When it comes to workforce training and development, few organizations have a more daunting mission than the Defense Acquisition University. Created in 1991 after a presidential commission investigating procurement practices at the U.S. Defense Department discovered a now infamous $435 hammer, the training arm of the DoD has been battling to improve its acquisition workforce, often in the face of proposed budget cuts.
“It was perceived that we weren’t doing a good job, so Congress established the DAU to train the workforce to be more efficient and effective,” said Chris Hardy, director of the global learning and technology center at the Washington, D.C.-based DAU.
More recent challenges like government shutdowns and legislative divisions make the fact that this is the fourth consecutive year the DAU has ranked in the top 10 of LearningElite organizations all the more noteworthy. Hardy attributes the learning programs’ success to the strong alignment between the curricula, the DoD’s objectives and the strong focus on business results.
It began as a narrowly focused career preparation and formal learning organization, and has grown into a corporate university that emphasizes the bottom line. Last year the DAU provided 12.3 million hours of learning, 7.9 million hours of training and graduated nearly 200,000 students. “We start with business results upfront in our course design by determining what kind of business results this particular course will achieve,” Hardy said. “We put that on the table upfront before we talk about competencies.”
DAU’s learning strategy is implemented through a three-year learning road map, which won a 2012 Chief Learning Officer Learning In Practice award, to test and adopt new technologies, best practices and performance-based learning initiatives. Hardy said the road map, which focuses on 10 initiatives, reflects “the changing landscape of the needs of the 21st century learner.” The initiatives include learning infrastructure, virtual environments, personalization, casual learning, collaboration, mobile, teaching and learning labs, media, technology and games, and simulations.
One recent innovation is its teaching and learning lab, which serves as a laboratory to test new learning products, virtual world tools, Web-based applications and to train faculty and students in how to use the new tools. This allows the DAU to quickly pilot new technologies.
“We have a lot of failures in the lab, and that’s a good thing,” Hardy said. “It’s saved us thousands of dollars by bringing in that capability to build our own courses online. By having the lab, we’re able to test tools and products with minimal investment. We test everything from things in the classroom to mobile courses to systems and products. The last thing we want is to deploy something that doesn’t work. We have to test and experiment and then do a cost-benefit analysis and then we go before the leadership and get a decision to go forward.”
Hardy said support from senior DoD leaders was critical during a time of government shutdowns. He points to recent congressional testimony from Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
“The Defense Acquisition University was ruled exempt from this round of targeted savings to ensure we are fully invested in the training and education of our most valuable resource — the acquisition workforce, the very people we depend on to find savings and efficiencies in our acquisition programs every day,” Kendall said.
The DAU has 700 full-time faculty members in five regional campuses that offer training to a defense acquisition workforce of more than 150,000, which includes government civilian workers, engineers, logistics experts and others. The goal is to develop a fleet of highly trained acquisition professionals, most of whom are government civilians, to help the DoD buy and acquire the equipment that soldiers use in Afghanistan, for example. “Our curriculum trains them how to do it wisely and get the most for taxpayers’ money,” Hardy said.