogen Technologies, Seminara has been contracted to Sandia National Laboratories, a government owned/contractor operated (GOCO) entity.
Specifically, Seminara’s role is to run learning and development for the Yucca Mountain Project, which has been under way for several decades. In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) started studying Yucca Mountain, which is located less than 100 miles north of Las Vegas, as a possible repository for nuclear waste. Subsequent policies formulated in Congress laid out the need for the DOE to devise a specific solution for nuclear waste disposal.
Since then, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) has been working to establish the site as a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials. Currently, the Yucca Mountain project has 620 people working full time on assignments that range from scientific research to underground construction.
“We drilled a big hole in that mountain and ran some rock samples,” Seminara said. “Now, we’re trying to produce a license application, which is a 70,000-page document. How do we get from one end of that to the other? What is the exact process? That’s what we’re working on right now. Every part of this license application goes through an audit to make sure it follows the high standards of quality assurance. If any part of that is found to not follow procedure, then we have to fix it quickly or the work will be in jeopardy. This is a project that’s been going on for 25 years. Can you imagine someone saying, ‘That work we did 10 years ago? We can’t use it. Oh, that’s the basis of everything you’ve done so far? Too bad.’ It’s a heavy burden.”
To complicate matters, although most of the learning is mandatory, much of the employee population is not at Yucca Mountain. Many of them are working thousands of miles away.
“My workforce is spread out all over the world,” Seminara said. “I might have people working at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn., Argonne, Ill., Berkeley and other places. I’ve got six people in London right now who I’m working with to complete their training. I don’t have the budget to get them all together.”
To deliver learning to this dispersed audience, Seminara relies on a combination of remote instructors and e-learning programs.
“Previously, we were flying trainers to all the labs, or flying all the lab personnel to Las Vegas for training,” she said. “We don’t have the time or the money to do that. What I can do is identify a training coordinator in each of those areas who can act as my liaison to those learners. I train them on how to help me with that. The other thing we do with this blended-learning approach is deliver courses online in 20-minute modules that are focused on one or a couple of procedures that pertain to a particular process. So we created online programs, and we’re also looking at webinars to do some live sessions where participants can ask questions. We want to do that for quick training when we don’t have time to go through the full production process.”
In addition to the challenge of geography, most workers have different (and sometimes dueling) professional loyalties between the project and the contracting companies they work for.
“We refer to the folks we’re training as ‘members of our workforce,’” she said. “These are folks who are either doing work as employees of Sandia National Laboratories or have been contracted by Sandia to do work. I would say about 85 percent of our workforce is contractors. So training has to take on some untraditional roles, which is a huge challenge. I have people who are working for many different companies, which have their own training requirements, and I have to say, ‘You also have to take this other training.’”
Much of that “other training” revolves around the tortuous – but necessary – organizational procedures that surround the sophisticated work employees perform for the Yucca Mountain Project.
“This is my first experience working with a government agency,” Seminara said. “One of the things I’ve found is that I’m bound by highly prescriptive procedures that tell me what I can and can’t do. We’re so bound by procedures that we actually have a procedure on how to write procedures. We have a guiding document called the Quality Assurance Requirements Description (QARD). This document says that we will have a training program that follows a systematic approach and qualifies people to do the work that they’re supposed to be doing. It gives us the basics.”
An example of this procedural learning is the program for instructing workers on how to use scientific notebooks according to the standards of the project.
“That includes everything from who looks at the notebook to the fact that pages can’t be stapled or taped,” Seminara said. “After they take this course, the first prerequisite is that they read the procedure, then they review the module, and after that they go their manager with a print-out sample of a scientific notebook. The manager will have an answer key, so they can have a discussion about that scientific notebook. So not only are they able to get the information and apply that immediately, but they’re also learning that their manager is a solution for them. If they have a question about a procedure, they should stop what they’re doing and speak with their manager.”
To make these experiences truly valuable for the learners and ensure that they really retain the information, Seminara focuses on engaging their minds as they participate in the programs, regardless of the content.
“Before I took over, they were just going over the procedure,” she said. “Anyone can regurgitate a procedure. If I have to teach scientists with Ph.D.s in nuclear engineering how to analyze models and calcs, I’m going to assume they know how to read a procedure. I want to hit them at their level, and make sure that they aren’t getting the same stuff all the time. I’ll give them a higher level of critical thinking. I’ll teach them the two or three key points in the procedure, why the procedure is important, how it impacts the entire project and what will happen if they don’t follow that procedure.
“After they do that module, one of two things will happen. The first is that they may take a final exam. That isn’t just testing memorization and knowledge – it’s actually doing a scenario, application of knowledge or something that’s more difficult than just ‘X means Y.’ The next thing that can happen is they’ll do some kind of on-the-job activity. By building these classes online and focusing on higher-level elements and critical thinking, I can take what used to be an eight-hour course and deliver that in two hours, and get better results.”
While Seminara follows QARD to the letter, she also adheres to the policies used by nuclear organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) and the International Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). She explained that these set a higher standard for learning at the Yucca Mountain Project and lay the groundwork for personnel when the site actually does come online.
“They’re completely inclusive in terms of what our program requires, but they go above and beyond the call of duty,” she said. “We’re going to follow those standards now because if this repository is licensed someday, then we’ll have to abide by those standards. When Congress decides whether or not they’re going to license this facility, they’re going to ask, ‘Are they qualified? What courses did they take? What did you teach them?’”
Seminara believes this focus on long-term performance will help the organization achieve its fundamental objective.
“We might be a government agency, but we have to think about the organization itself. How do its employees interact? How does it grow? We’re all one big team working towards one big goal: to have a license application that we can turn over to the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) on June 30, 2008.”