VA’s New Acquisition Academy Centers on the Learner

E-learning Plays A Major Role In Federal Acqusition Professionals’ Holistic Learning Process “Learner-centric.”
That’s the basic premise upon which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has built its new Acquisition Academy, whose mission is to train VA’s acquisition workforce. The Academy was created to address the growing acquisition workforce challenge facing the VA and the federal government overall. Learner-centricism“ is about creating an engaging learning environment that increases the effectiveness and efficiency of the training experience and the transfer of learning to the workplace,” according to chancellor Lisa Doyle. Supported by a distributed learning system architecture, the learner-centrism model enables continuous learning throughout the organization using best practices in adult learning and multiple learning styles. As the largest civilian agency within the federal government, the VA acquires more than $15 billion in goods and services every year. However, the workforce that manages the acquisition process has not experienced much growth. Thus, the Acquisition Academy’s inherent challenge is to provide targeted, on-demand developmental opportunities to the workforce, increasing productivity without increasing costs. To achieve this, the learning system must integrate structured and unstructured developmental opportunities that occur behind and beyond the classroom door. The Acquisition Academy consists of four schools: one for interns, one for contracting professionals, one for program managers, and an additional acquisition corps development school. Chief architect of the Acquisition Academy’s extensive learning program is chancellor Lisa Doyle, who has been an acquisition professional in government and industry her entire career. “We take a very holistic approach in the way we train,” says Doyle. “We also look at all four schools at an enterprise level in terms of the way that we train.We believe that technical skills are not enough; proper learning takes a much more holistic approach.” The internship school is a succession planning arm that’s been instituted to develop the next generation of acquisition professionals to be infused into the VA throughout the U.S. Sixty interns are currently participating. The contracting professional school was formed to train the VA’s existing contracting workforce. They will be certified and maintain certification by taking training classes at the Acquisition Academy. The program management school trains all of the VA’s program and project managers as well as its contracting officer technical representatives. That’s about 5,000 people. And the acquisition corps development school will train senior acquisition leaders and build on the critical competencies and skills offered in the other three schools, so its “graduates” can enter the cadre of senior leaders. “The program management school will be using e-learning and distance learning in the largest amount,” says Doyle. “However, we eventually will offer that type of blended learning approach in all four of our schools.” When she was named chancellor, the Acquisition Academy didn’t even exist. So the last 18 months have kept her busy. “We developed the intern curriculum first,” she notes. “Then program management school vice-chancellor Richard Garrison developed the curriculumfor program management school.On the other hand, curriculum for the contracting professional school is mandated by OMB—but we can still be creative through use of electives.” In speaking about the Academy’s knowledge repository, Doyle says: “What we want is for interns and acquisition professionals to know where to find information and how to get to it easily and quickly rather than memorizing that information.” “Our mission is to develop the professional workforce for the VA by creating learning interventions that change behavior and improve performance. I’m constantly evaluating, assessing and engaging with stakeholders to make sure the learning intervention is meaningful and adds value. Because I have the opportunity to train the entire acquisition team across the four schools, we have a very synergistic and collaborative, integrated approach.” PROGRAM MANAGEMENT The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mandates three training levels: entry, mid-level and senior. Thus, Garrison built upon the mandates. “We started off by reviewing those competencies and refined them to make them smaller and more discrete,” Garrison says. “We added a review of DAU (Defense Acquisition University) competencies, and we reviewed industry standards. Finally, we looked inside the VA to determine its unique acquisition challenges and leveraged those competencies across the enterprise.” Garrison, like Doyle, wants to turn out students who are competent rather than students who have merely passed all the curriculum’s requirements. “We’re working to have an action-oriented applied learning program that will consist of resident training with a boot camp,” says Garrison. “During that application based training camp, it’s about putting students in a scenario in which a project manager would typically get involved. Students will learn the things they need to learn, and they will start applying those best practices while they’re in the classroom.” The program also requires them to work with the instructor to build action plans that incorporate best practices. Those action plans would then be applied to actual projects. “This is the applied section of the learning in a work environment,” Garrison says, “but learners can still reach back to the instructor when they’re having difficulties.” It’s the same “safe”model used in the internship school: a hands-on learning laboratory where students learn from failure without hurting the individual or the VA. “We follow the training camp up four months later with a capstone course,” Garrison says. “We designed the capstone course to provide a simulated work environment in which we can measure the student’s long-term behavior change. The capstone course will give the VA the assurance that their program and project managers can perform to the required level. It will also provide feedback on the application- based training camp’s and action plan’s combined effectiveness.” Where does e-learning fit in? “Ours is a continuing learning model with a blended approach that we call ‘distributed learning 2.0,’” says Garrison. “Elearning is a great tool, but you have to have it apply to the job, and it has to be delivered effectively.We’re going to center
the use of e-learning inside a structured program where you still have those instructor-student and student-student interactions as part of an activity in a broader training curriculum.” Virtual classrooms will play an important role. In those instances, instructors will review the lesson first, followed by asynchronous break-out sessions for group projects (some of which is e-learning). Then it’s back to the virtual classroom. “We’re working on building that curriculum now,” says Garrison, “with rollout of
continuous learning modules in FY2011 and complete rollout in the next 18 months. “I think it’ll be fun, and others are really excited about the program. We recognize that learning doesn’t stop at the classroom door.” EVALUATIONS “Overall, the interns are performing well,” observes Doyle. “We use the Kirkpatrick Level scale to assess their training in the classroom, in the learning laboratory, and on job rotations.We also assess their mission service work — critical hands-on work directly with the veterans and veterans organizations.” Doyle says that the feedback from field offices where interns have been performing real work requirements is positive. “Our stakeholders are saying that the interns have really risen up the learning curve quickly, they have a high competency level,
are productive, and they want to hire them immediately—even though the interns have to return to finish their training before they’re infused into the workforce.” Though Garrison has yet to turn out his first program management “graduate,” he says evaluations in the contracting professional school are impressive: “We’ve gotten to Level 1 and Level 2 analysis, and we will reach out for Level 3- 4. Right now, our course delivery (instructors) rate 4.9 out of a possible 5.0; course materials rate 4.7. “We don’t have a 100 percent pass rate. About 11 percent don’t pass the course during the first week; some get remediated, so the overall failure rate is about 5 percent. That’s fairly good success. The program is rigorous enough that it’s not just checking boxes, but it’s successful enough that the average person learns the material.” ON THE HORIZON The DAU has the mandate to train the DoD workforce, but the VA Acquisition Academy will train the acquisition professionals for VA — the nation’s largest civilian cabinet-level agency. “We’re on the cutting edge,” says Doyle. “We’re creating a program and a facility that will be able to help train civilian agencies that can’t stand up a program or a facility like ours. I’m getting it right for the VA first, then I’ll open it up government wide. I’m offering other agencies seats in our contracting professional school, and we’re working to do that with our internship school as well.We’re building the infrastructure to scale up.”

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