Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more
My Private Industry/Contractor Life
Futility at its Best
Being lured away from the Federal Government to work in the private sector for a contractor seemed exciting at the time. This was especially efficacious given the no can do attitude and no risk management displayed by most federal employees and agencies. During these contracting years, I worked for a variety of firms, some large, some medium and some small. Of the small companies, a few were veteran owned and others were woman owned. The large-medium firms either fell into the categories of: systems integrators; information technology; or niched to serve the needs of the Federal intelligence community. The roles I played involved mostly organizational development activities that required competencies I had as an Industrial/Organizational psychologist.
My first job involved working in all the three letter environments (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], National Security Agency [NIA], Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA], National Reconnaissance Agency [NRO], and National Geospatial Agency [NGA) of the intelligence community. I did have a top secret clearance where I passed a counter-intelligence (CI) security polygraph many times. That said, I never did pass a life style polygraph even though I attempted to get through it at least three times. After three attempts it died on the vine without ever getting completed or approved. Apparently being raised catholic my thoughts/guilt could never completely clear me of the trauma I experienced as a very young child when my friend’s sister fell into the water and drowned when we were told by our parents not to go on the island in the park and be near the water. The question asked by the security evaluator dealt with “Did I kill anyone” which set off the monitor. Based on research, polygraphs in general are hit and miss in determining whether you are lying or not. There are as many false positives as there are false negatives. You can be taught how to beat the system and those with a sociopathic personality do beat it. Given that a polygraph is not permissible as evidence in the court and yet exclusively used still in the security clearances of the intelligence community is baffling to me. It does such a lousy job, keeps out good guys and keeps in bad guys. The irony, is that technology has advanced to where functional magnetic resonance imagery is far superior to the caveman like techniques employed (Electroencephalogram (EEG), galvanic skin response, breathing). Yet security clearance practice continues as is. This craziness of attaining security clearances is big business and difficult to change direction just like turning the Titanic in time to miss the iceberg – did not happen nor will the security clearance system transform to be more relevant and cogent. Just another illustration of a debacle in the Federal Government being witnessed.
My responsibilities inside the intelligence work space dealt with program analysis, strategy development, decision making, team dynamics/building, managerial/leadership, and competency development. Many excellent products and workshops were developed across all these activities using the latest state of the art groupware technology, decision making software and personal/team/organizational assessment tools. Senior managers and leaders as well as expert professionals (both military and civilian) were willing participants in these endeavors. In my judgement, the intelligence community employees were much smarter, had better attitudes, and were more committed than any of the military or civilian agencies I came into contact with throughout my career as a contractor. While these things are true from my perspective, they also were more cunning and deceitful and would find a way to figuratively cut your throat if it meant bettering themselves or making themselves look good. You constantly had to watch your back and you could trust no one.
Working for an IT firm was interesting because I was hired to be their Chief Learning Officer (CLO). More to be said about this position later. Senior leadership particularly wanted their key personnel well-grounded in project management and desired for many of their employees to be Project Management Institute (PMI) certified. Quickly we put in place where personnel could attend a two-week study program to prepare them to take the PMI’s Project Management exam. We also embarked on a major competency development exercise where every person regardless of position title who was involved in project management was evaluated against a set of competencies defined by the judgment of seasoned internal employee experts in the field of project management. The results were very revealing but completing the exercise was not well received because it demanded more time to complete than what was expected. While the activity caused some angst among senior leadership, the results made believers see that a strong internal curricula program needed to be put in place to grow staff professionally. This was accomplished through our own organically developed virtual university. Two other innovative programs supplemented this strategic pathway. An internal coaching program was introduced as well as working with a well-established virtual school from the Midwest to have employees complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business. All went well for two years until the company fell on tough times and the group I was attached to was eliminated. Two business areas in the company wooed me to join their group. One group wanted me to head up a project to develop a construct for the National Intelligence University (NIU) and the other group wanted me to provide leadership for their organizational development program. I choose the former than the later.
The project lasted about a year before fizzling out. The ride was fascinating, the outcome poor. The executive vice president expected a fully developed marketing plan and proof of concept for the evolution of the NIU that pinged with a sense of urgency to be presented to the Director of National Intelligence. Part of the project was to gain teaming partners across the industry who could provide insight to its incubation. After several presentations, fifteen teaming partners were selected who showed enthusiastic endorsement. Initially, the group put together an extremely innovative and creative video vignette. The video was based on an idea I came up with where a re-engineered deadly deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) virus was embedded into insects. This vile virus was developed by a terrorist cell overseas and was about to be introduced into the eastern coast of the USA to kill off the population. The personnel who had previously attended NIU were able to cooperate, communicate, collaborate, and coordinate their intelligence across their agencies quickly and with transparency to keep the virus out of the USA and eliminate the terrorist cell. The video production was done by the company’s TV production studio. After several iterations the novel product was ready for prime time. As the production of the video was being developed, the team evolved an excellent treatise on the construct of the NIU and its associated proof of concept. We were ready to introduce it the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and put together a promotion plan to move forward when the senior executive informed us she was retiring. She ended up being replaced by someone who did not have her passion or commitment and the whole project died on the vine and went nowhere. The firm was IT centric and this project without a champion fell by the wayside.
Given the demise of these two very important projects dear to my heart, I moved on being enticed to join a systems integrator firm to lead a project of organizational design for the political structure of Iraq. Within the first two months of joining the firm, the project got in trouble and was drowning quickly. Bottom line, I never did to go overseas and provide my expertise. Having hired me and being somewhat at loss as to what to do with me, they finally assigned me to help out with a project of supporting the Federal Acquisition Institute. The project entailed setting the standards for certification across the Federal Government which lasted six months before being assigned to an internal focus group to organizational resign the company itself. This project lost momentum at which point I moved on with my career because of inability to be consistent and vigilant to its efforts.
Besides my lack luster perspective of large companies, I also have a similar deem view of small firms. The common theme amongst them is that they are play grounds for the owners to make enough money for themselves to do what they want with their lives. Their understanding and competency to move their companies to the next tier of business is missing. They find it difficult to invest or what they need to invest in. As such, they quickly shut the door on opportunities. These small firms have trouble maintaining staff at the expense of hurting their own pocket book. Their number one priority is to live as comfortably as possible for themselves. That said, there are some cool things learned while working in these environments.
Because of their small size, you had to learn to wear multiple caps. There just was not a capable and well-tooled infrastructure support system (proposal development, contract support, human resources to name a few). In order to promote my main organizational development services’ expertise you had to become proficient as a business developer and proposal guru. Teaming partners are critical for small businesses, finding the right ones and cultivating them is crucial to any potential opportunity. The proposal process (development, writing, bidding, submission and follow-up) became a part of your everyday business. Knowing which Requests for Proposals (RFPs), Request for Quotes (RFQs) and Blanket Proposals (multiple domain areas defined by the customer to which task orders would be written for the winning-awarded contractors to bid on later) was both an art and use of wisdom/logic. You could spend lots of time chasing work and never be in the ball game if you did not actually have performance experience and intimate knowledge/socialization of the specific customer seeking service. While having learned a tremendous amount about getting and doing business in the Federal Government, I was very frustrated with the lack of success in getting new business for any of these firms I worked for. Appealing and/or getting feedback on lost bids of the customers was fruitless because their evaluation criteria were so ambiguous and non-specific that the information they provided was basically useless/worthless.
Medium firms differed from small firms in that they had some of the infrastructure that the small firms did not. The biggest infrastructure weakness they have is in marketing and to a secondary degree their business development. The other problem in medium firms is that they did not have some of the set-a-side benefits that only small firms could take advantage of and were caught in the middle trying to compete with the more well-established large firms. This caused them to be myopic and overly focused on customers they had. If the work ran out they did not have a pipe line of follow-on business to make up their loss. They spent extraordinary time trying to gain new business with a pre-existing customer that typically grew out of a personal relationship the owner had with the customer. Three stories merit illustration: (1) U.S. Coast Guard; (2) Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and (3) Washington Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
As a contractor to the U.S. Coast Guard we were hired to help them develop a future envisioned state with a culture of transparency in working with their other sister agencies for the newly corporate structure put in place back then called Homeland Security. We were to inculcate an organizational learning mentality per the concepts outlined in the Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Many senior leadership sessions were conducted to attain buy-in and execute their future strategic pathway. Presentations to the Commandant to gain his approval were made. The commandant bought into this transformative perspective but the plan was never executed. They fill right back into who they were before as singularly focused, sense and respond and being security conscious pertaining to the internal water ways of the USA.
Working with the FAA became an exercise of wasted energy. A great amount of money and effort was spent on a blanket proposal contractor I worked on as part of a contractor’s team who was well connected with the agency. They appeared to do all the right things and still lost out as one of the winning contractors. They built a solid partner team (inclusive only to them), hired an outside professional proposal developer, sent considerable time socializing with the customer, knew the cost points, and wrote a compelling proposal. The owner was devastated and had great difficulty maintaining her emotional balance. The company lingered on but never truly recovered from this loss. Besides this huge defeat, I spent many hours trying to find and bid business for this contractor regarding organizational development services to no avail. Great proposals written but no luck. It is tough when the contractor is perceived as an Information Technology (IT) support company by the customer.
While WMATA is not exactly a Federal Agency, they are subsidized by the Federal Government and Washington DC to run the buss and metro system for the greater Washington DC area. Their organizational climate is one of apprehension, risk aversion, being union dominated, distrust in senior leadership, inability to cooperate between offices, complacency to do only what is necessary, and genuine fear for oneself if coming forward with the truth based on what is happening. The work force is primarily made up of minorities and senior leadership is primarily White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. This is quite a clash in cultural imperatives. Our task was to help create a positive organizational culture where everyone could feel safe and rewarded for doing great. Through a series of multiple workshops and coaching sessions, a comprehensive set of initiatives were recommended based on the assessments, revelations and insights found throughout the process. The WMATA executive leadership decided to sit on the report and let things ride as they were. They did nothing, showed no moral courage and as a result nothing changed other than multiple executive directors lost their job over the years. WMATA continues to operate inefficiently and ineffectively, be funded, and be tagged as an extremely dysfunctional company.
In March of 2000, I decided to formally incorporate my business as an S-Corporation to do high end organizational development and psychological services. Over the years I have been able to craft out some nice consulting work across State, Federal and private firms. I have been fortunate to work with other niche experts across the USA in working for the Department of the Army, WMATA, Economic Development Agency (EDA), other contractor firms, the intelligence community in general, and the Department of Agriculture Graduate School to name a few. Some years were better than others in making revenue but in general I made enough to be comfortable to live in the surrounding Annapolis area.
While business revenue was reasonably good, various projects stand out in my mind that over the years have left me feeling cold and dry. I spent years working with Decision Path in developing a novel state-of-the art support software, enabled-facilitation tool to deal with complex change called CALM (Change Adaptation Learning Model). We field tested it with the Department of the Navy, made major presentations across the country attempting to educate others on its use, and discussed its value to other larger firms engaged in the change business but never got any sticking power. Both myself and my partner are convinced of its power but still are chasing windmills in getting it popularized.
I worked with another clinical psychologist from John Hopkins to develop a pipeline of clinical professionals (Bachelor’s to Masters to PsyD’s/ Ph.D.’s/EDDs) to be cultural adept with working with veterans and military who are experiencing mental health issues to include traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The idea was to make sure the military vets had amble supply of qualified acculturated professionals to deal with their issues. We presented our concept paper and proof of principle to both the Deans of Education and Psychiatry but could not get them to play nicely together in the same sandbox. Another brilliant idea that never got off the ground. I still believe this would be funded by Department of Defense (DoD) if anyone from John Hopkins’ leadership took it forward.
A close colleague who worked with me and moved on to a larger company, undercut me by competing for business with WMATA. I had put together a great team, had a supper proposal, had tremendous past performance, and yet lost the contract to her company. The reason stated was that that her company was more sustainable and did not require multiple teaming arrangements. I have never forgiven her for what she did and will never trust her for the rest of my life for her deceitful behavior.
Mary and Sheila's Struggles
Throughout my career as a consultant, I was much involved with two extremely gifted woman consultants. One was my mentor and the other I worked many “gigs” together. Mary’s story involves a situation where I had her participate in a major Organizational Development effort with a Federal Client that was interested in the work we were capable of doing. We used a contract vehicle she had to procure the work. After completing the work she was to reimburse me for the efforts I provided. The government paid her but she kept from paying me my share. It is now going on eleven years and she has been slowly paying me back what she owes me – at the rate she continues to nibble back her debt to me, it will take another ten years for me to see the debt paid off. Hopefully I will still be alive by then! To her credit she has persevered to pay off her debt. She has promised to end her debt by year end 2018. She has also stated she would pay back with interest.
Sheila’s story is two-fold. She is a gifted speaker and provocateur. During the blush years in consulting she was capable of demanding quite a high price for her services. As the years moved forward, consultancy costs were dramatically reduced. For one client that I brought her in on, I informed her that we could only pay a fourth of the fee she was accustomed to – her business manager (her husband) threw a fit and accused me of holding back on her and pocketing the rest. Both she and he later did apologize for their accusations but it left a real bad taste in my mouth. We both got over the incident and continue to be close friends and colleagues today. The other episode happened while on vacation with her and her husband in Northwestern Canada. My wife, her husband and I were just about to pull out of the dock from the pier when she came down crying and screaming that her thirty year old son who suffered from bi-polar had just killed himself, using a small pestle and shooting himself in the head. Apparently he had an argument with his girlfriend while not being on medication because the medication was causing severe constipation and he became overwhelmed and overreacted without thinking. There is nothing worse than watching a mother’s grief and having to drive 12 hours back to their home observing their pain. She still goes to retreats to deal with her grief.
Throughout this period of working in private industry and consultancy, I percolated the construct of the CLO having worked as a CLO for large, medium, and small companies. To its evolution, I wrote an article in 2010 that was published in the e-journal of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD). For a while I made major presentations on this topic across the country representing Kaplan University but again it never gained momentum and too, fizzled out. That said, I would like to share the article here because I still believe it has major relevance to the evolving field of being a CLO for a company. The position placement for the CLO should be reporting to the CEO.
The Evolving Role of the Chief Learning Officer
Dr. David J. Koehn
The CLO role is gaining power across commercial and governmental enterprises. Some see the CLO as a people development and talent management function and others see it as a knowledge capacity building function, while others would just let it evolve to whatever the context of the organization desires.
CLO Primary Responsibility
The CLO position evolved to make organizational learning a key business strategy for competitive advantage and growth. As such, the challenge is to bring to life in a practical sense what organizational learning constitutes for a given organization. However, before we cover what is involved in organizational learning, the CLO role definitely has partners in driving the strategy of organizational learning. Though relationships with company functions associated with strategic HR, business communications, strategic planning, and information management are critical to driving organizational learning as a key business strategy, the CLO, as well, is very closely aligned with the profession of organizational development.
Organizational Learning – What is it?
Peter Senge defined organizational learning as a set of five interdependent personal and social competencies to be developed in an organization. He included personal mastery, team learning, shared vision, mental models (underlying beliefs) and systems thinking. It has been difficult to operationalize these competencies so that they make common sense to business executives and they are connected directly to driving business growth. The CLO plays a strategic role in framing how these competencies are to be applied inter-connectivity throughout the organization. Since organizational learning is social, creating collaborative environments and conversations is another important essential capability for the CLO to evolve if organizational learning is to thrive.
CLO Core Value
To support organizational learning, the CLO needs to reinforce the principles of new science (human beings are considered as self-organizing and adaptive in nature). People should not be treated as objects to be manipulated but instead are to be nurtured, enabled and supported as truly self-organizing beings. As such, treating personnel as people, not objects, requires a major paradigm shift in business where command and control just does not work and understanding and applying new` science principles does. A vital capability the CLO must address. Otherwise the current mechanistic paradigm of treating people as piece-parts will continue to sub-optimize their future growth, especially where people play the major role in a company or organization.
Visuals are always important in illustrating the meaning of things. Here we see the role of the CLO evolve at a major Information Technology Company over the past two years I worked there.
There are many facets that influence organizational learning in a company. The CLO should operate as an integrator regarding the seven essential components (shown above) that impact organizational learning. The following highlights how each element contributes to organizational learning but firstly there are two major strategies for the CLO to follow.
One is energizing the company for transformation by building capacity in people through information for the enterprise. Transformation like many terms has a unique and distinctive intent. When we use the term transformation we are talking about a fundamental shift in the way of thinking and doing. It goes to the core of being, what we are personally and organizationally.
- For individuals, this involves changing our mental models (our mindsets, our perceptions, and our attitudes)
- For organizations, this involves changing our strategic, operational & tactical paradigms (assumptions about our rules and rules of engagement)
The second strategy is to guide learning and performance services across a company’s business distinctions and business groups. While the first strategy is internal and impacts business over time, the second is external and directly influences business growth immediately. Both are necessary and at times are paced differently within a company dependent upon current executive management’s approach to running a company. It may be necessary to spend more time doing strategy two than strategy one, for survival sake until executives can deal with the longer incubation time for strategy one to demonstrate its value.
Critical Elements Table
Given these two strategies as linchpins to everything the CLO does, let’s return to the seven elements that influence organizational learning as a key business strategy.
Element One: CLO role of building the crafts of the Company
The life blood of any company is building capacity and capability in the technical, professional, functional fields as well as major roles like managerial leadership and project/program management. To do this requires:
- Establishing a credentialing process
- Applying performance expectations and monitor performance
- Developing, capturing and assessing management metrics
- Conducting competency assessments
- Devising curricula for each level of craft responsibility
- Establishing mentoring & coaching initiatives
- Ensuring career paths and responsibility for promotion
- Developing a people culture
A company focused on building primarily on strengths and decreasing gaps in practices, leveraging best practices, and providing key process improvements produces a connected network. A company that combines incentives, promotions, and career tracks builds a robust management capability to be a thriving, sustaining company.
Element Two: CLO role of incorporating a virtual-blended university
The learning backbone of any company rests with its ability to effectively use interactive e-learning and blend it with same time, same place experiential learning. To do this requires:
- Architecting an automated talent management program composed of connecting three facets: (1) workforce productivity (mission related performance management), (2) learning courses through a typical learning management system and (3) the foundation piece is competency modeling
- Establishing a community of practice and centers of excellence that focuses on client and customer products and services
- Developing a learning culture
A company focused on building and investing in human development will always win and is highly recognized by the stock market. A company investing in its people will grow where attaining financial goals becomes a natural by-product of being responsive to its people.
Element Three: CLO role of incubating innovation
The creativity executor of any company is innovation. To do this requires:
- Establishing a discipline approach to innovation management
- Instituting a hub for all technology demonstrations
- Producing a web portal for innovation
- Developing an innovation culture
A company driven on innovation will constantly grow. A company investing in innovation will accelerate its growth. A company supporting innovation intercepts and leverages emerging technology.
Element Four: CLO role of producing knowledge sharing
The conversion of tacit and explicit information into wisdom lies in the ability to establish a knowledge enablement environment. To do this requires:
- Instituting collaborative WAN, LAN and web based support tools
- Incorporating a “smart based” concept driven search engine
- Initiating a web based knowledge “central” portal
- Developing a knowledge sharing culture
As a potential sense and respond organization, a company is capable of using the right information in a timely manner and is better positioned for keeping abreast of present and future needs. A company using knowledge, leverages its talent.
Element Five: CLO role of instilling quality
The customer discriminator of a company is its passion for quality. To do this requires:
- Establishing a standards program based on integrating tenets from Six Sigma, Baldrige, and ISO 9000
- Creating a customer-centric measurement tool that hears the voice of the customer, often
- Developing a quality culture
A company with a passion for quality delights the customer. A company that is quality centric surprises the customer.
Element Six: CLO role of process management
The efficiency energizer of a company is in its process management capability. To do this requires:
- Putting in place enterprise business architectural tools to support systems thinking
- Establishing a standards program based on the integration of Capability Maturity Model – Integration (CMM-I) and People – Capability Maturity Model (P-CMM)
- Developing a process based culture
A company focused on processes tied to corporate strategy has a winning business solution. A company emphasizing a process based management culture solidifies efficiencies.
Element Seven: CLO role of enterprise decision support
The infrastructure support mechanism of a company is about enterprise decision support. To do this requires:
- Instituting a paperless workflow system
- Embedding a decision support tool suite to support dealing with issues, challenges and solution making
- Leveraging e-learning where it makes sense
After Action Learning Reflection
A pet peeve of mind while working in private industry was the performance appraisal. Most companies employed the performance appraisal poorly and often it became a power trip for the managing supervisor or “something that had to be done – a real burden”. According to Dr. W. Edwards Deming (father of profound knowledge), he never found any value in the performance appraisal – from his perspective it did more damage than good. If the performance appraisal were geared towards development it might have a chance of having some value. To this end, I developed a process using the goal attainment scale as a basis of viewing growth both in professional development and job performance. I attempted to put this novel approach in place in a few companies on a trial basis but again never came to fruition – I still believe the goal attainment approach that I developed has great potential but it remains in moth balls. If performance was substandard, companies need to look at a corrective action plan and use their disciplinary process to deal with ineffective employees. Typically, constructive timely feedback, tangible and intangible rewards, incentives, promotions, salary adjustments, and team bonuses facilitate the employee moving in the right direction – then there would be no need for the disciplinary process to kick in.