The National Park Service (NPS) is the largest segment of the Department of the Interior. It tackles the immense job of protecting the country’s natural resources and educating the public on park safety, history, culture and geography for national parks, national monuments, recreation areas and more. Until recently, the NPS’ community of more than 500 IT specialists had not received a significant amount of focused training.
Because of the nature of IT specialists’ duties, the NPS had to identify a way to meet the learning needs of this particular audience without taking them away from the job. Some parks only have one, or maybe two, IT specialists. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, for instance, which spans parts of both Arizona and Nevada, has just one IT specialist responsible for some 350 computers.
“Not only are we a spread-out organization with over 450 offices, parks and facilities, we’re organizationally very deep,” said Dom Nessi, chief information officer, National Park Service. “There are a lot of layers between myself and an IT specialist at a park, so communications are always a challenge.”
In order to meet that challenge, Nessi developed the idea of a virtual IT conference to address concerns such as heightened security and alleviate the time and budgetary constraints associated with training a populace spanning several time zones. The virtual IT conference offers the NPS an effective way to roll out initiatives without disrupting daily park activities.
“IT security is a major front that we’re looking at,” Nessi said. “We’re looking at implementing Active Directory across the National Park Service, which is also a major initiative on our part. We’re in the preparation stages to implement Outlook as our messaging platform. We’re converting a department wide area network to a park service wide area network, and we have new systems coming down the road in the next year. We’re converting to Windows XP Service Pack 2 right now, and all of these items are coming to the parks at one time.”
Prior to the first virtual IT conference in the summer of 2004, the IT specialists at the NPS had not engaged in a significant amount of e-learning. Learning initiatives were done regionally or on a park-by-park basis. NPS launched the virtual IT conference with help from Microsoft and its Live Meeting virtual learning tool. The collaboration allowed the NPS to open up a 12-hour training session across the entire organization, and record training sessions for later use. “It’s difficult to train when your east-most office is in the Atlantic time zone, which is in the Virgin Islands, and your west-most office is tomorrow or yesterday in Samoa,” Nessi said. “Microsoft was good enough to partner with us on this, and we were able to repeat the first four hours of the conference for the west end of the world so they could hear on tape what had been said earlier in the day. The benefits of the training lasted for months afterward because it kept a dialogue going through regular e-mails and conference calls.”
The response was so strong, the NPS plans to hold another virtual IT conference in several months and make it a regular part of the NPS IT learning. “The need was there,” Nessi said. “We’d contemplated an in-person conference, but the travel costs would have been outrageous. Take an average of a $1,000 a person and figure 300, 400 people attend, you’re talking close to a half a million dollars by the time you get everything you need. The park service, like every other government agency, wants to spend its dollars as effectively as possible, and if you take an IT specialist out of a park for a week and the park superintendent’s computer goes down, there’s not much backup.”
Nessi noted productivity gains, as well as cost savings. “(The virtual IT conference) makes our IT specialists feel much more part of a community and more willing to provide their input. When they have an issue, they don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail asking specific questions. Productivity is an indirect result; it also helps morale and communications, and as a result of those improvements, their performance improves.”
The NPS plans to make decisions regarding levels of certification for its IT specialists and accompanying levels of study to advance the IT workforce into the future. “An interesting thing about the National Park Service is everything we do is education. That’s our role,” Nessi said. “We protect our national resources and educate the public about them. We’re looking at training our IT specialists so we’re in a better position to use the Internet and other mechanisms to train and educate the public.”
Kellye Whitney is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.