Gladys Brignoni is not your typical military officer. She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to a small town in Indiana as a child. She spoke no English, and at the time English as a second language curriculum was uncommon. “I had to work really hard to learn the language on my own,” Brignoni said. That obstacle started her down the path to a career in education.
Brignoni received her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, and later her master’s and doctorate from Indiana University. When she landed a job as a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, she was thrilled. She taught students of all levels and ages, many of whom were the children and spouses of military personnel. “I loved seeing the lightbulb go on when they learned something,” she said. It was her first brush with the military and foretold a future to come.
Beyond the Ivory Tower
After several years of teaching, Brignoni felt like she wanted to make a bigger impact. So she joined the Peace Corps, working as a language and cultural training specialist primarily in Slovakia. “It was a tough job but I loved it,” she said.
After her Peace Corps term limit ended, she stayed in government work, holding learning leadership roles at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Center for Naval Intelligence, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, and within the Navy Warfare Development Command. “I never thought I’d work in the military, but I met the qualifications,” she said.
This combination of private sector and academic experience along with her experience in government service drew the attention of the Coast Guard, which was looking for its first full-time chief learning officer and deputy commander of force readiness command in late 2011.
At the time, the Coast Guard was looking for ways to improve and centralize its workforce development programs to ensure “readiness” among all staff, said Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer, force readiness commander for the Coast Guard and Brignoni’s current boss. That didn’t just include readiness for duty. “Military organizations need to develop better citizens,” Penoyer said. Most personnel will return to the private sector after their tour is completed, and the Coast Guard wanted to be sure they had the skills to succeed. That’s where Brignoni’s unique combination of skills and experiences comes into play. “She had become phenomenally important to me,” Penoyer said. “She provides the context and expertise in learning theory and instructional design that many of us lack.”
Officers and Citizens Unite
This is particularly important for the Coast Guard, which falls in an unusual position of being a formal military service that operates under the Department of Homeland Security during peace time. It has approximately 85,000 staff, including 40,000 military personnel on active duty, 7,000 reservists, 8,000 civilian personnel and 30,000 auxiliarists who support Coast Guard efforts when necessary.
It also supports a diverse and complex set of mission types, which range from environmental protection and ice-breaking efforts, to vessel safety checks, to oil rig inspections. “Most people think we just do search and rescue, but it’s so much more,” Brignoni said.
All of these workers require training to do their jobs effectively, but it hasn’t always been equally distributed. “We’ve always done well with enlisted and officer resources,” she said. “But we haven’t spent as much on civilians.”
Ironically, the nonmilitary staff tend to stay with the Coast Guard longer, building their careers over time. That makes them valuable additions to the team, but also increases the risk of attrition. “These civilians can leave to work for any other agency,” she noted. “If we don’t provide opportunities for them to grow, we will lose them.”
Selecting Brignoni was the first step in creating a learning-centric culture that could address all of these needs.
A Devastating Loss
Prior to Brignoni’s hiring, the Coast Guard’s commandant had established several early action items to support career development across the organization, which included better training for civilians and ship inspectors. Brignoni was tasked with delivering these action items.
One of the critical tasks included ramping up training for ship inspectors who make sure shipping vessels meet safety and regulatory standards. This goal became a top priority in 2015, when the SS El Faro, a U.S. cargo ship crewed by U.S. merchant mariners, sunk at sea during Hurricane Joaquin, losing everyone aboard. “It was tragic,” Brignoni said. The vessel had passed its annual Coast Guard inspection, despite former crew members who said it had structural problems, as reported by CNN in October 2015. “Within the Coast Guard it made us realize we need to do a better job of ensuring our workforce has the training they need to meet industry requirements,” Brignoni said.
That drove her team to revamp the training program for ship inspectors and environmental protection agents. Following the events, the Coast Guard approved a two-year project to review all tasks necessary to effectively assess vessel safety and compliance, and to work with industry to develop more robust training programs. Brignoni’s team found that these auditors are expected to understand thousands of policies and to be on top of constantly evolving shipboard and port technologies. “It can be overwhelming,” she said. The training program, which is still being developed, will provide a better framework to support these staff and give them the training aids they need to do their jobs to ensure the safety of everyone involved. “We want to ensure something like El Faro never happens again,” she said.
Big Goals, Small Budget
While this program has received strong support and funding, the Coast Guard’s training budget in general is always tight, and new programs must be cost-effective, far-reaching and relevant for all kinds of staff.
That’s forced Brignoni’s team to get creative with their resources. When they began digging into civilian training, for example, one of the biggest problems was that staffers weren’t aware of their training and advancement options. Annual employee survey data showed that while civilians loved working for the Coast Guard, they felt there was no career mobility and that no one cared about their career development. “It was absolutely true,” said Steve Keck, director of the civilian career management team and force readiness commander.
In response, Brignoni and Keck created the Civil Career Management Office and built a website to support it. The website is a dedicated space where any Coast Guard employee can identify professional and leadership development opportunities, map their career paths to move up in the organization, and look for joint detail rotations to expand their experience. “It used to take 55 websites to find all this information, but now it’s all in one place,” Keck said. “It’s a one-stop shop for all civil career performance development.”
Brignoni’s team also found that many of the relevant online training elements available from other military organizations were inaccessible due to firewall issues. “It prevented us from taking advantage of simple solutions,” she said. So she found a way around it by launching a YouTube Coast Guard training channel.
Through the channel, she challenged all Coast Guard enlisted, civilian and volunteer members to submit their own “how-to” videos to support current and future employees. The videos have to meet the broad criteria of being helpful and relevant to the job, and they can’t give away any military secrets. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of submissions,” she said.
The channel is an excellent example of Brignoni’s innovative approach to creating simple but useful solutions that anyone can use to learn new skills or close gaps. “It’s really popular, and it was really cheap to build,” she said.
xAPI is Changing Everything
Brignoni’s biggest impact has come through a partnership with the Department of Defense to participate in the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, a government program that conducts research and development on distributed learning and shares outcomes with other agencies.
The ADL’s goals include identifying relevant industry standards, leveraging tools and content to improve the effectiveness of learning programs, and developing distribution networks to share content across agencies. ADL stakeholders collaborate closely with industry and academia, making it a perfect fit for Brignoni, who aspires to blend best practices from the military, private sector and academia to meet the needs of her learners.
A key outcome of this partnership has been the Coast Guard’s adoption of Experience API (xAPI), which is a specification that organizations can use to collect data about a wide range of learning experiences that individuals have completed. The open-source platform lets users define their learning experiences in simple language (i.e., “I completed this activity” or “I took this course”), which are captured in the platform. These “statement objects” are compiled and linked to similar objects to demonstrate an individual’s skills and to find patterns across roles and job categories to indicate success and advancement. The data is captured in a consistent format, regardless of where and how the learning took place, making it easy to organize and analyze.
“The single biggest thing Gladys has done for the Coast Guard is to show us what’s possible with xAPI,” Penoyer said. “It’s allowing us to take into account what people are learning on their own.”
Through the xAPI technology, Brignoni’s team is developing ways for Coast Guard staff to record all of their learning experiences — on the job and outside of their Coast Guard work. “We believe so much learning occurs outside the classroom,” she said. Documenting that experience will give the Coast Guard insights into the true abilities of its workforce, and to focus interventions in areas where there are gaps.
This is particularly valuable for the thousands of volunteers and reservists who bring vast knowledge to the table, Penoyer said. “They have lives outside the Coast Guard where they develop all kinds of skills. If I don’t know what they know, I can’t take advantage of it.”
They hope to use the platform to reshape job descriptions, and to give Coast Guard staff clear career paths so they can move up the ranks. Brignoni is also exploring ways to translate those experiences into formal certifications and other real-world proof of skills. She’s currently working with Keck on a Coast Guard University concept in which the Coast Guard will partner with higher learning organizations and universities to provide micro-certificates that match military training and experience to academic degrees.
All Hands on Deck
Brignoni noted that she doesn’t spend all of her time in the office tackling technology issues and partnering with academia. When the Coast Guard needs her unique set of skills, she is happy to head into the field. Most recently, during Hurricane Maria, Brignoni returned to Puerto Rico to help with communication challenges and to support an onboarding program to help DHS staff and volunteers better understand the culture and how to successfully work with local communities. “It has been the most rewarding experience working in the Coast Guard thus far,” she said.
However, Penoyer and Keck are happiest when she’s in the office. “Gladys is a disruptive thinker in a good way,” Keck said. “She uses her experience from the Navy and higher education to introduce new ideas, and it is bridging the gap between military training and the real world.”