The public buses on the city streets and back roads of Pierce County, Washington, provide breathtaking views of sweeping shorelines and majestic mountains. While savoring those sights from a comfortable window seat, one would scarcely know that the public agency that operates those buses, Pierce Transit, is in severe financial crisis. But the recession has cut so deeply into its principal revenue source - a local sales tax - that a 40 percent reduction in services will likely be required unless new funding is secured.
How does Pierce Transit plan to stay afloat? With a proactive plan that puts the learning function front and center with other key strategists within the agency.
This story begins in 2006, when CEO Lynne Griffith was hired under a mandate for change at the public agency serving the greater Tacoma area. She brought with her a conviction that the learning function is vitally important to any organization. "Learning is how we close the gap between where we are and where we want to be," she says.
Griffith asked her new Vice President for HR and Technology, Alberto Lara, to elevate the prominence of the public agency's training organization. Lara then brought in Kelly Johnston as the organizational learning manager, and she, in turn, launched a corporate university program as requested and then championed a strategic role for the unit.
An organizational development team was created, composed of Griffith, Lara, Johnston, and two external consultants, Karen Howells and Richard Howells. This team provided organizational development guidance and consultation, especially to help the workforce meet current and future challenges.
Then along came the recession. It was felt immediately in the form of declining sales tax revenue that provides 70 percent of the agency's operating income. It quickly became apparent that Pierce Transit needed to influence its own destiny and not wait for rescue from the federal government. The CEO created a strategic team to address the problems.
One program from Johnston's department was aimed at blending employee learning and development with project-based research and development. Called "Project Innovation," it is a volunteer effort that borrows from McKinsey & Company's "Three Horizons" framework to pursue project innovations that could benefit the agency in the future.
In 2008, the board chair suggested an employee-driven effort that would generate new business ideas for Pierce Transit. With assistance from the Howells Group, a Portland-based organizational development consulting firm, Johnston proposed a skill-based program focused on research and development that would infuse innovation while heightening a sense of inclusion and empowerment among participating employees.
Five cross-functional teams were created around specific business goals led by leaders appointed from the pool of volunteers. Two nine-month cycles of development were held in 2008 and 2009, both culminating in formal presentations to the agency's board of directors.
"The results were amazing," says Johnston. She says that solid business concepts were presented to the board. Board members responded by approving most of the recommendations. In addition, they said that the sessions at which the presentations were delivered were some of their most memorable and meaningful experiences as board members. Board members supported Project Innovation by attending several learning events to interact with and encourage employees.
The program has been suspended during the recession, but Johnston says a host of great ideas is waiting in the wings when it is resumed. Pierce Transit will be positioned to provide the type of innovative leadership that taxpayers want from their public agencies.
The learning function helped to develop another comprehensive strategy that became known as "PT Tomorrow." The PT Tomorrow mandate was to design a financially sustainable system that the public values and uses. The four-part strategy includes a redesign of the agency's core system to provide more efficient and effective service, an intensive public involvement effort, increased organizational capability, and enhanced operational efficiency. The learning team was assigned a process sponsor role as well as the lead role in developing organizational capabilities. This included providing necessary training to help employees execute the plan's three other elements.
Johnston believes one of the most important aspects of the initiative has been to help employees navigate the rocky economic terrain by equipping them with information and direction. After all, they have witnessed the drastic cost-containment measures including layoffs, delayed capital investments, and a hiring freeze. And since the agency's survival is dependent on public support, it's important that customer-facing employees accurately explain the situation, she says.
By positioning the learning function as a member of the strategy team, the agency is able to use proven organizational change methods and theories to help agency employees be resilient through this difficult time. And through various education efforts, employees are becoming active owners of the business of the organization and are aware of performance measures and results and their role in achieving targets. As Johnston states, "Employees now know exactly how we're funded and how we're doing financially. They understand the importance of taking action to correct inefficiencies, and they have a stronger understanding of the political environment in which we operate, which is key for public employees."
Organizational learning worked closely with the public involvement team to develop three modules to explain the predicament to external constituents. Feedback was so positive that these were broadened to a full class made available through open enrollment to all employees. It has garnered the passion and engagement of employees while distributing Pierce Transit's story. This led to an all-call for employee volunteers, who participated in four teams to help the effort. This was launched with a two-day training aimed at developing business, system, and political knowledge as well as skills for engaging with the public.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of efficiencies and employee development are behind a variety of other initiatives launched by Johnston's Organizational Learning team. It reduced the cost-per-learning hour by 33 percent last year while increasing the overall number of learning hours by 39 percent. A current initiative involves developing an analytics competency in the operations management team. This group is now using data to forecast performance and continue to drive down costs.
Looking ahead, Johnston expresses that it is now time to reassess the training program during the extreme budget crisis. She is conducting a needs assessment to identify the skills absolutely necessary right now to maintain the agency's effectiveness. The target: the popular open-enrollment PT University. She says that it is critical for the learning function to demonstrate alignment with the goals of the agency, and the goal right now is survival. To do this, they must suspend high-quality but nonessential training, focusing solely on the critical skills needed today. t+d