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Barriers to Lifelong Learning

Tuesday, January 21, 2020
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Marykate and I rely upon a wide array of colleagues to bounce ideas to and to learn from. One of our friends is Nina Bianchi, the director of workforce solutions for the IT Modernization Centers of Excellence (CoE) with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In a world where the only real constant is change, many kinds of organizations across government sectors are reimagining what learning means in government.

As an experienced transformation leader, Nina collects insights from thousands of employees and writes blog posts for Digital.gov about our federal workforce. One key pattern she found is that most federal learning programs are more often associated with compliance. This gives learning a negative reputation and makes it feels like a burden rather than an opportunity. From the frontlines to C-suites, she’s distilled the following five barriers to lifelong learning in government:

  • Time: Seemingly small yet coordinated investments in learning and development across diverse employee communities can drive culture change. Transformation takes time and ongoing investment for people to collaborate. Because of the various and often heavy compliance daily operations, layered bureaucratic requirements, and overburdened management, the workforce struggles to carve out time to learn new tools or skills. When an employee struggles to make time to invest in themselves, it can also become difficult to invest in innovation or adopt other changes within an organization.
  • Place: What kind of growth can be unlocked when you convene the right people in the right room at the right time? Placemaking is powerful. A 21st-century workplace supports collaborative attitudes and teamwork that transcend the silos and environments of yesteryear. Trusting team relationships fuel a productive work environment where work groups get answers more quickly and are empowered to make confident decisions.
  • Routine: The government is largely designed to regulate. This means there is often myriad structures and routines that individuals must follow day-to-day. While structure can be necessary to ensure productivity and safeguard against misuse of taxpayer dollars, it is important to have updated policies and flexibility with routines where possible. When an employee is offered an opportunity to step away from standard routine workflows, it can help them expand perspectives and embrace new ideas that increases creativity and problem-solving.
  • Relationships: Traditional hierarchy and chain of command within agencies limits relationship building outside of mission area silos and limit the growth of career pathways. Limited access also lowers the probability of organic social collisions (senior leaders to interact with frontline or administrative staff) and decreased the natural ways employees learned from one another day to day. This also restricts an agency's ability to leverage available strengths and accomplishments that could be scaled quicker than new projects that lack constraints and insights informed by prior related projects.
  • Scale: Successful cultural transformation efforts build reusable capabilities that align people’s needs to business needs. Innovative learning solutions in government should first address well-known employee needs. Provide value upfront before investing in larger technology solutions designed for all yet meet few to no one’s needs. Failure to engage the user in the creation of these capabilities—in this case, the employee—in the design can lead to weak solutions that do not meet the agency user or the American public's need.

How are you overcoming these barriers? Do you see any others?

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Editor's note: Thanks to Nina Bianchi and GSA’s Digital.gov!

MD
About the Author

Marykate Dougherty is with The Treasury Executive Institute, a government shared service providing leadership development and services for over 40 different government agencies.

MZ
About the Author

Michelle Zager is with The Treasury Executive Institute, a government shared service providing leadership development and services for over 40 different government agencies.

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