The USDA dramatically improved the agency’s e-learning through collaboration between senior management, the training community, the IT department and program managers, along with the support of the learners themselves.
What makes one government agency’s e-learning programs succeed while others’ don’t?
Success is the product of collaboration between agency senior management, the training community, the IT department and program managers, along with the support of the learners themselves.
The AgLearn program at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is an example of such collaboration. AgLearn is an enterprise-wide LMS built on the Plateau 5.8 platform, delivering more than 8,000 courses to more than 130,000 USDA employees and partners worldwide.
Through this collaborative effort, USDA has been able to drive enterprise performance improvement in its workforce and create a model that other government and private-sector organizations can replicate.
Missions and regulations change all the time. While that’s not new, the rising cost of travel and in-person instruction is. This development has created the need to conquer distance while delivering the same learning outcomes.
In the case of AgLearn, success isn’t measured by having 8,000 courses, but having 8,000 courses that employees and contractors actually use.
Launched in 2004, AgLearn got a boost, according to Stan Gray, the USDA program manager for AgLearn, due to USDA leadership initiatives to consolidate and reduce IT systems and lower IT investments.
Before AgLearn became the USDA’s single learning management system (LMS), there were seven different systems with varying capabilities for managing and tracking training. Although one had the ability to deliver training, for the most part they served just for training records, according to Gray.
But while easy to use, AgLearn did not meet USDA’s utilization projections. Gray’s job was clear: Drive enterprise performance improvement in the USDA workforce through AgLearn.
Using ROI to Get Top-Down Support
To get top-down support, Gray sold management on the ROI AgLearn could deliver. He made sure AgLearn had executive buy-in, demonstrating how it put money in the agency’s pocket and provided USDA employees with more learning opportunities.
“What we found was that, USDA-wide, (29 agencies and staff offices), no one really had a good handle on how much money USDA was spending on training,” Gray said.
Gray stressed to management AgLearn’s return on investment and ability to provide more training to USDA employees at no additional cost.
Since the beginning of 2008, all requests for external training must be submitted, approved and tracked through an AgLearn online authorization process.
“The spinoff of that, in terms of ROI, is that we now see how much money USDA is spending from a corporate standpoint, and now we can understand where this money is going,” Gray said.
“One of the good things we did from day one was working with the agencies to develop a survey so that each person could evaluate the learning experience and how valuable the course had been for their professional improvement and how it impacted their duties. The feedback has been phenomenal. “
Once AgLearn had been implemented, Team AgLearn concentrated on bringing the separate systems off-line and pulling everything into one system encompassing as much of the capabilities as the seven combined.
To prepare for consolidation, USDA agencies met to decide what capabilities they wanted within the single LMS and to have those capabilities match as closely as possible with the business practices and methodologies they were currently using.
From there, the task fell to AgLearn’s contractor partners to get that new system set up, configured, tested with sub-agencies and rolled out.
So that all the training histories stored were not lost, the team also took the data from legacy systems, mapped it and migrated that information into the new system. The end result: AgLearn became USDA’s one LMS.
“Once we realized that the AgLearn system was in place and working, we started our change management plan, working from the bottom up. Who are the user communities? Already very early on we had the stakeholder community in place,” explained Kathy Fallow of education management firm Vertex Solutions.
Since its initial implementation, AgLearn’s contractor partners — Vertex Solutions and General Physics Corp. — worked with USDA and its agency, AgLearn Leads, to improve what AgLearn offered and how it operated.
Team AgLearn spends a lot of time communicating with the AgLearn leads, the people selected from each USDA agency to work with the AgLearn program management office.
Gray, like many of his government colleagues, is a veteran of working with contractors. Part of being a team is allowing each component to do what it does best. The failure to act as team is why a lot of the federal agencies are stuck in their LMS implementations.
“What makes Ag Learn a success is that we have a comprehensive understanding of the requirements for program management, IT implementations, solid organizational knowledge and training needs,” Fallow said. “Additionally, the program really works collaboratively with IT, HR, training and USDA management because they realize this makes sense. Each group complements each other and respects the input the other provides.”
Marketing: The Real Payoff
Fallow said many IT implementations make the mistake of assuming the new software and content will naturally attract interest and increase usage.
“They won’t,” she said. “You can’t build it and expect everybody to start using it. At USDA, the challenge lies in informing a geographically dispersed and diverse user base of over 130,000 employees about the capabilities of the LMS system.”
Gray set ambitious goals for increasing training and developed a strategy to increase the number and quality of online courses, measure results and aggressively market AgLearn. The marketing campaign included:
• Periodic e-mail notifications to all employees and partners describing online training opportunities.
• Periodic e-mail notifications to select job series, supervisors and senior managers describing training that may specifically interest them.
• Conducting in-person and virtual briefings with field-level training coordinators, employee associations and partners.
• Conducting strategic workshops to better inform the USDA training community of AgLearn’s capabilities and ways they can incorporate online training into the agency’s training program.
• Conducting presentations with top agency leaders to make them aware of the wealth of training available to their employees.
• Redesigning the AgLearn interface so it is more visually appealing and better illuminates AgLearn’s training opportunities.
• Developing posters highlighting key benefits and advantages for all user groups.
As a result of the marketing program, the number of courses on the LMS grew from 1,884 in July 2005 to more than 8,000 courses at the end of 2008. Course completions are now more than 2.5 million. In addition, AgLearn drove a 291 percent increase in course completions and a 2,205 percent increase in course participation for courses that were highlighted through a welcome pop-up screen.
After completing courses, AgLearn used targeted marketing techniques to learn more about users. AgLearn gathered 40 data elements, such as job series and supervisory status via follow-up e-mails and used that data to deliver targeted marketing messages.
“If you are an SES [Senior Executive Service employee], then we can automatically send you information on leadership courses,” said Gray. “Now we are sending users messages about other courses they may find interesting based on courses they’ve already completed: ‘If you liked this course, then you will probably like that one.’ It’s the Amazon model.”
Using Technology to Improve the Learning Experience
Gray explained the USDA also is using technology to drive engagement across generational boundaries and has customized the Plateau LMS to address help-desk calls and user issues.
“We’ve developed something called a ‘pop-up tip’ that tells you how to do whatever or look for helpful information,” he said. “So we are customizing it based on the help-desk calls that we are receiving.”
AgLearn also provides courses on video through the leadership development channel.
“That is a subscription service that SkillSoft offers,” Fallow said. “We have over 900 courses on leadership; most of them are less than 10 minutes in length because people at the executive level generally have less than 10 minutes to spare.”
That time constraint is true of most learners. “We have a very disparate learning group,” Fallow said. “We have visual learners; we have auditory learners. But we also have people that are in the 50-plus age bracket. Senior managers want their learning quick. They want it in a very small amount of time, and they generally want it instructor led.”
Gray explained senior executives generally want expert communication, whether that’s a peer or whether it’s a leader in the industry coming in through video, not necessarily classroom training led by an instructor.
“On the other hand, younger generations do not have time to register for a class and walk to a classroom,” Gray said. “They are the Google generation. They want an online course that they can sift through and click through whenever and from wherever.”Filed under: Leadership Development, Technology