E Pluribus Unum: Uniting Organizations Through Learning

In his role at the Department of Homeland Security, CLO George Tanner has applied a knowledge- and resource-sharing strategy to the organization’s learning offerings.

The Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002 to facilitate sharing of resources and knowledge among federal organizations focused on national security. In his role as CLO of DHS, Dr. George Tanner has applied this strategy to the department’s learning offerings.

The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had a somewhat shaky start. Created during a time of alarm and uncertainty that immediately followed the 9/11 attacks, the department was plagued in early years by charges of being ineffectual (with a vague color-coded threat scale and a roundly criticized call for using duct tape as a means of defense against terrorist attacks); inefficiency issues (including employee misuse of government credit cards that squandered billions of taxpayer dollars); and problems with leadership (such as the botched attempt to appoint scandal-plagued former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik as head of DHS).

In addition to these troubles, the organization has faced serious challenges in the talent management sphere. A 2006 survey of government employees from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management found DHS in the bottom tier of federal agencies in several people-related dimensions, including a second-to-last ranking in “leadership and knowledge management” and dead last in “results-oriented performance culture.”

Admittedly, the proposed organizational structure of DHS all but guaranteed its formation would be problematic. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 fused together about 30 government entities — some of which had a history that could be measured in centuries — into a new cabinet-level department. This was, in fact, the largest change in the configuration of the U.S. federal government since the Department of Defense was created in 1947.

Dr. George Tanner, chief learning officer for DHS, described this challenge by way of an explanation that originated with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff’s current Chief of Staff Chad Sweet, who came to the department from the private sector.

“He was a mergers expert, and the Department of Homeland Security is in many ways a merger,” Tanner said. “One of the things I hear him say on a regular basis is that when a merger takes place in the private sector, it’s usually between Company A and Company B. You have to merge management, leadership, IT, mission, products and whatever else. And it often takes between five and eight years for a successful merger between two companies with more or less the same background.

“Well, the Department of Homeland Security brought together about 30 agencies, departments and program areas — some similar and some dissimilar — and we’re only now hitting our five-year mark. The department is a work in progress. If you compare the department to a corporate entity, I think we’re on track.”

Part of getting DHS on track was establishing the CLO role. The position was instituted in 2006 based on a suggestion from the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which was formed at the request of Chertoff shortly after he arrived at the department.

“The secretary asked the Advisory Council and other senior leaders to look at the organizational structure, the climate, the culture and morale and make a variety of sweeping recommendations,” Tanner said. “That led to the creation of my position: an office to deal with enterprise-wide training, education and professional development activities to assist our employees in their performance and upward mobility.”

Tanner, the first person to occupy this office, attributes his ascension to the CLO role in part to “luck.” He entered the U.S. Army in the early 1980s as a private first class, rose to the rank of sergeant and entered officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga. He spent the most of his final decade in the service in educational assignments, teaching at the Joint Military Intelligence College.

“While in the military, in some ways I was the poster child for education,” he said. “I took full advantage of everything the Army had to offer. I was fortunate to be able to finish a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., all while remaining competitive for promotion.”

One notable accomplishment during this time in Tanner’s career was writing a dissertation, titled “The Problem of ‘World Order’ When the World Is Your Village Versus Your Globe,” while pursuing his Ph.D. in political studies at the University of Hawaii. This work topped academic content provider Proquest’s best-seller list twice and remains one of the most popular items offered on the company’s Web site.

In 2004, Tanner retired from the Army and joined the DHS intelligence shop. He served as the first chief training officer for DHS’ Office of Information Analysis and moved up to become the first chief education and professional development officer at the DHS Directorate for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection before being promoted to CLO for the entire department in mid-2006.  
Since taking on this role, Tanner has been tasked with aligning to Executive Order 13434: National Security Professional Development, a White House initiative signed by the President in May 2007. An accompanying strategy that came from a group led by U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer was rolled out in the summer of that year.

“The implementation plan put together was literally a consensus document among the interagency members on the identification of positions that deal with national security from a planning, policy or execution standpoint,” Tanner said. “It also created a training, education and professional development program for those individuals serving in positions that require knowledge, skills and abilities pertaining to national security.”

Tanner’s responsibility involves delivering learning to 208,000 employees, which includes between 165,000 and 180,000 full-time DHS staff, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  personnel and U.S. Coast Guard reservists. To manage this mission, he established the Department of Homeland Security University system, which was enabled by an enterprise-wide LMS.

“That system sets out to link and leverage our existing assets in the department, whether those are training centers, education facilities or professional development programs or courses,” he explained. “The university system is broken down into four pillars: a leadership institute, a preparedness center, a Homeland Security Academy and interagency and academic outreach programs.”

Like DHS itself, the university system is a work in progress. Although it’s operational to some extent, the LMS is expected to be fully deployed by 2010. Then Tanner and his team will be able to track, monitor and report on all the learning taking place. This functionality is key not only for the learning function, but also for the larger organization, he said.  

“We have to report to Congress, the Government Accountability Office, individual senators and representatives, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and many others. So being able to slice and dice our training statistics to answer questions for the record is very important for us.”

Two immediate priorities for the Department of Homeland Security University system are ramping up leadership development and delivering more standardized training programs that span the organization. With regard to the first concern, Tanner has emphasized development throughout the department — vertically, as well as horizontally.

“I think that’s our No. 1 area because we need to grow our leaders for the future. We’re literally creating entry-level to senior-level leadership programs. Most federal organizations — especially outside the Department of Defense — have their leadership development programs targeted at the more senior levels. I’d really like to follow a model where leadership development doesn’t start near the apex of your career, but rather begins when you enter the organization. And we’re doing just that in the department.”

For the second priority, one of the goals is to cut costs, Tanner said.

“One of the things that Congress and the Office of Management and Budget are looking for cabinet-level departments and offices to do is save money. In our department, we have to offer a number of mandatory training courses, and there’s no reason those can’t be standardized across the department. That’s what we’re moving toward: By the end of this fiscal year, we should have most of those standardized. That means that we don’t have to have our components, offices or program areas creating their own courses using federal employees and contractor dollars.”

Another objective is to get more development opportunities to more DHS employees. So far, Tanner has been successful in this respect.

“The demand from our components for the products we’re putting out continues to increase on a monthly basis,” he said. “I think that is a good metric for demonstrating that we are adding value to our components. We’ve been offering courses for about the past 12 months or so, and we’ve tracked that there has been an increase of users every month.”

Fortunately, a lot of the learning needed already exists in one form or another in one or more of the agencies that make up the department. For Tanner, much of the job involves finding relevant programs, standardizing them and making them accessible to the entire workforce. In this respect, he’s doing what DHS was created to do: share knowledge and resources among federal agencies for the common purpose of national security.

“We’re linking and leveraging the components, offices and program areas within the department,” he said. “In many ways, I’m not looking to create new programs or courses. I’m looking to leverage the best practices within DHS’ components and existing courses and programs that should be deployed enterprise-wide.”