Study seeking agency leaders


March 24, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

As the federal government faces an exodus of baby boomers, managers most care about losing their experts -- the so-called "go-to" workers who have experience and smarts. But as one Canadian agency learned, it is hard to avoid a brain drain if top leaders do not know who those people are.

To find their most valued players, project leader Marjorie Cooper and outside consultants used a growing tactic called "social network analysis." The idea was to find out whom people sought for help in the eight areas most critical to an agency's mission, and then put additional resources into finding and training their replacements.

The pilot project found that some people were "experts" in areas that had nothing to do with their current jobs and that sometimes the go-to people weren't the top minds on the subject, but rather knowledgeable workers who were outgoing and approachable.

"Managers didn't necessarily know this was happening," said Cooper, who retired Wednesday from Canada's Public Works and Government Services agency and whose study was first profiled in Governing magazine's February issue. "And we learned that some of the participants didn't want their names printed because they weren't supposed to be doing this other work under the table and were concerned that there would be some flak."

Here's how the study worked: Cooper's team e-mailed one question per day for eight days to about 400 members of the agency's information technology branch. The survey asked workers to select the colleague they would approach to get a particular question answered. Employees' names were listed, and a blank line was included so that workers could write in a consultant's name. The results were converted into a diagram, showing how information flowed through the division.

Cooper's consultants from the Toronto firm KNOW Inc. color-coded the results according to when the worker could retire and then ranked the participants in each area of expertise.

"With consultants, they're brought in for their technical knowledge and expertise," Cooper said. "So in addition to planning for retirements, this also showed us where we needed to train our own people to back them up because we can't always depend on having consultants coming in ... or if Joe Blow has been identified as an expert in risk management, don't hire a consultant for one or two days. Call Joe. He's your peer. He works down the hall from you."

Cooper, however, warns that this type of research comes with caveats. They found some workers who were doing more than one job -- for instance, a computer programmer who previously managed databases had remained the go-to person for his old job. Is that worker entitled to more pay? The second concern was privacy, particularly when printing workers' ages or naming consultants who had not agreed to participate in the project.

"Some managers were ecstatic, others a little bit dismayed," Cooper said. "I think they realized that there was some shaking up that may have to be done."

Soon after Cooper completed the study in 2004, her agency went through two unrelated reorganizations and a federal election swept in new leaders, who have not been briefed on Cooper's work. Given that Cooper has retired, she is relying on her colleagues to "pick up the ball," or her own knowledge will be lost.

NSA recruiting

About one-third of the 12,000 people to be hired by the National Security Agency between 2003 and 2011 will move into newly created positions, said John Taflan, the agency's human resources director, during an interview on retirement wave planning.

A majority of those hires are recent college graduates, and Taflan said that the agency is using a variety of strategies to control retirements and ensure that knowledge is passed on to younger workers, including mentoring and offering older workers more lucrative retirement packages to prevent everyone from leaving at once.

"Our work was a lot more predictable and a lot more structured when it was a bipolar world -- us against the Soviet Union," Taflan said. The Soviet "culture grew out of a European culture. We understood them a lot more than the challenges we face today. ... Today's are much more difficult."

Taflan said that the agency's "biggest challenge" is finding U.S. citizens who can speak Arabic, Urdu or Farsi and also can gain a high-level security clearance. Cynthia Miller-Wentt, NSA's chief of recruitment and staffing, said jokingly that she does somersaults when she finds somebody like that.

"We find the people," said Miller-Wentt. "The challenge is clearing them. ... There are a lot of people who are very interested in working at NSA. That part isn't the problem."

Fifty full-time recruiters work for her. The agency also has added more polygraphers to speed up the clearance process, which usually takes six to nine months. The recruiters have traveled as far as Hawaii and Puerto Rico to attract talent.

Taflan's job "is to design a structure that makes us more immune to [staffing] buildups and draw-downs, and still maintain a good hiring program," he said. "We don't want to be in another position where a large group is ready to retire."

The writer welcomes your comments and story ideas. She can be reached at or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at

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