It’s time we rethink our approach to the training problem. Our traditional approach is to dictate a blueprint of training classes that must be followed in order to obtain prescribed levels of certification. To put it in acquisition terms, we’ve been using a design specification. What if we were to use a performance specification instead? What might that look like? Before answering these questions, we should identify what it is we are trying to achieve with training.
The purpose of training is to make the trainee proficient in performing one or more defined learning objectives by means of specialized instruction and practice. A learning objective consists of three parts—an action, a condition, and a standard. For example, someone new to federal contracting will likely receive training to select FAR provisions and clauses (action) given a set of facts about an acquisition and access to the FAR (condition) (the implied standard would be “correctly”). It follows that if an individual already behaves in the prescribed way under the prescribed conditions to the prescribed standard, then training would be unnecessary for that individual—they’ve already attained the learning objective.
Under the “design specification” training model that we currently use, there is an implied assumption that an individual cannot attain the requisite learning objectives without following the prescribed blueprint of training classes. Further, there is no method of demonstrating the attainment of the requisite learning objectives prior to the prescribed training classes. As a result, everyone must take the required training classes, regardless of individual necessity. Considering the resources involved in carrying out such a program, this is an expensive proposition.
While the implied assumption of the “design specification” training model may prove true in some cases, a more reasonable assumption would be that some individuals need to follow the prescribed training blueprint and some do not. Those that do not would include those that have already attained the requisite learning objectives by other means and those that could without following the prescribed training blueprint. Thus, the challenge would be to identify those that don’t need a particular training class before requiring their attendance at the training class.
What if we borrowed the thinking behind performance-based acquisition and applied it to the training problem (i.e., a “performance specification” training model)? That is, instead of dictating how the workforce is to attain requisite learning objectives, we specify the requisite learning objectives (performance outcomes) and method of assessment, and let the workforce decide how they are going to attain them. Some workforce members may choose a program of self-study, others may study in informal groups, some contracting offices may develop their own ongoing training programs, etc. Still others may choose to follow the existing blueprint of training classes. Regardless of how one attains the requisite learning objectives, all are held to the same standard using the same method of assessment.
For an illustration of how such a model might look, consider the profession of actuarial science. Beanactuary.org contains the following description:
Like other top-ranked professions (such as law and medicine), one must pass a set of examinations to achieve professional status as an actuary. Unlike other professions, in actuarial science you’ll have the opportunity to work as an actuary while completing the examination process—employers often allow study time during working hours, pay exam fees, provide internships, and even award raises for each exam passed. Though, to get the best start on a rewarding career, many soon-to-be actuaries begin taking exams while still in college. Of those that do, most achieve associateship in three to five years. All candidates acquire a core set of knowledge from required preliminary exams. The preliminary exams and Validation by Educational Experience requirements are the starting points for an actuarial career.
To attain an “Associate of the Society of Actuaries” (ASA) designation from the Society of Actuaries, one must pass exams in probability, financial mathematics, models for financial economics, models for life contingencies, and construction and evaluation of actuarial models. In addition, there is one required e-Learning course and a required one-day seminar in professionalism. After attaining the ASA designation, one typically pursues a “Fellow of the Society of Actuaries” (FSA) designation within one of six specialties: corporate finance and enterprise risk management, quantitative finance and investment, individual life and annuities, retirements benefits, group and health, and general insurance. To attain the designation, the FSA candidate must take 3-4 more exams unique to the specialty, complete four e-learning courses, and attend a three-day case-based fellowship admissions course that requires each candidate to deliver an oral presentation on a topic within the field. In case you weren’t keeping track, that’s a total of four days of required attendance in classrooms to achieve the highest designation in the field. In contrast, DoD contract specialists must attend 32 days of classroom training to attain the lowest level of certification.
What if to attain level 1 certification in contracting, one had to pass exams in, for example: acquisition planning, contracting methods, contract types, socioeconomic programs, and contract administration, and attend a one-day seminar on ethics? After level 1, contract specialists would choose a specialty in which they would pursue Level 2 certification. Specialties would be, for example, major system acquisition, research and development contracting, construction and A/E contracting, service contracting, IT acquisition, acquisition of commercial items, contract administration, etc. To attain Level 2 certification, contract specialists would have to pass a series of exams unique to that specialty. For example, to attain Level 2 certification in service contracting, there would be exams on specification of service requirements, source selection for services, pricing services, and service contract administration. There could also be a Level 2 admissions course where the candidate would have to submit and present a paper on a topic related to their specialty.
If nothing else, use of the performance specification training model would cost less than the design specification model currently in use. I would go as far as to say that, on the whole, the workforce would be at least as competent as it is now.
What’s your opinion? We’d like to know.