Interactive simulation training, created by Heartwood, teaches safety procedures to maintenance crews assigned to the Patriot Missile Defense System. In the simulation, learners must open hatches, follow lockout procedures, use grounding tools and conduct repairs. Similar simulation training can be applied to the smart grid evolution.
Bill Sherman, Intulogy
When the United States allocated $3.4 billion of its 2009 Recovery Act to smart grid and renewable energy technology, it added substantial momentum for change. The successful launch of the smart grid, however, will require more than a commitment to new infrastructure and technology. Organizations must show people how to use these new smart grid systems and software effectively. Therefore, a 21st-century smart grid requires a 21st-century workforce learning strategy.
Smart Grids Need Skilled People
The smart grid will rely on a highly skilled human network. Increasingly, workers need more knowledge to perform their jobs properly. In addition, information often comes with an increasingly shorter shelf life. These two factors place systematic pressure on the human network’s capabilities. When workers make decisions based on out-of-date knowledge or incomplete information, errors often occur.
Workers need just-in-time access to accurate information to make smart decisions. Organizations will need to revisit their existing training programs and create new training solutions that support these new technologies and business processes.
Upgrading an organization’s work force learning strategy represents a complex challenge. Some established organizations already have struggled to meet the training needs caused by an influx of new workers hired to replace aging baby boomers, and despite the recession, this generational workforce transition continue.
Jane Hart, founder of the Center for Learning and Performance Technologies, said that learning and development “now needs to concern itself as much with helping employees become dynamic, agile, self-directed, smart learners as with creating learning solutions for them. Smart learners develop trusted resources and networks, use the most appropriate tools and have the right mix of skills to make effective use of these tools and (re)sources.”
To achieve these goals, organizations will need new technologies and strong partnerships within a learning ecosystem. Therefore, this article examines three 21st-century workforce learning strategies:
- Decentralize the generation and distribution of learning,
- Manage peak demands through partnerships, and
- Reduce risk to learners and equipment through simulation.
Most organizations will need to supplement their in-house learning teams with external partnerships with specialized skills and expertise (see Figure 1). This reshaped learning ecosystem will allow organizations to unlock untapped knowledge already within the organization and bring best practices from outside organizations.
Decentralize the Generation and Distribution of Learning
Smart networks force organizations to rethink the generation and distribution of resources. The smart grid initiative recognizes as one of its cornerstone principles that corporate and residential customers can both serve energy consumers and producers. These behaviors can be shaped by greater information sharing within the network.
In many ways, people have become accustomed to this bidirectional information-sharing process throughout their lives. Many users check other consumers’ online reviews before buying a book or purchasing an appliance. When users find a particularly helpful review, they rate it favorably.
This practice of user-generated content leverages the power of the network to distribute information through a peer-to-peer format. Similarly, many users go online and use social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Increasingly, today’s workers use these applications within their personal lives, and they will want to leverage these tools to solve business challenges. Workers know that most likely the answers to their questions exist somewhere within the organization, perhaps within someone’s head, a document or an online course. Workers, however, do not want to spend time searching for the answers.
Social learning technologies recognize that workers can be producers and consumers of learning (see Figure 2). Social learning always has occurred within the workplace when people shared war stories at water coolers or asked other questions over cubicle walls. Social learning applications allow organizations to accelerate this process and manage it.
Well-executed social learning solutions allow workers to locate answers when they need them. In addition, they can create resources for their peers. Social learning options are best launched through pilot programs, and they often grow as word spreads.
During the 20th century, organizations needed many classroom facilitators to transmit knowledge to learners. In the 21st century, the key skill likely will be online community managers who nurture semistructured social learning environments to monitor the health of the work force community, promote knowledge sharing among peers, ensure that signal (high-quality, user-generated learning) rises above the noise and recognize learner-identified gaps within the organization’s formal structured learning and fill them.
Outsourcing becomes a viable model for the creation and development of these social learning communities until they can be transitioned to in-house talent.
Manage Peak Demands Through Partnerships
While social learning offers a smart-grid approach to learning, organizations still need formal, structured learning programs, including classroom courses, e-learning modules, recorded Webinars, and formal mentoring resources (see Figure 3).
These delivery methods represent a 20th-century approach to training delivery. Much like a traditional power grid that delivers energy, these training formats push information from a central organization to the learners. Traditional delivery models, however, must adapt to remain significant within the 21st-century learning strategy.
These training methods will come under increasing pressure from financial considerations and learners’ needs. Many organizations still will require in-house learning experts, but they should not attempt to maintain a staff large enough to meet peak demand. Lean organizations will need to form outsourcing partnerships.
For example, organizations occasionally need to deliver large-scale training rollouts where trainers conduct classroom training. These change events can be triggered by software rollouts, corporate mergers, new products, or new procedures. Often rollouts will require organizations to provide more facilitators than they can field from internal resources. Therefore, outside facilitators become necessary to provide timely training to the entire work force.
Similarly, e-learning and Webinars provide broadcast solutions for organization-initiated learning events. These solutions often face their own challenges:
- 1. Most e-learning programs have large up-front development costs.
- 2. Content updates often become time-consuming and costly.
- 3. Research shows that few learners enjoy sitting through hours of traditional e-learning.
Because e-learning requires a diverse array of skills such as instructional design, graphic design, animators and sometimes voice talent, many companies partner with others that specialize in e-learning production rather than maintain all of these skills within their own organizations.
Reduce Risk to Learners and Equipment Through Simulation
E-learning has been common during the past few decades, but a new computer technology has increasingly reshaped the way organizations approach hands-on training.
Simulation training creates a highly interactive 3-D world where learners can practice hands-on skills without putting themselves or expensive equipment at risk. In many sectors, such as defense and health care, simulation training solutions have become anytime, anywhere solutions. Originally, these 3-D interactive solutions were limited to multimillion-dollar flight and surgical simulators on dedicated hardware platforms.
Neil Wadhawan, co-founder of learning simulation provider Heartwood, said that organizations no longer need to purchase dedicated equipment.
“Three-D simulations can now be delivered anytime, anywhere through a computer’s browser window,” he said. “If your workers can access the Internet or your organization’s intranet, then they can access simulation learning through their desktops, laptops or smart phones.”
Three-D simulation learning provides a proxy for hands-on laboratory environments. In the defense sector, organizations have used it to teach complex, step-by-step processes to war fighters. Some recent solutions have included ship-based firefighting procedures, battlefield medicine techniques for U.S. Navy corpsmen and repair procedures for mobile radar equipment. In many ways, these training solutions appeal to the digitally native millennial generation that has grown up with the Internet and gaming consoles. These virtual training laboratories offer benefits not found in typical e-learning solutions:
- Provide just-in-time learning and real-time feedback,
- Reset instantly to the scenario start position (unlike physical learning labs),
- Allow instructors to create customized scenarios through scenario editors,
- Generate more detailed feedback than typical instructor comments, and
- Save costs of dedicated equipment, labs and training travel.
Similar to traditional e-learning, 3-D simulation learning requires both organizations to commit up-front development dollars and production time. These serious games, however, have been shown to accelerate the learning process and produce workplace performance benefits beyond traditional classroom delivery.
The digital revolution has transformed more than just energy production, transmission and distribution. Workforce learning strategies have also changed to embrace new technologies and respond to the needs of a digitally native workforce.
A Proposed Template for an Electric Utility Training Program
While the smart grid focus is on infrastructure improvement, an opportunity always exists to make the utility training program smarter. In a program where data can be accessed quickly and become valuable information, efficiency can be achieved by using the same principles that are used to guide smart grid projects. A valuable smart work force training program should revolve around training records and data that is easily accessible with just a click of the mouse.
The database should contain training activities, individual training matrices, lesson topic guides, master training schedules and individual proficiency matrices for reference, tracking, planning and reporting. When a company has this information handy, it can easily assess any activity, even during emergencies.
A smart training program incorporates a continuous monitoring process and includes control components that help a company avoid wasting its resources. The program should be flexible, allowing the company to make changes in response to demands of the departments involved. The program should account for team members’ day-to-day job specific functions, and the implementation strategy should align closely with the utility’s operating cycle. Training scheduling also should be synchronized to summer and winter load demands, pre-storm preparation and storm seasons. This idea is no different from the strategic concept of scheduling maintenance and construction around these operating cycles.
In supporting this idea, managers should examine how prepared they are in each cycle so the execution of any project can be less stressful. The success of tasks typically come down to the qualifications of the people performing them. Managers, therefore, must know each individual’s training needs, what training courses each has or has not attended and how often an individual performs a certain job and when. The training data that is made available to the manager will help him or her assess the department’s capability.
All training courses should be coded and categorized for easy organization and future database manipulation. Training course details need to be in the training guide. The guide should identify factors such as training duration, trainer, training materials and visual aids, if they exist. Specificity cuts wastefulness. When the trainer is in the classroom or the field, he or she should have everything necessary to deliver effective training.
It is also important for everyone involved in a smart training program to have access to the master training schedule, which shows the snapshot of training courses for up to two years. The master schedule should be broken down into monthly and weekly schedules as it nears the scheduled training dates. Managers, through the master training schedule, can design a training matrix for each team member that specifies requirements, scheduled classes and even vacation time. The goal is to provide a training platform with a long horizon for each member.
A smart grid training program should be all-encompassing, covering major bases to ensure efficient, detialed, organized and controlled work force training.
Rene M. Tuballa works as a lead substation technical engineer for a northeastern utility company. He spent three years as an instructor and electrical systems curriculum developer at Engineering School Systems, U.S. Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill. Tuballa has developed his own smart grid training program.