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A Holistic Approach to Upskilling Admin for a Digital Future

AdobeStock_June 10 2024
Collaboration across campus can help fill gaps in resources and skills, encourage staff’s development and ultimately provide learners with a better experience.

What are the best collaborations of all time? Well, years ago Rolling Stone polled their readers and the nontraditional blockbuster hit “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C was #3 on their list. Rock on! From the perspective of the tech world, how does this play out? According to Robiu Olalere, “The greatest tech collaboration ever” was between Microsoft and Amazon.  

“The collaboration between Microsoft and Amazon is a remarkable example of how two tech giants can work together to create innovative solutions for their customers. One of the main benefits of the collaboration is the integration of Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS), two of the leading cloud platforms in the world. By allowing customers to use both services seamlessly, the collaboration enables them to leverage the best features and capabilities of each platform, such as scalability, security, reliability, and performance.”  

Now, from the perspective of academia and at an HBCU, what does great collaboration look like?  

In this interview, we spoke with two training practitioners at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T): Tracey Bridges, Technology Trainer from Instructional Technology Training and Development (ITTD) within ITS, and Janet Carlson, Leadership Training Specialist from the Center for Leadership and Organizational Excellence (CLOE) within HR. Last year, they codesigned an innovative curriculum and co-delivered a powerful and creative experience for fellow colleagues in an administrative support role. The Story of Us: Going Beyond the Day-to-Day Through Digital Storytelling was a six-week synchronous and asynchronous learning experience created in the spirit of preparing N.C. A&T’s workforce to be competent, competitive and relevant in a global and technological environment.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for departments across the institution to begin looking at collaboration as a strategy to better serve their learners? 

Tracey Bridges (TB): Like many departments on campus, we have the same audience—employees. It was important for us to be able to reach out to this audience through a topic that meets both our objectives and speaks to the learner’s needs. 

Janet Carlson (JC): These days, employees are busy as ever. The amount of available time they have to attend training on any one topic, let alone one from each of our areas, is dwindling, and that can affect participation and the learner’s development in both areas. So, it was important for us to combine our efforts and find a way to reach our audience in an impactful way.  

Evo: What are some challenges and benefits to that cross-departmental collaboration? 

JC: The challenges really occurred before we came together. Individually, we were inefficient. Unknowingly, we were both planning an initiative for the same audience, training the same group of people on the same day and using the same process to determine what their needs were and what solutions we could offer. After we pooled our time and resources together, we saved time on those individual tasks, and innovative and creative ideas really flowed between the two of us.  

TB: It really goes back to the first question. Different departments on campus have access to different resources and budgets. A small department like mine doesn’t have some of the resources that Janet does. But when we came together, we were able to create a really great program. I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my own.  

JC: For our program, Tracy had the space—the technology classroom with all the computers. It was already baked in. She had what I was missing. Oh, and the skills to teach us all! 

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles and start fostering that environment of collaboration? 

TB: First, you need open and effective communication. This project happened organically, with us separately trying to gather data about our audience. If there were interdepartmental conversations, where departments showcased their projects and goals, we could contribute ideas and hopefully advance or positively impact other colleagues’ initiatives.  

JB: Having a trustworthy and respectful relationship is also critical. It took me a while to get a participant list of potential attendees. I work in HR, so there is a lot of confidential information we do not readily share. Yet I trusted Tracey and her director and shared a smaller, redacted list. I knew they were focusing on the same audience, and I trusted their level of confidentiality and professionalism. 

Evo: How have the two of you been able to foster collaboration? 

JC: Once we had that initial collaboration to create the program, many collaborations have followed. And these collaborations all start with trust and throwing out ideas to see what would stick. It’s okay to not have all the pieces together, but through collaboration we can come together to create something. It was about being curious, co-creative and entrepreneurial, which continues to work for us today. 

TB: One thing that helped when we were coming up with this is we really felt open representing ideas to understand what was important to both of us. We’re able to think about what our learners are trying to get at the end. It was a little bit of being willing to hear what she wanted to do, rather than it always being about what I wanted to do. 

Evo: What impact does this cross-collaboration have on staff and learners? 

JC: First and foremost, our learners found and created a community. We call this group the trailblazers. There’s this thing about community that was really important. So, students found their voice. They really showed us that they understood their role and the impact on their customers.  

TB: In addition, we were able to show these learners technical skills related to certain workflows we incorporated in the trailblazers program. They were then able to go back and create new workflows for themselves that influenced not only their team but their whole department. There was this ripple effect of students thinking, “Technology is not as hard as I thought it was. Now I can go out and do something.”  

JC: A funny thing happened on day two of the program during the group’s initial introduction to the technology. Tracy was showing us how to log in and access the application. What she didn’t realize was that she logged into a beta version, while the rest of us were in the older version. She kept saying, “You should see this icon, this button, that prompt.” Meanwhile, we’re all saying, “No, I don’t see that. Are we on the same page?” The room broke out into laughter. This experience was the perfect example of what happens in the tech space. You have to love it. So, how do you deal with being on different platforms while having the same output and delivery? You set aside being judgmental of people’s different access levels, skill levels and learning paces. Ultimately it taught us to scan for those programming differences and pivot accordingly to move forward.  

TB: That’s one of the opportunities of having a sustained learning environment like we did: Things go wrong, but how do I fix it? How do I move past that? Technology changes all the time, so how do you take the skills from one technology and apply them to the new one? Those were great moments that really helped learners understand that sometimes technology is just tricky. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?   

JC: As a result of the post-program’s positive feedback, we received praise and support from the university cabinet. This feedback was shared, not only with the participants’ managers but with other department heads and leaders, and that’s a rarity. We now have continual support to offer this course each summer and are actively planning for this summer’s program.    

Additionally, we parlayed this initiative into the annual Administrative Professionals Conference. This additional initiative now has monetary and emotional support from our leadership team and the various managers throughout campus. A cultural shift has started to emerge among managers. The fixed mindset of things falling apart due to administrative staff being away for a day has shifted toward a growth mindset, with the importance of supporting staff’s personal and professional development.