By Colin Marrs

17 Aug 2015

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory scooped last year’s prize for skills at the Civil Service Awards. Colin Marrs finds out how the team’s use of emotional intelligence training made a difference with staff

Getting thousands of spectators in and out of sporting events at the London 2012 Olympic Games efficiently and safely was no stroke of luck. Behind the scenes, a team of government scientists from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) had helped devise and manage an efficient security screening process. During the planning phase, the team delivered advice on the type and scale of security equipment required, and during the event it collected data to assist it in future process-modelling.

Staff from DSTL sit beside senior civil service policymakers and military officers to help solve security and defence problems everywhere from east London to Afghanistan. And the unit is now reaping the rewards of a strategy to improve the capabilities of its employees. Last year, DSTL won the skills category at the Civil Service Awards for its Accelerated Systems Skills Programme. The project aims to improve its effectiveness by broadening and deepening the skill set of staff.

David Oxenham, chief systems engineer and senior fellow at DSTL, says the origins of the programme stretch back around 10 years. “What kicked it off was realising the nature of the problems we were facing were getting more complex and multifaceted. We needed more people from a scientific and technical background to work with the military and policymakers to help deal with difficult problems. At that time we didn’t have enough people comfortable in working in that space.”

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A business case was approved by the Ministry of Defence executive in 2006, and the scheme launched the next year. Those in charge of the project identified a “target community” of staff who were judged to have the best chance of success. Each was assigned a senior person not in their line management chain to act as a mentor. Typically, those chosen were mid-career and had been in DSTL for at least six years, Oxenham says.

A key plank has been to send trainees on emotional intelligence courses to help raise their self-awareness. Simon Swales, a learning and development consultant at DSTL, says: “Before we launched we did a lot of research on the people we would need. We put 90 existing systems experts through deep psychometric assessments and correlated the results with line managers’ assessment of their effectiveness and found that the best performing were very emotionally intelligent. The deep technical specialists we wanted to develop had a much lower emotional intelligence but the good news was that that could be developed.”

This part of the training was the only part which was compulsory – but it was critical to the success of the programme. Swales says that the emotional intelligence was “life-changing” for many of the trainees. “It helps them learn how to learn and helps them really engage in the programme,” he says.

The final part of the jigsaw was to take those on the course out of their comfort zone through spells in roles that they would not have normally done on their normal career progression. “It could be through a secondment, although those have been quite rare,” says Oxenham. “Usually they stay where they are but move to a project running in a different part of the organisation. Even a couple of days for a few weeks can change your insights.”

The process was not without its challenges. Swales says: “We faced a lot of the things which are common to change programmes – tribalism and questions about why we were doing it. We focused on the advantage to managers of having more of these specialists available and closing a gap to help them do their job better. There was also a language barrier – we had 13 departments in DTSL which all knew they had a problem but each called it something different.”

Ten years on and the programme is still going strong. DSTL runs an assessment every two to three years to gauge the scale and profile of remaining gaps in skills. Oxenham says: “The programme was designed to close a gap of 90 people but we have now had 180 go through it since 2007. When we close the initial gap we found the world had changed so we needed to keep going.”

Both Swales and Oxenham say they are happy with the results – the creation of a new cadre of specialists which can apply scientific knowledge to real world security situations. “If you are an analyst advising on the future structure of military operations, you have to understand how the MoD works at a senior level so you can target advice into that space,” says Oxenham. “If you are a microbiologist making a vaccine – you have to ensure your depth of knowledge will be translated into something useful. We have created a space where we can now find these people.”

This year’s Civil Service Awards take place on November 12.

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