President Jim Woolsey, center with gray tie, and key middle managers celebrate Defense Acquisition University’s success at its annual middle-manager leadership conference.
Defense Acquisition University is no stranger to the LearningElite — it has been a top 10 organization since 2011 — but for its leadership, being elite isn’t an option.
“A lot of other learning and development organizations, their focus is helping business increasemarket share and profits,” said ChrisHardy, director of strategic planning and analytics. “We have a customer with the mission to keep our nation safe. We have to be No. 1. If we’re No. 2, our nation’s No. 2.”
DAU serves the defense industry — which contains the Department of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics workforce and government contractors that supply equipment and products — with classes on engineering, science and technology management, auditing, contracting and other critical skills. It’s also one of the few corporate learning and development organizations accredited by the Council of Occupational Education. In fiscal year 2014, it graduated 181,954 students, a 226 percent increase since FY 2002.
Not everything has been smooth sailing, but some of what sets DAU apart also helps it stay on top of its learning game. Through multiple measurement practices, the organization has not only improved its offerings for defense employees today but also better enabled forecasting to determine its next steps.
DAU uses CEB Metrics that Matter and evaluations that are deployed right after a course ends. They also send out 60-day follow-ups to participants and supervisors that measure how students use the information they learned, for frequent keywords and patterns in open-ended answers.
A process called text mining allows the organization to sift through more than 50,000 surveys each year for frequently used words and patterns to find key themes. The psychometric Likert scale and percentage scores taken from the surveys help to identify low performing courses, but text mining helps analyze the root causes, keeping DAU attuned to areas that need improvement.
For example, DAU President Jim Woolsey said the method helped it determine why one class had a significant drop in student approval. Typical survey metrics didn’t show anything, but by using text mining on open-ended answers, DAU found many participants didn’t find the class applicable to their work. Through a second look, Woolsey and his team found many students had just entered the career field and weren’t yet in need of what the course offered.
“We were bringing students to a class that wasn’t designed for them,” Woolsey said. “We couldn’t have learned that without text mining.” DAU now tailors who is allowed to take certain classes more closely.
In the future, the organization will implement a new strategy, the Acquisition Learning Model, which focuses all learning assets on improving workforce performance. The plan includes a real-time access learning infrastructure that integrates functional, workflow and performance learning programs into the workday. Videos, job support resources, network opportunities and experts and coaches connect students to the information and skill building they need.
DAU doesn’t have to do it alone. Woolsey and Hardy said their executive leadership — particularly the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Frank Kendall — lends a hand. Even being strapped for time at the Pentagon doesn’t keep him away from presenting to DAU classes and symposiums.
Executive commitment comes in more forms than man hours, however. With ever-shifting budgets, DAU, like any governmental organization, faces potentially shrinking resources. Thanks to its performance history and Kendall’s support, the organization doesn’t face shortsighted budget cutting that could cripple it in the future. It still has to be mindful of its costs, but its crucial role in the department gives it more freedom when it comes to funds.
“We’re giving the men and women who defend the country the tools they need,” Woolsey said. “It’s not hard to get fired up to go to work every day when you know there are people out there doing dangerous things in dangerousplaces who are counting on you.”