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Op-Ed: Thales Australia takes the lead on people and project development during uncertain times

The future of work is less certain than ever before in our hyperconnected world that is simultaneously disrupted and shaped by COVID-19, rapid technology change and geopolitical instability. Market changes affect all sectors, but these tectonic shifts are particularly felt in complex domains such as defence whose role is to lead, innovate and protect, explains Kestrel Stone, founder and CEO of Elemental Projects.

The future of work is less certain than ever before in our hyperconnected world that is simultaneously disrupted and shaped by COVID-19, rapid technology change and geopolitical instability. Market changes affect all sectors, but these tectonic shifts are particularly felt in complex domains such as defence whose role is to lead, innovate and protect, explains Kestrel Stone, founder and CEO of Elemental Projects.

Strong competition for talent and skills shortages in key areas including digital, project management and engineering continue to define the defence landscape and point to the need to invest in people.

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What are the required skills in defence?

According to data published by Kinexus in November 2019, project management heads the list of required “hard” skills, with it comprising 20 per cent of all defence job ads. Other project-related skills also sit within the top 10 such as scheduling and budgeting.

Technical and engineering competencies featured in the high-demand skills list include systems engineering, software engineering, other engineering activities, configuration management, technical support, workforce planning and software development.

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“Soft” skills are just as important and now more than ever as jobs become more complex with the realities of COVID-19 impacting everything from where we work, to what we do and how we do it. According to Kinexus, the top 10 soft skills are leadership, teamwork, communication skills, problem-solving, work ethic, flexibility/adaptability and interpersonal skills.

These skills translate into specific job requirements such as project management, process improvement, change management, performance management, contract management and more.

A report by KPMG in 2018 found that organisations that invested in project management capability successfully delivered 92 per cent of their projects, compared with a mere 32 per cent project success rate from organisations who do not. They also spent 21-times less money, completed 28 per cent more projects on-time and on-budget and had 9 per cent fewer failures.

How do organisations that are experiencing disruption continue to lead?

The 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey (2020) by PWC calls for a strategic response to disruption, noting “digital technology is reshaping the nature of combat and the nature of business, and defence companies need to transform nearly every aspect of how they operate in order to compete”.

Aparajita Paul, the learning lead from Thales Australia, advocates the importance of maintaining people development programs during uncertain times to bolster long-term capability as well as staff sentiment in the short term.

She explains, “We were in an excellent position to maintain people development during COVID-19 because there’s strong alignment between our learning programs and business strategy. We worked tirelessly to convert face to face programs to virtual formats with strong consideration for access, inclusion, and flexibility in the current climate. Preserving learning opportunities played a valuable role in re-assuring staff who were adjusting to major changes such as being redeployed to remote work at short-notice.”

Employee Wellbeing in COVID-19

Looking after employee wellbeing has become a hot topic in these unprecedented times but are organisations doing a good job at this? Shockingly, the ‘COVID-19 Employee Wellbeing Study’ (2020) by Gallagher reported that 51 per cent of Australia’s 12 million workers received no support from their employer during the first wave of COVID-19 despite the unprecedented challenges facing society.

What makes a learning program strategic and effective?   

A quick test of the strategic strength of any learning program should consider four things: alignment to core organisational competencies; articulation of learning pathways beyond the course; customisation to context; and lastly performance and people results. In uncertain or disrupted times, we also need to validate that the core competencies remain current.

Let’s take the Thales Australia BSB51415 Diploma of Project Management as an example. The program was implemented in 2019 to enable enhanced performance, advancement and global transfer of its project managers.

Its maps to the inhouse competency framework and provides clear learning pathways to International Project Management Association (IPMA) certification levels A, B and C as per their Individual Competence Baseline (ICB4). The Diploma program is also endorsed by the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), facilitating local certification under the AIPM’s RegPM program, in addition to international certification.

This nationally recognised program was extensively customised by training provider Elemental Projects to reflect the unique aspects of project management within Thales Australia and the Australian defence industry. This included:

  • embedding Thales Australia’s internal project management methodology and templates into learning resources and assessment tasks;
  • incorporating guest internal lecturers;
  • leveraging a bespoke case study to reflect a multi-faceted defence project; and
  • advancing the organisation’s “left shift” transformation by aligning the bid and project delivery stages through cost estimating and planning practices.

The structure and content of the Diploma program reflected the top-ranked hard and soft skills identified in Kinexus’ research above, ensuring a focus on priority capabilities for the future.

The inclusive and blended course design incorporates team activities, gamification and on-demand access to bite-sized video content that maximise practical application, engagement and reinforces learnings. The course culminates in a project simulation that tests the learner’s knowledge and skills in an interactive dynamic environment.  

In short, the course aligns with core competencies, has clear learning pathways and is highly customised to context.

Pivoting to online delivery 

The recent conversion of the program to virtual format due to COVID-19 restrictions is an example of an agile response to changing industry conditions to retain currency. Six days of face-to-face training were replaced with 10 x four-hour live online sessions featuring virtual breakout rooms for teamwork.

These sessions were delivered over nine months and interspersed with individual assessment work and engagement with line managers and colleagues. Recordings of course sessions were edited and shared and have become an additional valuable learning tool.

This digital format also aligns with Thales’ strategic goals and enhances accessibility and inclusion for it’s 3,900 employees either working from home or spread across 37 sites in Australia.

As is often the case with innovation, unexpected results emerge. In this case, the virtual format proved highly effective for Thales Australia’s dispersed workforce with demand for the virtual program doubling compared with the face-to-face format.

People and performance results

But as always, the proof is in the pudding. A true test of learning interventions is always whether they deliver excellent people and performance results. Primary indicators of course success are completion and pass rates.

These are both sitting at 100 per cent for completed courses, meaning all students met the rigorous assessment standards and achieved a nationally recognised BSB51415 Diploma of Project Management qualification.

By contrast, industry norms record an average 77 per cent pass rate and 58.9 per cent completion rate for diploma level qualifications, according to the latest VET data compiled by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in 2017.

A post-completion survey demonstrated extremely positive results and high student satisfaction. For example, 100 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the course developed expected skills; prepared them for work; was flexible; and that they would recommend the program to others.

A Benefits Realisation survey revealed even more remarkable results: 71 per cent of graduates are now working in manager roles and 14 per cent received a formal promotion as a result of the capabilities they developed during the course.

In addition to supporting career advancement and succession planning in line with Thales’ global talent strategy, 85 per cent of graduates reported feeling more confident and 71 per cent reflected that they had developed their internal network as a result of the course. These benefits together enhance individual job satisfaction, project performance and organisational culture.

Qualitative feedback from key business stakeholders’ points to further benefits for the business. Steven Hatch, Thales Australia’s business support manager (maritime), said that graduates had “moved into performing pivotal roles within critical projects and are contributing to their projects ongoing success”.

Deepak Prasad, director of bids and projects (maritime), added, “The robust foundation provided by the Diploma has armed the graduates with skills, confidence and a desire to learn more which will serve them and the business well.”

While Richard Banks, project management office manager (air mobility) noted that “course graduates have developed a greater understanding of the way Thales implements project management”, which is a testament to the value of course customisation.

In a world that has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), there is a significant need to focus more than ever on developing people so they’re armed with the knowledge, skills, networks and mindset to successfully deliver their projects and programs.

It’s clear that people need strong project management and leadership skills, continuously developed with the support of management and colleagues, as they transform their delivery approach to be more collaborative, innovative and adaptable. This is what is required for success in VUCA environments. This is the new normal.

Let’s heed the call to support employees and maintain their professional development despite the challenges of these uncertain times. The outcomes are worth it when we align our learning programs with organisational strategy and invest in our most valued assets: people.

Kestrel Stone is the founder and CEO of Elemental Projects, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Sydney, and board member of the Global Alliance for the Project Professions (GAPPS). She is passionate about the projects, people and sustainability.

Over a 20-year career in projects, Stone has built an outstanding reputation working with clients from across industry in the private, public and third sectors to uplift project management capability. She combines broad industry experience with deep expertise in project management, adult education, psychology and gamified learning. 

Op-Ed: Thales Australia takes the lead on people and project development during uncertain times
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