“Innovation” is a word that gets bantered about a lot, but what really makes it succeed in workforce development?
Public Policy Associates, Inc. (PPA) has been involved in evaluating innovative workforce development efforts for over 20 years. In that time, we have seen creative change efforts take the form of new services, cross-agency partnerships, sector-focused collaborations, career pathway development, data system enhancements, and process efficiencies. Across all parts of the country, these have emerged as key focal points for system improvement, demonstrating the common need to break silos to increase functionality and achieve impact in the face of limited resources and shifting markets.
In studying efforts under two major grant programs from the U.S. Department of Labor—the Workforce Innovation for Regional Economic Development (WIRED) initiative and the Workforce Innovation Fund (WIF)—PPA has identified several key success factors for innovation that cross projects, time, and location:
Clarity of program design: Particularly given that most innovations require many actors to come to fruition, clarity of purpose and direction is critical to operating in tandem. Those efforts that include a detailed work plan based on a solid theory of change are best prepared to reach the designated goals. Not considering enough of the “what” and “how” in a plan often leads to delays and confusion.
Respected, dedicated leadership: To carry a plan for change forward, successful leaders have strong communication skills, demonstrated knowledge, sound decision-making ability, and a willingness to work through barriers with partners. The level of effort by the primary leader must be scaled to the project’s goals.
Robust communication: Existing and new communication channels are vital for discovering opportunities for leveraging resources and networks and sharing knowledge. Communication must be multi-directional and consistent, as well as purposeful and informative for the different levels of stakeholders.
Data-driven decisions: Successful innovations integrate data into decisions about what path to take, but also in monitoring progress and making mid-point adjustments. Implementation evaluation plays an important role in providing perspective and data for continuous improvement.
Balance of the needs of job seekers and employers: Many innovations are centered on the job-seeker customer of the workforce centers, but employer customers are also oftentimes important stakeholders of these innovations. It can be extremely difficult to achieve meaningful engagement by employers in workforce development initiatives, but when done, it adds tremendously to the effort to improve job seeker outcomes. Employers must see value for their industry and their companies in participating.
True, sustained collaboration: Which partners are necessary for workforce development innovation depends on the focus of the effort, but whoever is involved, true collaboration means shared participation, power, and benefit. Those areas with some history of collaboration are best positioned to bring in others and expand their scope. Layers of smaller “wins” give partners confidence in one another for the next challenge.
The final results are available in Workforce Development as a Catalyst for Economic Revitalization. For more about findings from the PPA WIF evaluations, please visit our website. As our evaluations of WIF projects continue, watch for new lessons for the field.