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How the State of Alaska turned crisis into opportunity amid COVID-19

The State of Alaska’s Department of Administration (DOA) leads strategy and change initiatives, improves the efficiency and effectiveness of government services, and builds organizational resiliency.

In response to COVID-19, the State of Alaska encouraged its employees to work remotely — so investing in digital solutions became necessary overnight. With a trusted services partner in The Marick Group and CARES Act funds, the State of Alaska implemented Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance solutions to drive better outcomes for all Alaskans.

“Tech adoption across the State has been slow for most of my 30-year career, with limited funding to invest in transformative technological tools,” said DOA Acting Commissioner Amanda Holland. “As much as humans may desire progress, they’re going to fight tooth and nail against change. We were starting to see the possibilities, but they were always small, and they were specific to one particular process or group.”

COVID-19, the CARES Act, and Cornerstone

The arrival of COVID-19 posed a major challenge for the State of Alaska. About 100 teleworkers turned into 6,200 in just a few weeks. Their pilot Microsoft Teams program needed to be rolled out from 40 testers to over 10,000 employees to support remote operations. The State had to stand up VPN connections for many employees. Simultaneously, the State was in the middle of consolidating four administrative functions. And that’s in addition to the State’s need to provide services and support to Alaskans, like procuring masks and PPE.

And all of this was without an increase in headcount.

The State put together a COVID preparedness plan to address the then-hypothetical question: “What happens if the pandemic lasts longer than expected?” To continue to support its community remotely, the State identified two critical components:

1. A technology backbone for working from anywhere
2. A workforce that can perform remotely

Component two couldn’t happen without component one, so it would be no small task to get their workforce performing remotely. That would require managers who can supervise and direct work from a remote distance. It would require processes and programs to help employees learn how to communicate, support themselves and their coworkers, and get their work done.

When the pandemic did indeed last longer than initial expectations, the State’s plan began to take shape. In addition to using the funding to improve services (e.g., making it possible to apply for a fishing license remotely), the State also looked for opportunities to improve internal processes — powering that technology backbone — and a workplace that could perform remotely. State officials saw the importance of implementing digital performance and learning.

“There’s a section in the CARES Act funding that does address the eligibility to use funds to allow for a teleworking workforce, to allow for that safe social distancing and continuation of government services,” Holland explained. “We really saw this as the opportunity to support and bolster our workforce with remote learning and also remote performance management.”

Enter: Cornerstone. Together with professional services organization, The Marick Group — a Cornerstone certified services partner — the state of Alaska worked to deploy Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance.

Implementation: Building the plane while flying it

Keeping workers safe while also continuing government functions was of paramount importance to the State throughout the pandemic. The Cornerstone implementation was designed to do just that: Support worker health and safety while ensuring continuity of services to the State of Alaska through an efficient telework infrastructure. Equipping State employees, supervisors, and executives with customized performance management and learning and development tools and curricula would help increase job clarity and provide structure and support.

The State of Alaska partnered with The Marick Group as soon as approval to invest in an HR solution for remote work was received. Together, they identified Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance as the ideal solution for the State’s needs and agreed to an aggressive implementation timeline. It was October 2020, and the State of Alaska wanted to get around 15,000 users access to learning and performance by December 30, 2020.

“What Marick really brought to the table that meant a lot to the State is that can-do approach,” Holland said. “That is so important because when you have a partnership like that, you have that extra level of dedication and commitment and energy that results in making amazing things happen.”

That’s not to say transitioning was an easy process. In addition to simultaneously leading the departmental consolidation efforts, supporting thousands of remote personnel, and maintaining highquality services to Alaskans, DOA was starting to sense the wear of COVID-19. During that time in Alaska, the sun doesn’t come up until 8:30am, then it goes down by 3:30pm. That means employees are getting up and working in the dark. And when they look up from the computer at the end of the day, it’s dark. The extreme winter weather means it’s difficult — sometimes impossible — to get outside. Through their commitment to serving Alaskans and a lot of grit, the team stayed strong despite the myriad of challenges 2020 had to offer.

Working with The Marick Group and Cornerstone, the State of Alaska deployed in an unprecedented 62 days — including weekends and holidays — for almost 15,000 users across learning and performance. And that was even with the complexities created by COVID and the four-hour difference between the Alaska team and Marick’s team. The Marick Group also helped deliver a four-day system administrator training for both Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance, as well as data services and virtual instructor-led training capabilities.

“I mean, 62 days is pretty amazing. Not only can it be done quickly and effectively, it doesn’t have to be as painful as people might think it is,” Holland said. “We were each other’s cheering section, and I think that was a huge piece of the win.”

Impact: Driving development across the State of Alaska

Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance didn’t just address the immediate COVID-19-related challenges; the State of Alaska had already anticipated its ability to address longer-term COVID-19-related teleworking needs.

“Our workforce has gotten a taste of more modern technology, and I think they’re seeing how it’s making it easier for them to remote work,” Holland said. “They’re seeing how it is helping to protect them. So I believe that this is opening the door for us to become a more automated and efficient, technologically-supported state government.”

Before Cornerstone, for example, almost all the State’s training was in-person. And despite being the largest state geographically — with 80% of Alaska’s communities not accessible by road — these trainings were conducted almost exclusively in Alaska’s three largest cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. This great distance created a significant associated travel cost and made it difficult to access training with any regularity. With Cornerstone Learning, training is available to anyone with an internet connection.

“It’s really allowing us to reach a lot more people a lot faster without nearly as much expense,” Holland said. “It pulls the state together.”

Cornerstone Performance also helped bolster “long-distance” supervisory relationships, allowing managers to better train and develop their direct reports even across distances.

Cornerstone’s learning environment opened a whole world of possibilities for the State of Alaska. Now it is much easier to track what training people are taking. Supervisors are more easily involved in what their staff is learning and how it relates to their jobs. It also allows supervisors to see what areas staff need to focus on to really build competencies or close knowledge gaps.

The formal rollout of AspireAlaska — the state’s implementation of Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Performance — included over 2,000 courses designed for public employees. The platform was rolled out in pilot on December 30, 2020, and then to the whole state on February 16, 2021. Within 24 hours of making Cornerstone Learning available, employees had signed up for 550 different courses. And within the launch of Cornerstone Performance, the State saw 10% of users starting their performance planning tasks immediately after rollout.

“The learning management system and the performance management system really go hand-in-hand,” Holland said. “If you just have the PMS or the LMS, you miss that opportunity to have an integrated technology that supports the workforce not only in learning but in applying and then measuring the results and the outcomes of what they learned.”

Ongoing learning and development drives better service to Alaskans

The State of Alaska is already looking to roll out more courses and services through AspireAlaska to all its departments, as many have asked how the platform can be customized for their special use. The Marick Group continues to be a trusted partner in these ongoing rollout efforts. It’s part of a mindset shift across the organization: “It was amazing,” Holland said, “how fast we saw, ‘Wow if we don’t have online, accessible learning opportunities, we’re jeopardizing our ability to keep the government going. And we’re really doing a disservice to not only the public employees who need that training and deserve that training, but we’re also doing a disservice to the public because we can’t serve Alaskans very well if we can’t learn how to do our jobs.’”

Whether it’s CARES Act funding, new stimulus funding, or a federal grant, we can help you decide how to maximize budget in support of training and developing a remote or hybrid workforce.

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