One of the major challenges facing municipal governments is the decrease in highly qualified personnel that can enter municipal service to replace retiring staff. Although new programs at the university and college level do seem to produce a few more graduates, it remains to be seen if these skilled applicants will choose to settle in more remote or sparsely-populated regions, or if they will solely be knocking on the doors of the GTA. Moreover, we might ask if the number of graduates will be enough to satisfy succession planning initiatives. In this post, I will discuss an option that may seem to be a stopgap, but that ought to be implemented as a core strategy in every municipal administration. There are two takeaways of this post: (1) Investment in skills acquisition and networking opportunities for staff will eventually result in net benefit; and (2) Organizational development begins with staff development as the essential ingredient to operational excellence.
Scarce financial resources in the municipal context has meant staff are asked to do more with the same or less. At other times, where budgets allow, there might be up-front investment in equipment or software designed to improve productivity and efficiency, but existing staff may not have access to the resources to obtain the necessary training. It is no secret that adopting, say, a whole new records management software system may be a swell idea, but if the staff are not trained in it, its value is limited. In order to optimize the integration of new software and equipment, training is required. Simply throwing tools at people without adequate training is not likely to go very far. If we understand staff as a form of “soft asset,” then skills enhancement only improves upon the value of that asset.
It is not just software and equipment that changes over time, but practices and processes. There are those who specialize in designing innovative and more efficient ways of delivering services, just as there are those among staff who by trial and error come upon a better way of doing what they have always done. How do these innovations travel? How are they communicated? In what ways can they be better communicated across the entire municipal sector?
There is no doubt that senior management will generally have more opportunities to connect via conferences and retreats with their equivalents from other municipalities. There, they can learn new strategies for more effective management in their area, and compare notes on what does or does not work. Imagine, however, if we could extend something similar to staff, providing them with the means to acquire new skills, upgrade existing skills, and to network with their contemporaries.
There are three parts to this solution: skills acquisition/upgrading, networking, and cross-training. The first two have an external component, while the third can be done in-house.
* Skills Acquisition/Upgrading: There are a number of options to enhance the skill set of staff. These might include workshops provided by the supplier (for example, any workshop offered by the supplier of a new piece of software), or courses at the postsecondary level, be that college or university. In the latter case, the employer would effectively subsidize the staff member to attend school on a part-time basis while also maintaining their status and duties in the office. As there are increasingly more options for distance learning, this can be done at a more flexible pace.
* Networking: Just as management and other professionals see a benefit in connecting with others in their field, the same might prove a benefit for staff. As stated above, comparing notes on what does or does not work, sharing innovations, and developing rapport with one’s contemporaries can enhance the sense of pride in one’s role in addition to learning new ways to improve productivity.
* Cross-Training: A flexible, robust, and dynamic workplace should contain a commitment to a staffing philosophy whereby it can be responsive to the occasional absence or other contingency.
And this brings us to the role senior management can play in cultivating a training culture as part of staff and organizational development. I can break this out into smaller component parts as a guideline:
Role Benchmarking: As role assessment is generally done in cycles to evaluate each staff member’s job description, this can be bundled together with role benchmarking. This practice allows for better measurement that identifies what gaps exist between staff performance and optimal result. This should never be used to punish staff, but as the beginning of a conversation between management and staff to problem solve together. And that brings us to...
Staff Feedback Sessions: These can be done individually and in groups. In order to save time, skip the negative stuff everybody already knows, such as budget constraints and staffing shortages. In fact, it is a bad idea to lead with the budget as a motivation to simply “do better” or “more with less.” The budget may be used to trim or adjust expectations, but too often the talk of money forecloses other opportunities that may in fact be cost neutral or will deliver a stronger return on investment. The real focus of this exercise is to ask staff “what obstacles do you face?” and “what can we do to assist you in optimizing performance?” Tying that in with the prospect of providing training opportunities externally (courses, degrees) or internally (cross-training) may result in some positive uptake. As an added bonus, it demonstrates the leadership of management in being engaged with its staff on a collaborative level.
Individual Development Plan (IDPs): Optionally, coming out of these sessions, staff members might be invited to prepare a summary of development strategies that would both help them achieve their career goals, and that of operational excellence. These strategies should be within reasonable limits; i.e., not everyone requires an expensive MBA to perform their jobs, but it can only be of some benefit to assist an employee who works with the budget in their desire for an accounting designation.
Implementation: If the IDPs include a reasonable and achievable timeline for training goals, management is then tasked with an approval process for any continuing education or workshops the staff member has outlined. These timelines are critical to ensure that, if a staff member will require a reduced workload to pursue further studies, there is no interruption in service.
Supporting the training goals of staff comes with some risks, and this is beyond just the expenditure. Some managers may fear that enhancing the professionalization of their staff will make them more marketable, and thus there is always a small risk of experience-flight. That is, the staff member who realizes her or his value is higher and says, “thanks for the CGA! I’m resigning and taking up a new job that pays better in the municipality next door.” No manager wants their department to be viewed as simply a stepping stone to better work elsewhere, as that would not be a good return on investment locally (but it would benefit the municipal sector at large). But we should not exaggerate this risk, for if the staff member enjoys a good work environment and is committed to the community in which they live and work, it is more likely they will stay.
ROI may not be immediately evident, but it will show in the long term as departments become more productive and efficient as a result of training opportunities. A certain patience is required as cost savings will not materialize overnight.
What is truly risky is denying training opportunities to staff. Assuming all managers want to see their departments functioning at optimal levels, withholding investment in staff training is a lot like owning a home and never doing any repairs or improvements. Your staff can only achieve at the very top of the skills they possess.
Overtraining may also be a risk. Be sure that it is a voluntary training culture that is supported, not a mandatory training dictatorship! There are obviously situations where additional training is absolutely required, but in other cases it should simply be encouraged and supported.