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Training Conference Launches a NASA Move

March 1, 2000
Related Topics: Change Management, Featured Article
Marshall Space Flight Center, a division of the National Aeronautics andSpace Administration (NASA), had to find a way to launch its employees on atraining mission -- fast.

The Huntsville, Alabama-based facility, encompassing 31 buildings andemploying over 2,000 people, faced a massive reorganization in May 1999. HR knewthat a training conference was the best way to effectively use employees’ timeduring the reconfiguration of office equipment and furniture. But an acceleratedmove schedule meant that HR and management had to work together at light speedto assemble a training program for the entire workforce in time for thesix-day-long reorganization.

Both the brevity of the move and Center-spanning training program presentedchallenges. The decision to speed up the Marshall Center move resulted fromfeedback by many employees who, because the Center had not gone through areorganization in over 25 years, felt apprehensive about the move.

"Some of these people had been in the same office for their entirecareers," says Greg Walker, director of employee and organizationaldevelopment for the Center. Thom Holden, who acted as project manager for thetraining, adds, "We had a situation where we didn’t want to string themove over several months -- we wanted minimal disruption."

But, as Sheila Cloud, director of center operations, points out, "In thenormal government manner, such a move would take 18 months from start to finish,as it did with one of our sister agencies. That concerned us because we saw thatthis was a waste of funds, and it put far too much stress on theworkforce."

Benchmarking against the sister agency showed that a quick moving schedulewas feasible. Training would get the employees out of the office so therelocation could be done quickly. Certainly conducting training for all theemployees seemed like the best possible use of their time and salaries whiletheir offices were being moved.

"At Marshall, all employees have to complete a certain amount oftraining by the end of the year," says Walker, "so the training was agreat opportunity for employees to get it out of the way."

HR also saw the move as an opportunity to build employee morale. "Wewanted to present something really first-class to ease employee anxiety,"says Greg Walker. "Change is really tough for a lot of people, so we wantedto make the training a positive experience for everyone who attended."

Teamwork helps the idea fly.

When it came to conducting training for so many employees, Marshall Centerfound itself without a model. "Neither our sister agencies nor we had neverdone anything like this before," says project manager Holden. "Centeroperations teamed up with HR in the office of employee and organizationaldevelopment, meeting on how best to accomplish the training."

Adds Cloud, "When you’re working in government, you’re sensitive tothe fact that the salaries of the people are also the taxpayers’ money."So the two offices decided that a training "conference" at a centrallocation would be the most cost-effective option. "Once that was decided,the challenge was whether we could pull it off or not," laughs Cloud.

The accelerated moving schedule left the team with a month-long timeframe toput the training together. "Normally, arranging a training session with2,000 people takes four months or longer," says Holden. "It wasn’ttotally undoable, but we had to find a venue, coordinate all the instructors,and watch the budget, too." Fortunately, Holden and his staff were able tosecure the use of the Huntsville Civic Center, which had both a main hall andseparate classrooms, for the duration of the training.

The sheer diversity of the large workforce attending the training conferenceproved another difficult point to navigate. "That was a big caveat -- thatwe were moving the whole workforce. Therefore, the training venue had to beuseful to the many occupations within the Center," says Holden. That wouldprove no easy feat. The Marshall Center boasts scientists, engineers, ITspecialists, security personnel, clerical workers, and several levels ofmanagement. On the other hand, "We didn’t want to go to the conferenceand teach basketweaving," says Cloud.

The team then collaborated to make the training conference as beneficial aspossible. With Holden at the helm as training specialist, the team heldbrainstorming sessions to come up with classes that would appeal to the widerange of employees at Marshall.

Then, the entire staff, using existing training vendors and their owncontacts, networked to see which vendors could offer the training in the propertime frame. "Then we worked our infrastructure around that -- quite astretch from the way we’d normally handle things," says Holden.

Despite the time crunch, the team managed to book instructors for generalinterest-type courses, such as team building, e-mail etiquette, and first aid,as well as for mandatory IT and ISO 9000 courses. Other classes were designed toappeal to unique worker situations, including an abbreviated course inconversational Italian to help a contingent of engineers who work with Italiancohorts in the space program.

The training unfolds ...

As the training schedule flew into place, an in-house graphics department puttogether a conference-style class itinerary training sessions. One week beforethe training conference, a special Web site went up with a FAQ page to answeremployees’ questions about the training and provide directions to the civiccenter.

Says Cloud, "We burned a lot of midnight oil to set the training up intime and make sure every detail was taken care of." The details includedeverything from planning for inclement weather to making special arrangementswith the City of Huntsville to see that employees would have ample parkingspaces at the civic center, most of which are normally reserved for cityemployees.

At the same time, the team worked to generate anticipation for the training."Our goal was to make it exciting for the employees," says Walker."We wanted employees to see that positive things were afoot and reallyenjoy themselves at the conference."

Employees pulling into the parking lot on the first day of the trainingbeheld a custom-made banner emblazoned with the training conference slogan,"Marshall on the Move." They walked to the center on a path decoratedwith colorful balloons.

Once inside, employees gathered in the civic center’s main hall for a townhall-style meeting, with management on hand to answer questions about therelocation. When the meeting broke for individual classes, volunteer greeterscheerfully directed employees to the correct rooms for training seminars.

During breaks between sessions, employees could stroll and view exhibitsdetailing different Center projects. The training team even took the time torefresh the balloons each morning to present a new appearance to returningemployees.

Employee turnout, tracked with attendance cards and evaluation forms, was amajority of the workforce, even though employees had the option of taking comptime during the move. Walker claims out that the key to the training’s successwas its attention to detail, designed to make Marshall Center employees feellike stars.

To minimize concern about employee safety, training staff made the trainingsessions entirely self-contained, bringing in boxed lunches and providing a bankof phones, fax machines and copiers so that employees could check in with theirfamilies or pick up voice-mail. The normally businesslike dress code was relaxedto casual for the entire week of training. Holden explains, "I knew if wemade the conference a comfortable learning environment, they’d like it. Wewanted to make them feel special."

Evidently, they did. The human resources team received rave reviews, both inthe form of evaluations and a galaxy of complimentary e-mails, from all levelsof employees in the organization.

Six days of training saved more than $1 million.

The "Marshall on the Move" training conference turned out so wellthat it was nominated by NASA for a "Continual Improvement" Award, adefinite nod of approval, since award nominations usually focus on scientificand technical achievements within the agency.

Thom Holden says, "What it really boils down to is the fact that weworked together as a team. It’s a long process to rewrite the way peoplethink, we’re at a point where we know that if we all work together, we cancomplete any project."

The HR team is even prouder of the fact that in all, the speedyreorganization and training conference saved the U.S. government over $1million. The training itself proved so effective that the Marshall Center nowplans to make the training conference an annual event.

More importantly, employee morale is a far cry from its anxious vibe beforethe move. "The employees could tell by the quality of the training and thecare that went into it that Marshall Center was sending a message," saysCloud. "That message was, ‘We care about you.’ They appreciated thefact that we tried to keep the move as short as possible and that we reallyworked to make the training useful to them."

Holden adds: "I may sound like a commercial for the space program, but Ireally do refer to NASA as the ‘great frontier.’ With every accomplishmentthere’s risk involved, and certainly everyone in this agency knows that. Butwhether it’s a training conference or a mission to Mars, we’re alwaysadapting and working to have the best possible outcome for the people weserve." Mission accomplished.

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 4, pp. 128-131 --Subscribenow!

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