Academies at work: Offering high-quality learning experiences to attract and retain talent

Facing nationwide talent shortages, one agency in the behavioral health industry is creating a cohort-based L&D experience to improve performance, recruitment and retention.

The nation is experiencing critical shortages in behavioral health while enduring an increase in the need for human services. Although workforce shortages are a complex matter that will require cross-industry solutions and action with and by state executive offices, legislators, regulators, public and private employers, higher education institutions, state agencies and philanthropic and community organizations, it is critical that human services organizations are able to effectively serve their communities. 

While staff who provide behavioral health services are often highly educated, students who graduate from academic programs often still need capability development beyond their formal education to support their organization’s missions related to serving individuals in the community with mental illness, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities. 

Behavioral health agencies lucky enough to have a professional learning and development team beyond a sole staff member may look to that team to help address those capability gaps. Catalogs of courses, one-off-training programs and unstructured on-the-job coaching are insufficient to address these complex capability areas efficiently or at all. 

That said, the evidence supports blended, cohort-based social learning experiences that actively engage staff in work-related situations, provide the opportunity to reflect on those experiences with others, make space to create meaning from those experiences and facilitate forming principles and generalizations that can be applied to various work-related situations. Moreover, employees are actively seeking L&D experiences that facilitate professional development and career growth. Organizations that can provide well-designed learning and career growth opportunities are more likely to attract and retain their staff and deliver on their missions. 

Workplace academies, also called capability or corporate academies, done right can help bridge performance, recruitment and retention gaps. Creating a workplace academy is a strategic effort focused on addressing a business need or needs. Academies are focused on certain mission-critical or high-need roles in an organization. Because of the time, cost and effort required to build and maintain these academies, organizations must be prudent and intentional about their creation. Those that are instructionally-sound and performance-based stand a greater chance of realizing the benefit of improved performance, recruitment and retention.

Some sample characteristics of a foundational-level behavioral health academy include:

  • Executive sponsorship and championship of the effort.
  • An academy administrator to lead and manage the effort.
  • A dedicated success coach with a background in behavioral health with whom the participants meet each month and to serve as a thought partner with the academy administrator.
  • A strong instructional development team to support instructional design, content creation, multimedia development and learning platform administration.  
  • Involvement of subject matter experts (academy faculty) internal and/or external to the organization to support content development—recorded content development in partnership with the instructional development team is likely to scale much better given other duties of internal SMEs.
  • A curriculum driven by performance needs/objectives and confirmed at multiple levels.
  • Pre- and post-assessments as part of a detailed evaluation plan.
  • Orientation and training of direct supervisors of academy participants to support ongoing coaching via one-on-ones.
  • Orientation of academy participants to set them up for success.
  • Blended content that is preferably organized in a platform that supports cohort-based social learning.
  • Defined plans for further integration beyond the foundational level to include integrative and advanced levels that include more in-depth training in certain clinical practices as well as communities of practice. 

It’s essential to have L&D partnerships with clinical operations to assess the need, conceptualize an approach and build blended cohort-based academies. In this case, a behavioral health academy also has the potential to serve the community beyond one organization and extend to other organizations that lack the resources or bandwidth to build and maintain such programs. Afterall, the public mission is to address the behavioral health needs of the broader community.