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Learning and development play a critical role in organizational success, creating a smarter and more efficient workforce, boosting employee engagement and building future leaders. But in today's fast-paced, technology-driven environment, implementing workforce development strategies that deliver significant business results is no easy task—especially in the public higher education sector.

Alamo Colleges District, a network of five community colleges in San Antonio, TX and the surrounding area, recently earned a Gold prize from Chief Learning Officer magazine's LearningElite program—a peer-reviewed, comprehensive evaluation of learning and development organizations across the world. LearningElite identifies and recognizes industry leaders who've achieved best-in-class levels of performance, providing valuable benchmarking data for other organizations.

We spoke with Jesse Diaz, talent management system administrator for Alamo Colleges District, to learn more about the institutions' strategies and goals around employee learning and development, and their approach to executing them.

What is Alamo Colleges District's philosophy on learning and development?

Inside our learning and development team, we've come to realize that employee happiness and growth equals student happiness, growth and development. There was a time when Alamo Colleges District had one of the lowest graduation rates in Texas, but we have climbed all the way up to top in terms of graduation rate.

We have to bring results to our state legislature and our community to show that our students aren't just graduating, but that they are also getting jobs and becoming successful. That ties in with the work we do in taking care of our faculty and staff. Everything we do directly impacts the students. We want to bring that just-in-time learning to our faculty and staff, so they can better help students on their path to success.

Have Alamo Colleges always had success with employee learning programs?

Each of the five colleges is independently accredited and there was a time when each college was doing their own thing—there were between 17 and 20 different employee learning programs going on across the different colleges. We realized that discrepancies in our learning and development programs were making it hard to identify gaps in development and quantify success. We needed to rework the way we come together as community colleges.

How has your perspective shifted since then?

Our goal now is to be one of the best places to work in the nation and receiving the Chief Learning Officer award is a step towards that goal. We want to make sure there's a leader in every seat and that we can transform the way our employees do business and interact with our primary customers, which includes our students and our community. Even though the different colleges impact different communities, we see unity now that we hadn't really felt in the past. We are working together, we see the results and we want more.

From a technology standpoint, how are you reaching some of your learning goals?

It was a pivotal moment when we implemented the Cornerstone Talent Management System. That was the entry path for many of our employees to get on the same team across all the colleges. The system has helped us improve the relationship between supervisors and employers. We were able to collect data to understand what was happening across different departments at Alamo Colleges District, and we saw that there wasn't enough interaction, conversation and coaching.

When we deployed the performance module, we were able to act in a really agile fashion, targeting specific departments, groups and areas. Now, when a supervisor and employee sit down to review their competencies, they are actually able to connect their goals to the core values of the organization, identify knowledge gaps and start working to fill them. That has helped us improve on what we already had and allowed us to create a path to where we want to be.

What are some of Alamo Colleges District's future learning goals?

The biggest thing we want to improve on is being able to leverage communities. We are building unity among community colleges and we want to have that connectedness within our broader organization as well. For example, we now have a health and wellness community called Alamo Well where employees can access different healthy eating, lifestyle and exercise programs, and we want to build on resources like that.

We also want to leverage the power of having openness and transparency with regard to finding talent within our organization. Right now, there's no formal career growth path for our employees. We want to leverage the Cornerstone system to enable managers or supervisors to search for and identify high-potential individuals. We want to find a way to look at existing talent to build focus groups, advisory boards, or other teams from across the colleges.

Photo: Creative Commons