By sharing resources, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Fred Lang is leveraging learning while saving taxpayers money.
The United States Department of Commerce handles all activities related to the country’s economic growth. Such an essential task requires a large workforce: more than 40,000 employees in total. These workers populate 13 separate bureaus with a disparate range of responsibilities — from the administration of the U.S. census and the management of international trade to dealing with patents and trademarks.
Meeting the learning needs of this population is a challenge, one that Fred Lang, chief learning officer for the department, is more than prepared to accept. In fact, reaching the position of CLO was the reason he came to the department in the first place.
“My goal for years has actually been to reach the level of chief learning officer,” Lang said. “And I felt by coming to Commerce I could make a difference.”
Lang has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in public administration from California State University at Sacramento and a Ph.D. in integral studies with an emphasis on organizational behavior from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
In his words, Lang’s professional career has been “a long road.” In the 1980s, he formed his own business, Triad Organizational Systems, a marketing, sales and management consultancy for Silicon Valley companies. He then accepted a position as a regional training director and local training manager with the Internal Revenue Service in the Bay Area. This experience gave him the opportunity to manage large leadership development programs.
From the IRS, Lang moved to the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C. — the human resources agency for the federal government. There, he was exposed to the concepts of human capital, executive resources and general HR development.
But this professional path reflects only one side of Lang’s career. “I can’t minimize the fact that during the last 21 years, I’ve been a professor for the University of Phoenix,” he said. He teaches leadership, theory and philosophy and mentors doctoral students.
“I am a professor. I see myself as a professor. My staff calls me ‘professor’ behind my back in the hallways,” Lang said. “I love learning and I love helping people, so that had to be one of the things that guided my career.”
Given this, it’s not surprising that Lang’s philosophy of learning is personal in its focus.
“In order to deliver effective learning and development, you must first know the learner,” he said. “There are different levels of learners within a given organization.”
Too much training is oriented toward lower-level cognitive skills, Lang said, and it should focus more on personal development.
“‘Training,’ to me, is an old word. ‘Learning’ is a more encompassing word, because we’re talking about mentoring, developmental assignments, rotation, shadowing assignments,” he said. “Learning is providing competency and skill development so that you can meet the mission of the organization and delivering it in such a way that it’s palatable for the learner.”
Saving Taxpayer Money
When Lang originally signed on at the Department of Commerce, its learning team consisted of just two people and it had no training programs in the Office of the Secretary. Lang organized a chief training officer council made up of representatives from each of the department’s 13 bureaus, with himself as chair. “Together, we develop training policy for the department, as well as implement training programs,” he said.
Today, the Department of Commerce has more than 2,000 e-learning courses up and running within its learning system.
“Many of them are what I call page-turner courses,” Lang said. “They serve a specific purpose and help people to develop skills at a certain level. But then for the more rigorous and more cognitive delivery, we use instructor-led courses. That’s more appropriate for the acquisition of more complex skills, which require [greater] depth of comprehension.”
In 2009, the department’s 40,000 employees enrolled in more than 21,000 e-learning courses and more than 31,000 instructor-led classes.
“I believe in blended learning, using a learning management system to register and track courses,” Lang said. “I also believe in instructor-led courses and self-paced materials. They all have a place and it fits. It depends on what your objective is and what your outcome is.”
Lang also has endeavored to share learning outside of his department.
“Probably what I’m most proud of has less to do with Commerce and more to do with all chief learning officers within the federal government,” he said.
In 2005, Lang founded a government-wide chief learning officer group — an informal community of practice consisting mostly of the chief learning officers and chief training officers in the federal government. He leads and facilitates this group. At first, he said, “we didn’t have much representation from the Department of Defense and of course the intel agencies, but that’s beginning to change.”
By December 2009, the group’s membership had grown from three to about 70, and the group itself had become a more formal institution with a mission statement, vision statement and charter.
“The purpose of this group is to [foster] collaborations between agencies, and by doing so we should be able to be more efficient and save taxpayer money,” Lang said. “If we buy one course, and that one course then is shared by all federal agencies, we will have saved money, and it also illustrates a higher degree of collaboration between chief learning officers. Now, the agencies that they represent are not bound by what we do, but the members of the council, the chief learning officers themselves, are bound to the mission and vision of this organization.”
This facilitates both cooperation in government and efficient evolution of its learning and development.
“So I expect great things in 2010: higher demonstrations of interagency collaboration and opportunities to work and develop more engaging learning for all of our stakeholders,” Lang said.
ROI in Government
According to Lang, measuring the success of a learning program in the government sector is different from in the corporate world. For instance, the bottom line in the federal government is difficult to pin down and even more difficult to link one’s efforts to. Therefore, Lang and his team use Don Kirkpatrick’s four levels — reaction, learning, behavior and results — but don’t move on to Jack Phillips’ fifth level: ROI.
“I don’t believe in level five for a public agency,” Lang said. “The return on investment in the public sector is more of stakeholder satisfaction and linkage to the operation side. The stockholders in the private sector want to see a return on their investment; they want to see their stock to go up. The counterpart to that in the public sector is the agencies want to see results in delivering more effective programs to the stakeholders that they serve and an impact in the workplace. That becomes the metric.”
Lang and his team arrive at this metric by cross-referencing data from interviews, focus groups and surveys to make sure that they’re reaching the right audience and having an organizational impact.
“Then we take that information and redesign the next iteration of that program,” he said.
In November 2009, Commerce held its first department-wide learning and employee development forum. Lang said the event was geared toward HR executives and aimed to help them develop skills in a focused, unified environment. It proved a success, so another forum, with an expanded scope, is planned for fall 2010.
“I reached out to some of the smaller agencies like the Peace Corps [and] the Smithsonian, and I invited them to come in and make use of our learning,” Lang said. “It shouldn’t be proprietary. It’s general HR development, and we want to make sure that we can share what we have with other people who can benefit. I feel the time is right, and Commerce has certainly taken the lead to make that happen.”
Another project Lang and his team have in the works is an avatar-based training program.
“It’s three-dimensional but it’s not occurring in a virtual world,” he said. “This is applicable to all federal agencies; we paid for it here in Commerce and we’re going to be able to share that with other agencies. It’s about an hour in length and will have avatars in there. I’m excited about it because this is the type of thing that will engage new learners as well as older learners.”
Lang said such advances are essential to fueling the Department of Commerce’s talent pipeline, as well as keeping its learners actively engaged.
“We’re in the 21st century,” he said. “We’ve got to find learning that pulls people into training, not pushes them into it. And that’s where my passion is.”