Air Mobility officer tries to spark revolution, one video at a time

News-DemocratMarch 1, 2014 

— In an era of tightening military budgets, the Air Force Air Mobility Command seeks more bang for the buck from its training programs.

Which is why the online training video that Master Sgt. Edward "E.J." O'Brien is working on is so important to the command's future.

On a recent afternoon in AMC's newly created Enterprise Learning Office, O'Brien set a laptop computer on a desk. He clicked on the latest version of what he's created so far.

Step-by-step, the video shows civilian workers the correct way to fill out their time cards. The video is brief, clocking in at less than three minutes.

"We do that on purpose," O'Brien said. "It maintains the attention of the person on the other end."

From across the room, Darcy L. Lilley -- O'Brien's boss -- watched approvingly.

"So then if someone has a question on this task, then they can go pull this video up and then watch it," said Lilley, AMC's chief learning officer. "We do them in very short snippets. People tend to pay attention to them better if they have a short time frame."

Gen. Paul Selva, AMC's commander, hired Lilley last year as part of a mission to overhaul how the command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, teaches new skills to the 132,000 airmen assigned to it.

Armed with the latest digital technologies and research in neuroscience, Lilley is seeking to spark a revolution in learning that one day could transform how the Air Force performs its many far-ranging missions.

"The focus is on learning at the individual and the organizational level," Lilley said. "You want to have a 'systems thinking' approach."

Lilley's job, which Selva created last year, flows from the four-star general's belief that all AMC personnel should see themselves as innovators.

In a statement on his learning philosophy, Selva wrote that innovation "is the process of seeking ways to do things more effectively and efficiently through informed decision making and within the margin of safety provided by Air Force policies and guidance."

Selva, who is awaiting the U.S. Senate's confirmation of his nomination to be the next commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, made a distinction between innovation and invention.

"I consider invention to be creation on the fly -- an uninformed, last minute, hurried choice that resides outside of established procedures," he wrote. "Instead, I need Airmen who carry out their tasks in accordance with established procedures while keeping an eye open toward new possibilities and ways to improve our processes or procedures."

Taking these words as her cue, Lilley is seeking to roll out a "learning on demand" culture within AMC that is instantly familiar to a generation raised on YouTube.

For instance, Lilley's team is working on a project "with YouTube-type videos where we're taking a task and we take the best trainer in the entire command," she said. "And we have them videotape the training, and then we can make it available to all the airmen in AMC."

On-demand video learning is highly effective because people who participate in it are motivated to learn, she said.

That means "you learn better and faster," she said. "And so we can take advantage of that in Air Mobility Command, not only from the better and faster learning, but it's more standardized, too," she said. "Every single person that needs to learn that task is seeing it from the same person, the best person."

Lilley's route to her job as AMC's chief learning officer began after she retired as an officer from the Air Force following a variety of jobs at U.S. TRANSCOM, also based at Scott. Her jobs included overseeing air transportation policy and the development of leadership courses.

At Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, Mo., where she earned a doctorate in education, Lilley developed an interest in andragogy, or the science of developing teaching strategies for adult learners.

"Andragogy is very learner-centric rather than instructor-centric, and it's very much problem-solving and collaborative-based," Lilley said.

After all, adult learners have experiences to draw from that influence how they respond to information they receive in the classroom.

"We have people who've been over in Afghanistan and Iraq who've been fighting and learning and improving processes," she said. "So you don't want an instructor standing up there giving you four hours of PowerPoint while you have people in the class who last month were in the field doing those tasks and learning new things."

The learning revolution Lilley is overseeing at AMC is part of a larger cultural shift sweeping through America's largest employers. It's redefining the notion of leadership, according to Judith Glaser, an author and organizational anthropologist whose research has led her to a critical conclusion:

"Everything happens through conversation," she said.

As a result, modern workplaces are requiring leaders "who need to create a space where people are invited to engage with them," leaders who "in their minds, they want to validate (workers') point of view, they want to listen."

The smart leader of today "is the humble leader," Glaser said, "the one that says that 'I don't have all the answers.'"

Ultimately, the learning culture Lilley is putting in place at AMC is based on positive reinforcement, she said.

"When people are positively reinforced," Lilley said, "then they're going to contribute more, and they're more creative and they're better at what they're doing."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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