As the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress is challenged to evolve into the digital age. Terry Bickham Jr., chief learning officer for the library, is leading that change through learning.
October 28, 2005
Name: Terry A. Bickham Jr.
Title: Chief Learning Officer
Company: U.S. Library of Congress
- Established the Library’s Center for Learning and Development and implemented a Web-based learning management system for centralized learning administration.
- Expanded training opportunities for library employees significantly by providing 600 online courses and incorporating many of them into blended learning curriculums.
- Created a leadership development continuum that establishes leadership development and succession planning programs for employees at all levels.
- Implemented a skills management system that will greatly improve succession planning in a workforce where more than 40 percent will retire in the next few years.
Learning Philosophy: “Too often, ineffective processes, inadequate equipment, indifferent management and other drivers derail learning outcomes and waste huge amounts of time and money. Identify the systemic barriers to success then address those prior to implementing a learning solution.”
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. It contains more than 500 miles of bookshelves and contains nearly 130 million items, including 29 millions books and other printed materials, 3 million recordings, 12 million photographs and 58 million manuscripts. Transcripts in the library include the papers for every president from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, and many of the personal papers of preeminent artists, scientists and writers throughout American history. A vast store of knowledge and creative effort is available for the American people and for Congress, but the advance of the digital age has created a serious need to integrate digital resources into the Library of Congress’ core activities.
“It’s kind of trite to say, but information is the currency of our global, digital environment,” said Terry Bickham Jr., director of the office of operations management in training and chief learning officer for the Library of Congress. “But a lot of that information doesn’t come to us in hard-cover books. It comes to us in unfiltered, chaotic electronic media, and somehow the library has to develop a deep scholarly expertise that will enable us to filter and navigate and analyze and interpret all of this stuff for the Congress and for the nation.”
To do that, Bickham decided his single most important task was to develop a workforce capable of addressing the tasks facing the Library of Congress in the next decade. To complicate his mission further, the Library of Congress workforce, like many industries outside the government, is aging rapidly. The library has nearly 4,000 employees, and the average worker is nearly 50 years old with 20 or more years of federal service. Only 8 percent of the librarians, who make up the largest occupational group at the library, are under age 40. Some 70 percent of the library staff are 50 years old or older, which means that more than half of its senior leadership is already eligible for retirement.
Bickham, who began his career as an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, worked primarily in maritime law enforcement prior to taking up his Library of Congress post a few years ago. As he became more senior, he looked for a career specialty that would keep him closest to the field. That specialty was training, and after earning a master’s degree in educational technology from San Diego State University, Bickham returned to the Coast Guard and ran several different learning and development programs in training-related offices. When he retired in 2000, he went to work as the director of worldwide education for software firm Peregrine Systems. He was then recruited to work for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and later headed off to Washington, D.C., to take up a position as the TSA’s assistant administrator for workforce performance and training, essentially a CLO.
Much of Bickham’s experience in learning involves starting development programs and then kicking them up to the next level, and this pattern has not changed at the Library of Congress. His focus is to breathe new life into the library’s learning and development programs and add a strong focus on performance and succession planning. To push the library into the digital age, Bickham has created several initiatives to expand opportunities via a comprehensive mentoring program so that younger employees can learn from older employees’ extensive knowledge of the collections, while the older ones absorb some of the technical skills the younger employees have. Retired library employees also are encouraged to act as mentors. Ultimately, Bickham hopes the mentoring program will help the Library of Congress achieve higher-level succession planning outcomes. “We want to provide opportunities for our younger employees as part of succession planning to be able to grow their leadership skills so that we can grow from within,” Bickham said. “We’re putting several programs in place, including revised curriculums for our managers and supervisors to develop their leadership capabilities so some of our younger technicians can move up into management roles. We are also revising the online mentor-mentoree matching program, making it similar to how online dating programs work, but in a very professional way.”
In a bid to become more tech-savvy, the library recently launched nearly 600 online courses in its Online Learning Center, with topics such as effective communication and working in teams. There also are several certification tracks for project management, human resources and information technology, and the library has added a Pathlore learning management system. “This will help us virtually automate and build individual development plans for all of our employees so they can see where they are on a track in their career path to grow into some of the shoes we’re trying to fill as some of the older folks retire,” Bickham said. “We have completed configuration and are rolling out implementation department-by-department in the library. This will allow us to customize settings for each department to meet their unique needs. For example, who will ‘approve’ training requests for their department, how would they like their employees to be grouped for training administration, etc. This will also increase buy-in for the LMS.”
Core competency development also is a part of the library’s career path development activities. Bickham is currently working to establish core competencies for all employees to help them nurture the ability to identify and analyze organizational processes and problems and develop solutions and recommendations. “All of the core competencies will have developmental activities attached to them. The way it should work, an organization establishes core competencies for its employees. Then they use those in recruitment and hiring. They use them in employee development as the next step, and then the step beyond that is in performance management. You get them in, then you continuously develop and refine, and they’re measured through performance management. Where deficiencies are identified, you circle back to employee development. You don’t just want to tell an employee, ‘You’re pretty poor at problem-solving. Work on it,'” Bickham said. “Instead, in the system we’re putting in place, the supervisor will say, ‘You know, you’re not great at problem-solving, but here are the opportunities the library provides for you to work on that. Here are these online courses, workshops and job aides.'”
Prior to Bickham’s appointment, the Library did not have a strong centralized strategic role for learning. People came with outside knowledge and employed it internally, and their development activities were charted in spreadsheets and stored in paper folders. Now, with the advent of the LMS, employees’ training will be fully automated and easy to track. “Employees will be able to see what the skills and knowledge requirements are to advance along a career path,” Bickham explained. “It will be very clear to them what training they need to participate in, what accomplishments they need to complete. They’ll be able to see that and their managers will be able to monitor, track and assign using the learning management system. Prior, it was hit or miss depending on the management in a particular unit or even sub-components of that unit. I would say the level of effort in success varied widely across the library.”
The library’s future will be much more organized and standardized, which is fortunate since the government, like so many businesses in the private sector, is required to do much more with far fewer resources. “Government agencies are really being challenged these days to be very cost-effective and use workforce planning and human capital planning to meet our training and employee development needs,” Bickham said. “We’re trying to do things that make sense. For example, implementing a lot of the online courses that we’re doing. It used to be that the only opportunity for an employee to get basic Microsoft Excel training was to bring in a vendor to deliver it at a cost per student that could sometimes reach as high as a couple of hundred bucks. Now, we have the option of employees participating in online training for Introduction to Microsoft Excel. It’s at a fraction of the cost, and employees can repeat it over and over again. The default in the past has been purely instructor-led training. Now we have options that are a lot more cost-effective based on the subject matter and the learning styles.”
Bickham and his team also have created a leadership and management development continuum. “There are online courses, facilitated discussion groups, and there are six-month to yearlong facilitated developmental programs or stretch assignments for employees at various levels. There’s the mentoring program where senior employees participate as mentors to junior employees, and we hope to bring in live broadcasts or live webcasts of folks who stand out in the field of leadership and development. We’ve drafted a continuum that provides opportunities for employees from the lowest levels through to the most senior levels,” Bickham said.
James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said that Bickham is making a unique and important contribution to the Library of Congress not only because the Library is facing a large exodus of its most experienced employees, but because it is a skill-intensive institution that requires a wide variety of tasks. “We deal with all kinds of ways to acquire, store and transmit knowledge, so it’s a very great challenge with a not terribly large training budget, considering the number of skills that we need. This institution is in a real change mode,” Billington said. “We are in the process of superimposing a digital, virtual library on top of a library formed of objects – books, maps, periodicals and films. There has to be a great deal of retooling. He’s making a big difference to the library as it tries to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, and he’s really been a master of applying the new automated systems to the very human business of advancing careers and giving people career satisfaction and improving the efficiency of our workforce.”
Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org