Living Digital Q&A Series: The art of the possible
by: an enthusiastic public servant | | Share
Neil Bouwer is a self-described trial and error style learner. Why are we talking about learning styles? Because Neil is the Vice President of the Innovation and Skills Development Branch at the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS). My colleagues and I had the opportunity to sit down – virtually of course – with Neil to chat about the Digital Academy, skills development, pathfinder projects, and more.
(P.S. As you read this Q&A, imagine Neil sitting in front of a background filter of a crackling fireplace as he did for our Teams interview. It was just what we needed to bring that cozy atmosphere while we worked through a cold Canadian winter.)
Hi Neil, it’s nice to meet you!
Before we get into the technical questions, let’s start off with some questions about you. Working at CSPS and with the Digital Academy, you’re surrounded by learning opportunities – what would you say is your ideal learning environment?
Well, because I like to learn by doing and I like to try new things, I think the best learning environment for me is a safe space where I have license to experiment and try things out in a thoughtful way. A learning environment is not built for individuals. A great learning environment for me has other people that are motivated to learn and that I can bounce ideas off of and try things with. So, kind of the sandbox with friends, in a nutshell.
When it comes to learning, what’s your life motto?
(Neil laughs) I wish I’d read these questions before!
I would say that if you’re interested in excellence, then you have to innovate. If you’re going to innovate, that involves learning, it involves success, it involves failure. So, I don’t know if that makes a catchy motto, but I do think that if you want to be excellent at what you do, you have to be at the leading edge, the innovative edge, and that necessarily is a learning process.
I don’t think that I could have come up with a motto on the spot, so thank you for that! I have one last question before we get into the work-related chat: What is the best advice that you were ever given about learning?
“All too often we see a leading thinker, writer, commentator, academic, practitioner, and we somehow think that there’s a veil between us and them and that we can’t invite them to speak to a group or invite them to share what they know.”
Hm, holy smokes. I think the best advice is to not self-censor when you’re thinking about reaching out to people in the field. All too often we see a leading thinker, writer, commentator, academic, practitioner, and we somehow think that there’s a veil between us and them and that we can’t invite them to speak to a group or invite them to share what they know. You know, it was an old mentor of mine that pointed out to me that most people will self-censor themselves and that will limit the effectiveness of their learning and ultimately the effectiveness of their jobs.
That’s some fantastic advice, and something we should all try to remember. Could you tell us about your role at CSPS?
Sure! I’m a Vice President at the Canada School of Public Service and I do Innovation and Skills Development. So, what does that mean? That means that I focus in on areas of Excellence and Public Administration, and in particular, learning areas that focus on the future of government.
On the skills development side I have a group called the Digital Academy that looks at digital skills and mindsets as a playbook for leadership and management in the modern era. I also have a group that does transferable skills, which tries to take the best business practices from all over and apply them in the modernization of the public sector.
The other part of my shop is public sector innovation, where basically we’re trying to bring emerging practices to demonstration projects and pathfinder projects to the public service. Those are areas where we don’t have time to develop a course, or maybe the issues or area are so new that there’s no one who knows how to develop or teach a course. So, we instead engage in pathfinder projects like artificial intelligence.
So, taken together, skills development and public sector innovation is kind of a new area of the Canada School of Public Service where we’re really trying to help public servants understand the art of the possible, and then to take practical steps to experiment with emerging technologies.
What initiatives are underway at the school to improve and innovate when it comes to learning?
First and foremost, the school has made a decision to modernize its learning platform.
That’s exciting! I’d be interested in learning more about that.
It’s a rare enterprise-wide build that is developed according to the modern digital standards and we hope it’s going to perform well across all departments and agencies. The platform is going to allow for more flexible forms of learning. It’ll have the look and feel of sort of a modern content management platform. It will also do a better job behind the scenes of doing data analytics, “Where are courses more effective? Where are people dropping off or coming on?”, so that we can make for a better user experience and iterate our products to respond better to the needs of students.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the platform. (Editor’s Note: The platform is here! Visit gcxchange to learn more)
There have been a lot of changes in the last couple of years. How has learning evolved at the School over this time, and what were some of the challenges or enlightening moments?
“I really think that leadership has evolved, and that one of the great leadership challenges of our time in government is how we’re going to move forward and consolidate some of the gains we’ve made in digital practices, flexibility for employees, and effective work practices, while not snapping back to old practices that might have been ultimately less efficient and less effective.”
First of all, let me say that I really think that leadership has evolved, and that one of the great leadership challenges of our time in government is how we’re going to move forward and consolidate some of the gains we’ve made in digital practices, flexibility for employees, and effective work practices, while not snapping back to old practices that might have been ultimately less efficient and less effective.
For the School, we were very well situated for the pandemic in the sense that all of our employees had mobile devices, phones, and laptops, we had already started the migration to Microsoft Office 365, and we were already a decentralized organization in many respects and going paperless and everything else. So, I feel very lucky to have been at the School during this period.
For our learners, it’s a bit more of an adjustment. They’re used to coming to a classroom, in a cohort, and all of a sudden, things are going online and that’s had a couple of impacts. The number of people that attend our learning events has skyrocketed. We used to feel lucky if we got 100 people in a room, now we get 1000 without any problem. However, that learning is shorter, it’s more self-guided, it’s more modular, and it’s more at the needs of the user. I think people appreciate different forms of learning as well. Whether its blogging, podcasts, micro learning products like we have on our Bus Rides platform, videos on our YouTube channel, or other learning aids. I think people are demanding more accessible and more flexible formats for learning, and their demand for that kind of learning is going up during the pandemic, so we’ve risen to meet that challenge.
What are some advantages and disadvantages you see with remote learning vs. in-person learning?
I think we’ve seen a lot of advantages to remote learning. Frankly, it’s easier to access. It’s less time consuming, you don’t have to find parking and drive somewhere, and be somewhere at a precise time, and then feel awkward about arriving late, so it’s a lot more flexible in terms of participating live. It’s easier to select the parts that you’re really interested in. You might see a whole conference and just want to attend one session, but that’s a bit impractical if you’re flying to Toronto and you just want to go to the one session. Whereas with remote work you can really be more selective in the kinds of learning that you do, which is amazing.
“Public servants from across the country and abroad can access more learning now, which kind of levels the playing field between people who are in a big city or the national capital region and those who aren’t.”
We’ve also been offering a lot of learning in small bits. We have one course where every week we deliver you an email with a bit of learning, about 20 minutes-worth, over a period of 6-9 weeks in order to complete the equivalent of a course. That’s a pretty flexible way to learn! It’s also cheaper, so you can participate in a lot more for a lot less if you’re doing it online, especially if it’s self-paced and scalable to a large audience. Public servants from across the country and abroad can access more learning now, which kind of levels the playing field between people who are in a big city or the national capital region and those who aren’t.
In terms of drawbacks, sometimes you just want to be in the company of another human being, and particularly when you’re in a mentoring or a coaching conversation. As well as when you are in a group setting where you’re trying to build comradery. That all being said, we’re still kind of getting used to this and we can still be very authentic and personable without being there in person. But for sure, sometimes it helps.
Those are some good points. We’re almost at the end of my questions, but I was wondering about your pathfinder projects. Does the School go out looking for these specific projects, or do people come to you and say, “Listen, we have this exciting project that we would like the school to feature.”?
Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about the pathfinder projects! It’s a combination of both. We have sort of a confederation of about 15-20 departments that all collaborate in this space. We all share our resources in order to do some of these pathfinder projects, so the group of leaders basically determine what projects we work on.
Often, we follow the business needs. So, for example, we are exploring projects in the area of ATIP to help bring artificial intelligence and automation to make more efficient and more effective the discovery and search for documents and also the redaction of documents by using algorithms to prompt humans with potential redactions.
There are other areas where the data drives the project. Justice Canada released machine readable regulations recently, which they do on a periodic basis, and so we’re using data analytics on that data and we’re generating all kinds of interesting insights and services. It used to be that lawyers would spend hours combing through regulations to identify standards and incorporations by reference. We’ve automated that now and we can get really instantaneous and pretty highly accurate estimations of those documents by using data analytics.
There are also priority driven examples where someone is working in an area and wants to advance thinking in that area. For example, regulatory modernization, where the government has asked departments to be able to do stock reviews of regulations. We think we can build AI-based tools that can help departments to do stock reviews of regulations, which is a priority for government. There’s about a dozen really interesting projects in that space.
A capability driven area for pathfinder projects can be seen in a team working with Employment and Social Development Canada on rendering some of the new GC workplaces in 3D to work with training and change management. We use this great capability to render 3D environments, which we’re applying to our learning events.
That’s something I’d like to see!
If you sign up for a Canada School learning event, there’s kiosks, like you would go to if you were in person. They’re 3D and they kind of spin around in the air, and you can move around them and then select parts of the kiosk that brings you to a website, or a video, or something else.
That sounds fantastic! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Neil. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the School in the future.
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