December 7, 2021

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Upskilling the Public Sector for the Digital Age

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Seventy percent of US government IT leaders believe that a lack of digital skills in areas such as cloud development, artificial intelligence (AI), data analysis, and enterprise engineering will significantly impact their agency’s mission, according to a WorkScoop and FedScoop survey. The report states: “Federal agency leaders will need to support nimble and agile management of the workforce, including reskilling and redeploying existing workers to keep pace with the current pace of change.”

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the pressure to move everything online and the need to drastically expand teleworking further heightened upskilling requirements.  

To discuss why digital skills are so important for federal, state, and military organizations, Sam Combs, Senior Manager of Government Partnerships at Coursera, convened a panel of experts including Jason Brown, Strategic Cloud Advisor at Google; Frank Kelley, Vice President of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) at the US Department of Defense; and Vinod Bakthavachalam, former Senior Data Scientist at Coursera. The participants drew on their experiences to discuss why digital skills matter, which skills are most important, and how to implement upskilling initiatives at scale.

Here are some highlights from their discussion:

Sam Combs: Why are digital skills so important today?

Jason Brown: They provide a competitive advantage that helps organizations achieve their mission. When I was in the US Air Force, we embraced the OODA Loop [Observe, Orient, Decide, Act], a concept that’s all about moving faster than your adversary. Digital technology provides levels of speed and scale unimaginable in the public sector just a few years ago.

Sam Combs: Frank, what do you see from your vantage point at the DAU?

Frank Kelley: As a career Marine, I agree with Jason that tempo and scale are critical. I also believe we don’t have time to train people to become our new digital elite in the way that we used to. We need people who are ready today to flex their intellect, and e-learning addresses this challenge.

Sam Combs: What is the implication of digital technology for those in non-digital careers?

Jason Brown: In that context, it’s more about what technology can do: for example, how it can transform workflows, processes, and make missions more attainable. I visited the headquarters of one of the major airlines last year. Ten years ago, they had roughly 3,000 maintenance cancellations per year, whereas in 2019, they had 80. In the same timeframe, they went from bankruptcy to achieving a $6 billion profit and awarding bonuses to 90,000 employees. How did they do it? By applying digital technologies to overcome longstanding constraints, such as ensuring that relevant, real-time information was available to anyone that needed it. That single step was transformational.  

Sam Combs: Why else are digital skills important?

Frank Kelley: From a national defense standpoint, we’re focused on readiness, enhancing partnerships and alliances, and optimizing processes. The reality is, we can’t hire enough people to do the work that needs to be done. Digitization in the form of AI, for example, can handle much of that workload and free up people to do what they do best. Through recent projects, we’ve seen that a joint human/machine venture beats a person performing tasks alone or a machine working in isolation. Understanding these synergies is important.

Sam Combs: I’d like to ask Vinod as the data scientist responsible for Coursera’s Global Skills Index, what skills are most in-demand today?

Vinod Bakthavachalam: Every year we look across countries, industries, and within fields of study to understand the state of demand. Right now, organizations have three priorities: having a high-level business understanding coupled with competencies in computer science and data science. Organizations also want people that know how to ingest and analyze data to make better decisions. So while STEM skills such as coding, machine learning, or cloud engineering are important, foundational business skills – essential for communication and data interpretation – are too.

Jason Brown: Agreed. At Google, we’re seeing customers place increasing value on leading change and in softer skill areas such as design and product management.

Frank Kelley: Our president Jim Woolsey wants DAU to “win the competitive environment of the future.” To do that, you need to start by understanding where you are now – and if you’re not in the lead – how you’re going to get there. That requires the ability to plan, measure, analyze, and act on data insights – all soft skills.

Vinod Bakthavachalam: One of our Skills Index learnings is not to limit the number of ‘data people’ within your organization. It’s far more effective to share data among a broad, diverse group. You’ll gain richer, more varied insights than you would have otherwise.

Frank Kelley: On a related topic, we need to be more aware of bias in relation to skillsets. For example, we tend to think of the youngest people in our organizations as the ones who are most digitally fluent, but that’s not always the case. I’ve been blown away by the conclusions of some of our oldest employees when they interpret data – they’re great at it!

Sam Combs: Frank, what’s the best way for agencies to build and scale upskilling programs? And is there a role for third parties?

Frank Kelley: Before COVID-19 struck, there was a view in DAU that classroom teaching was indispensable. Post-COVID, we know that’s not the case. We moved 90% of our instructor-led courses online. When you add our 30,000 annual hours of Coursera training to the mix, we’re now delivering e-learning to 183,000 people. Coursera’s inherent speed and scalability helped us facilitate a complex transition to blended learning, and it’s a prime example of the value a third-party partner can provide.

Jason Brown: When I was in the Air Force, we often spoke about the ‘false choice’ of being either an innovator or an operator. One can absolutely be both. But in my view, the public sector can only go so far with scaling innovation before it requires private sector expertise. They need the best of both worlds. 

Sam Combs: With a few minutes left, final thoughts?

Frank Kelley: I’d add that within military organizations, it’s important to have free-flowing communication up and down the ranks. You want a command climate where people feel valued and that their opinions matter. 

I envision a scenario where personnel are free to follow their own paths and even design curricula to be the person they want to be. That’s why e-learning solutions such as Coursera, with all the knowledge and wisdom that can be tapped into, are so valuable.

Vinod Bakthavachalam: Frank makes a good point that employees need to feel valued and invested in. The most successful organizations are the ones where employees are rewarded for personal development and given the opportunity to apply their new skills. Because when people feel empowered to make a difference, they usually do.

Sam Combs: Absolutely. At Coursera, we believe individuals should be given the freedom to explore and pursue skills aligned to their interests and aspirations, yet that also support organizational goals. I’d like to thank the panel for the fascinating conversation today.

In summary, here are three key takeaways from the panel discussion:

  1. US federal civilian and DoD organizations have reached an inflection point: to meet the mission needs of tomorrow and guard against evolving security threats, they must invest in building digital skills and knowledge today.
  2. Soft skills such as leadership, communication, problem-solving, and teamwork are just as important to organizations as technical skills – including coding, cloud engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics.
  3. To upskill at the speed and scale required, government organizations should look to innovation from the private sector. The DAU is just one example of a government organization realizing its skills-building vision with the Coursera e-learning platform.

Watch the on-demand webinar to hear the full discussion or visit to learn more about how Coursera for Government can help upskill your government employees for the digital age.


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