The Australian Public Service has long recognised the importance of providing management development and learning opportunities to build the capability to achieve key performance and organisational outcomes among its practitioners, executives and leaders.
For government and APS staff alike, it’s a significant investment in time and resources that’s directed at making the public sector effective and efficient as it helps advise on, develop and implement the policies of the government of the day.
To its credit, both the APS and the Australian Public Service Commission have recognised that building tomorrow’s capability and fostering the talent to deliver it is an ongoing pursuit, and one that APS leaders need to stay on top of in a systemic rather than ad hoc manner.
As the report Unlocking potential. APS Workforce Management Contestability Review, 2015 observed: “There is a balance between investing in top talent and investing in the ‘vital many’.”
The same report concluded that: “The APS is not sufficiently developing talent to prepare the business for the future.”
Investment matters, so does value
What these two statements tell us is that for government agencies, there needs to be greater internal investment in staff to keep organisations ‘match fit’ as they take on future challenges.
To this end there has been a substantial investment in the APS building the capacity of their managers through programs such as the Public Sector Management program (PSMP).
Obviously succession planning and talent development also come into play, but before investment occurs there are considerations.
A key question being asked by many senior managers is whether the public service is receiving a return on this investment in management development programs. Are managers who are attending the programs on offer actually applying what they have learnt in their everyday management practice?
It’s a fair question in an environment of constrained resources for agencies. Obviously, there’s a necessity to demonstrate value. However within this there is also an imperative to nurture and unlock the value that is already present in staff by having them grow into roles.
The question of whether managers who undertake programs use the knowledge they acquire isn’t being asked in a vacuum. Within this, there’s also an attendant question of what works best and in what context and circumstance.
A good reference point for APS executives and leaders is Daffron and North’s work on how learning is transferred, particularly in the public sector (Daffron, S. R., & North, M. W. (2011). Successful Transfer of Learning. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company)
The work contains case studies from more than 20 professional groups, including findings, theories and models.
Significantly it considers variables that management development program planners can build into their planning process
Models for success
Another reference point to consider is Holton’s Model of the Transfer of Learning (2000), illustrated in the diagram below.
It depicts a three-way relationship between learners, their organisation and the university as the an example of a provider of the management education program, as precursors to individual behaviour change and subsequently contributing to the achievement of organisational outcomes.
Of particular importance in supporting individual behaviour change and impact on the organisation are three factors: the motivation and personality of the learner, the design of the program to facilitate transfer of learning and the support provided by managers and the organisation to learners on programs (Baldwin & Ford, 1988).
Research shows that learners with a strong learning orientation are more likely to make the most of their learning opportunity and to apply what they learn directly back into the workplace (Holton, 2008). How the program is structured with learning objectives, learning activities and assessments strongly aligned to workplace performance and executives who provide opportunities for their managers to apply what they learnt are also key factors that support transfer of learning (Baldwin & Ford, 1988)
Getting a clearer picture
Kirkpatrick’s (1998) seminal 5-level taxonomy on training evaluation highlights the importance of a multi-level approach to training evaluation. Levels 3 to 5, behavioural change and results/ROI, as illustrated in the diagram above, are rarely examined because it requires longer-term studies, with multiple sources of data and access to organisational settings.
Research into the efficacy of training has as such been criticised for taking a short-term perspective or a ‘snap shot’ in time approach and accessing information only from one single source which is usually the participants on the program.
This singular approach to the study of the transfer of learning has provided us with limited information on how to design programs and support learners to apply what they have learnt back into their workplace.
Local focus: QUT research on PSMP in Australia
To this end, a three-year longitudinal research study with approximately 320 participants in the PSMP across all states and territories of Australia is currently being conducted in partnership with QUT.
The purpose of the research is to obtain insights into how PSMP participants over time integrate their learning into their role and navigate the work environment to become more effective managers.
The study aims to provide a rich picture of participants’ learning journey through surveys, diaries and interviews, from when they start to six months after they complete the program.
Learner characteristics such as resilience and motivation to learn, the design of the program and the support provided to them will be measured. The integrated workplace projects completed by all participants on the program will be used to measure organisational impact.
Managers, colleagues and staff are also asked to participate in the study to provide an all-round perspective on the factors that influence the application of learning into the workplace.
The output from the research in annual reports over the next three years will provide the Public Service with key trends and evidenced based insights into what actions can be taken at management and organisational levels to support their staff who attend management development programs to apply what they have learnt to their management practice.
For more information on QUT’s Public Sector Management Program, click here
About the authors
Associate Professor Vicky Browning is the Director Executive Award Programs at the QUT Graduate School of Business, Associate Professor Jennifer Bartlett QUT School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations and Associate Professor Amanda Gudmundsson is the Assistant Dean, Teaching and Learning for the QUT Business School.
Baldwin, T. T. and Ford, J. K. (1988), Transfer of Training: A Review and Directions For Future Research. Personnel Psychology, 41, 63–105.
Daffron, S. R., & North, M. W. (2011). Successful Transfer of Learning. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company
Holton, E. F., Bates, R. A. and Ruona, W. E. (2000). Development of a Generalized Learning Transfer System Inventory. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 11(4), 333-360.
Kirkpatrick, D. L. (1998). Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels. San Francisco, Calif: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998.