Structuring off-site staff trainings

22 January 2018
SERIES OTT Best Practice Series 15 items

[This post is the introduction of the resource “Structuring off-site staff trainings” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]

Training needs arise from on-boarding new staff and from the need to improve staff quality. Most think tanks experience significant staff turnover, particularly at the junior researcher level and among lower level support staff—as people leave and are replaced, and, in some cases, as the institution expands. Consequently, a great deal of time is often devoted to providing on-the-job training to new staff (i.e., training where one worker explains to another the institution’s policy on such items as formatting documents, archiving statistical analyses, working with clients, and the IT system).

There is wide agreement that ongoing skills improvement is essential as well to enhance productivity and staff satisfaction and retention.   Opportunities for skill enhancement are legion. Many new researchers do not have a strong grounding in policy analysis or in program monitoring and evaluation—skills that are very likely to be needed at most think tanks. Most have also had only limited experience with the main statistical analysis packages such as SAS and SPSS. It is certainly possible for support staff and researchers to gain competence gradually through mentoring from their peers, but relying on colleagues alone can be inefficient. Colleagues do not always have time to explain carefully, not all colleagues can answer the questions posed, and the explanations almost certainly will be less thorough than would be optimal.  To avoid wasting resources and potentially frustrating more experienced staff, think tank management must give careful thought to defining the best mix of in-house and external training options.

Nearly all think tanks pay for off-site “professional development,” a term used here to include attending relevant professional conferences and participating in vendor-provided skills development short courses.  These workshops can be quite basic, such as improving one’s skills with Microsoft PowerPoint, or quite specialized such as a multi-day seminar on alternatives for analyzing trends in house prices and their variation among neighborhoods or regions.

Beyond development of skills, deeper learning is often necessary.  Most think tanks offer some support for tuition at academic institutions particularly for courses directly relevant to the staff member’s responsibilities or likely future role in the organization.  Some think tanks are prepared to support staff obtaining an initial college degree, funds permitting.

Important for senior management is to embrace the fact that staff in support offices—including IT, communications, HR, contracts, and accounting—have career paths and training needs and expectations parallel to their research center counterparts.  Vendor-provided in-depth workshops on government contract regulations and requirements can sharply accelerate the professional development of those relatively new to working with such contracts.  Similarly, those in IT responsible for maintained the organization’s computer systems can gain knowledge and certification through short courses aimed at helping student pass the next Microsoft test for a higher level of systems certification.

This post focuses tightly on off-site training by vendors and academic institutions and it identifies strong practices many of which are worthy of emulation.  It relies heavily on the actual practices at four think tanks I view as well-managed:   NORC at the University of Chicago, the Urban Institute, the Results for Development Institute, and the Institute for Urban Economics.  The first three are large organizations (measured by staff size, headcounts range from about 150 to more than 1,000) all located in the U.S.  The last is in Russia with a staff of about 50.  Below these organizations are referred to as “study think tanks.”  The practices identified as strong in the text are based on my distillation of material about their practices, from policy and process statements and interviews with responsible staff) and other resources about additional think tanks.

The post fills a void in on-line postings on this topic.  Whereas many posts vigorously support training in various forms to increase staff productivity and satisfaction, finding discussions of the actual organization of such training is challenging.  For example, my examination on October 13, 2017 of the 109 postings on On Think Tanks under the heading “staff training” yielded none devoted to actual policies and processes.

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This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.