Nuts and Bolts

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print

A big federal agency finds value in the internal use of social networking.

Here’s how it works: participating staff member create a profile and catalog their areas of skills, competencies and expertise. They also rate their level of ability in a particular area—say human resources or law—so that others searching the system for a match connect to someone who closely matches their needs. This ensures, for example, that someone with little knowledge or experience doesn’t wind up matched with someone who’s too far above or below to provide optimal value.

Once a staffer creates a profile, it’s possible to seek out engagements or have the Triple Creek system suggest matches. A person begins a search by entering desired competencies—everything from leadership and innovation to contracts and legal issues — and selecting other criteria. The system uses an algorithm to suggest matches. A user can view a basic summary of suggested connections but also drill down for more information about the person. Once a connection is established—or a group is created—participants share notes, documents, links and other resources. Users designate whether a group is public or private.

The end result? “If you need help on that particular issue or situation, you can access someone virtually, very quickly, as opposed to a one-to-one mentor/mentee match, where you’re just talking to one person,” Mullican notes. “The system provides an enormous amount of flexibility and helps users get the information they need in an expedited way.

An engagement may last a few days or for months and each one can take on a very different shape and form.”

Beyond the Watercooler

One major goal of the program is to nudge staff outside their comfort zone and expand their thinking and options about sharing knowledge. So far, Mullican reports that the agency has established 57 formal one-to-one mentoring relationships covering administrative processes, technical program areas, leadership, negotiating and other topics. Hundreds of other groups have assembled and dissolved over days or weeks. The OLN has also helped the FDA identify potential changes to workflows that boost efficiency and trim costs.

The biggest challenge, Mullican notes, has been getting staff to create profiles and populate their competency lists. The number of participants is now approaching 700 but the FDA expects the figure to grow rapidly now that the system has moved from a pilot phase to general use. She and the OLN team have made it a point to provide training and manuals to help employees get up to speed. Evaluations indicate that most employees find the system valuable, she says.

The FDA is now looking to expand the system agency-wide (and eventually with its counterparts around the world) and it’s looking for ways to further define competencies and other components. It’s also working to build a more robust system that can tie into talent management and succession planning systems—and map competency strengths as well as skill and knowledge gaps. “This will enable us to identify, develop, deliver, and track proper training and career development opportunities that an employee would need from hire to retire,” Mullican says.

“The Open Learning Network is a cost effective, low risk way to achieve results,” Mullican concludes. “It’s helping build a culture of knowledge sharing and making change management safe.”

This article was originally published on 2011-09-28
Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.
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