There has been no shortage of challenges for United States government agencies these last few years. From budget showdowns, legislative division and general dysfunction in Washington, many departments have found themselves at the center of a political firestorm.
Despite a challenging environment, Defense Acquisition University (DAU) — the training arm of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) 150,000-strong acquisition workforce — still landed at No. 7 on the list of 2013 LearningElite organizations. The achievement marks the third consecutive year that DAU has ranked in the top 10.
DAU’s continued success is due to strong mission alignment with the DoD and a flexible learning architecture that puts the learner front and center. DAU is also continually updating curricula, recruiting the right talent and rewarding performance.
The organization’s work on this front is never finished, according to Christopher Hardy, DAU strategic planner and deputy director. “To be elite and stay elite, you must constantly reinvent yourself,” he said. “Benchmark the best and adapt their best practices to your own environment.”
That ability to change has helped DAU stay focused during the fiscal chaos, perhaps best represented by so-called sequestration — the term used to describe the steep across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in earlier this year. The budget cuts have reportedly lopped an estimated $85.4 billion from the federal budget in 2013, of which nearly $43 billion is from defense spending.
Hardy said DAU’s learning strategy is performance-based, focused on aligning leadership priorities with each worker’s job by integrating learning offerings — both formal and informal — into the work experience and pinpointing how and where employees learn.
“Not only is it aligned to our senior leadership’s business goals, it also cascades down to individual employees’ incentive plans,” he said. “This strategy provides our employees with the right learning solution at the right time, at the right place throughout their career.”
To retain that flexibility and relevance, DAU develops and publishes a learning technology roadmap using straightforward implementation strategies. Hardy said the organization’s curricula designs are consistent with the concept that adults learn best by doing both in the learning environment and in the workplace. “DAU’s training and job support are becoming mutually integrated and supportive by using the same tools in training as are used on the job. As this ‘train like you work and work like you train’ approach becomes part of the workplace culture, a ‘work as you train’ environment will blend workplace and learning.”
To measure success, DAU has established a Web-based, real-time performance measurement system that tracks metrics such as organizational capacity, customer satisfaction, speed to market and individual productivity. It also identifies improvement opportunities.
In 2012, DAU had 93 performance tasks. Each leader is assigned individual tasks with milestones related to his or her work. But it’s not just paperwork. “It’s how we run DAU now,” Hardy said. “Once we got the planning in place and the metrics in place, it changed the whole conversation. Before it was all just opinions and who could talk the loudest. After we started showing the metrics, now we have it down to business.”
The performance plan starts with DoD priorities and cascades into specific DAU goals and tasks. Leaders review those tasks quarterly and conduct a formal review at the end of the year. “This enables management to make resource allocation decisions in the context of past results and allocate or reallocate resources as appropriate,” Hardy said.
Each employee’s objectives are set based on the organization’s overall strategic performance plan. Rewards are tied to specific contributions when meeting organizational goals. “The entire process is a deliberate, planned, measured, iterative and integrated mission measured and reported regularly,” Hardy said.
To go along with that performance and incentive plan, DAU’s learning technology roadmap is updated annually to incorporate emerging learning tools and practices such as mobile technology, simulations and on-demand video. The aim is to keep an eye on the future while delivering results now.
“Defense Acquisition University will continue to invest in the future and intends to maintain its leadership in the learning and development community,” Hardy said. “To go to the next level, we are transforming all aspects of learning by partnering with the very best to access their best practices, experimenting with new technologies and emphasizing the value and effectiveness of learning by doing in traditional, online and future formats.”