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Should Training Classes Be Required?

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Don Mansfield

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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.

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52 minutes ago, uva383 said:

Would a student that chose the web based instruction for material like contract law or acquisition planning be able to switch to classroom for a math based class? Or would they be locked into web based instruction for the entire certification? 

A student would always have a choice of how to prepare for a particular exam.

55 minutes ago, uva383 said:

Under this format how would you tie performance and successful or unsuccessful outcomes to the employee and the instructor? Would you recommend termination of an employee that cannot pass the classes?

A student wouldn't pass or fail a class--they would pass or fail an exam. As far as terminating an employee who couldn't pass the exam, I don't think it should be automatic. However, it could be a possibility. As for instructors, I do think that there should be some accountability for their students' performance on the exams.

1 hour ago, uva383 said:

Also, given the current shortage of instruction in the classroom setting as demonstrated by reduced class offerings and long waitlists, how would your new format allow for scheduling issues or having to go outside of the DAU curriculum to obtain equivalency for some limited classes? 

The whole problem with equivalency goes away with my proposal. Providers other than DAU can structure their training however they want. No need for a DAU seal of approval. All that matters is the results--everybody must pass the same exams.

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It seems to me that the essence of the scheme is this:

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[I]nstead 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.

In short, instead of attending government prescribed and conducted or sponsored training courses, personnel would self-educate and then qualify by taking standard exams.

There is no doubt that training courses have not worked especially well, and I doubt that they ever will, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into. The problem with self-education is that government contracting is such a specialty field that there are not many college courses of textbooks. The contracting body of knowledge is not widely taught or written about. Take a subject like contract pricing. In most colleges, pricing courses teach business how to set prices. They don't teach buyers how to analyze prices. They don't teach cost or price analysis. They don't teach cost realism or price realism analysis. They don't teach should cost analysis. So how is a student to learn those things? What resources will be available to them, especially if they work in small towns and rural areas? People who want to be actuaries don't face those problems, since the topics that comprise its body of knowledge are routinely taught in colleges. I don't trust agencies to develop effective in-house programs.

I agree that what we do now is very expensive and mostly ineffective. Perhaps the solution is for the government to fund some colleges to develop courses in government contracting and make them available online and to commission textbooks.

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I began in the contracting profession in 1985.  A lot of OJT was provided as "training".  Not all bad, there were some awesome CO's back then.  Then the civilian agency I was working for put together their own contract courses.  Many were taught or facilitated by Government contract attorneys who were able to give an incredible background to the FAR and how it impacted what we were doing.  We were all smarter back then!  We wrote papers, held evening long discussions, etc.  for those who chose to participate after class.   We are, after all, writing working legal documents. 

I would like to see that type and style of instruction/teaching come back.  I can't see colleges offering anything like that.  And these "canned" courses are barely worth the time it takes to complete one.  Plus, as it's been pointed out, when an individual changes agencies, offices, etc., will the training they've had serve in the new environment?  It would if it was legal-based training.   

I find having to learn what the military does in contracting has very little correlation to what civilian agencies do.  All the CON courses are built around military contract scenarios.  Doesn't apply to what and how I contract in civilian agencies.  The concepts are similar, but not close enough to really get or have the best training possible.

Of course it would help if they quit changing the FAR every 2 weeks.  (joking!!) 

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I learned relatively little by going to all the contracting courses throughout my career.  I wouldn't be sad if the number and duration of courses was significantly reduced.  For me, the majority of learning occurs on the job by actually performing the task and it being evaluated by others.  I used that feedback to improve the accuracy and efficiency of what I was doing.  While exams are necessary to measure learning in a course, it doesn't prove the individual can do their job accurately or efficiently on the job, just because they went to a class and passed a test.  

The number of courses and length of courses has gotten out of hand over the last couple decades.  I believe a GS-12 or 13 with a Level 2 or 3 certification (who has been to more classes), but only has 3 years of experience is more dangerous and FAR (pun intended) less knowledgeable than a Level 1 GS-9 or 11 (or enlisted contracting specialist) that has been "doing" the job for several more years.

I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on OJT and evaluation of completed tasks, rather than formal training courses.

Also, the whole idea of needing a certification to work in contracting for the Federal government is questionable.  When I worked in the private sector for a Fortune 100 company in procurement, there was no formal training program or certification required.  They younger people worked with, observed, and learned from the senior people in the organization, then performed the tasks and received feedback.

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On ‎8‎/‎22‎/‎2016 at 5:18 AM, Vern Edwards said:

Perhaps the solution is for the government to fund some colleges to develop courses in government contracting and make them available online and to commission textbooks.

I couldn't agree more - one of my first (and still frequent) questions when I entered this career field was for books that I could read to learn about contracting and how to do it well.  I was given the answer that most Government contracting professionals were likely given - "read the FAR;" however, the FAR is not very instructional, it's mainly just prescriptive/regulatory so reading it to learn "how to do X" is not terribly beneficial.  Therefore, I think having a well-written textbook or two would go a long ways towards improving the way we can educate this workforce.

Vern, would you be interested in writing a contracting text instead of that horror novel I saw you mention? :P

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1 hour ago, Matthew Fleharty said:

Vern, would you be interested in writing a contracting text instead of that horror novel I saw you mention? :P

Matthew:

This was posted to Wifcon sometime today:

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Looking for others that have done a service contract as FFP, T&M, etc. where you expect contractor to invoice multiple times against a CLIN? I have typically utilized "JOB" as a unit of issue and qty of 1. EX> 1 JOB $100,000. GFEBS PR would denote that CLIN with "D" in multiple payment column. With a T&M contract I need emergency repair done with unknown labor and material/travel. I've typically put $10,000 on Labor CLIN and $10,000 on Parts CLIN and allowed invoices to be submitted multiple times until funding exhausted. My agency guidance is that JOB is only for construction and they tell me to use "Each" on the Parts CLIN? I'm about nuts trying to explain why this seems wacky.  Thoughts?

That's what "contracting" has come to. I'm sticking to my horror novel.

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22 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

Matthew:

This was posted to Wifcon sometime today:

That's what "contracting" has come to. I'm sticking to my horror novel.

I wonder, could you kill two birds with one stone...the contracting textbook might also be the horror novel (after all, I do recall you mentioning FAR Part 15 was written by Satan...)?

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Don,

Not sure if you're a subscriber or can access the article in some other fashion (if not, message me and I'll get you a copy), but the newest issue of Harvard Business Review has an article I think you'll find interesting in light of this post titled Why Leadership Training Fails - and What to Do About It by Michael Beer, Magnus Finnstrom, and Derek Schrader (https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-leadership-training-fails-and-what-to-do-about-it).

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