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Data and Analytics Take Flight with the United States Air Force – Three Upskilling Tips for Any Organization

Last month I published a high-level overview of some of the important data and analytics initiatives that were happening in the Federal Government by providing some background details on the Federal CDO Council which is made up of 79 different agencies and CDOs. As mentioned last month, the next few blog posts will highlight different Federal Agencies and share some interesting work and takeaways that may inspire other organizations either in the public or private sector.

This month, the United States Air Force (USAF) gets the spotlight along with some of the upskilling work occurring with its Airmen and Airwomen. The topic of upskilling and the ability to communicate with data is hugely popular with data and analytics leaders; as digital transformations progress, employees are tasked with communicating and operating quite differently impacting not only the culture of the organization but how the work gets done. One leader in the data literacy space is Valerie Logan of The Data Lodge who believes “that the foundation of nurturing a data literate workforce (from executives, to data and analytics professionals, to your front-line associates) is fostering a shared language around the use of data, or Information as a Second Language® (ISL).” Speaking the same language around data when it comes to business is critical for the bottom line but when it comes to USAF missions, it could be the difference between life or death so there is little room for error in interpretation… upskilling is a must.

Data and analytics efforts at the USAF are headed up by Chief Data Officer Eileen Vidrine, a seasoned leader who has spent time as an active service member and in the civilian sector. Like most corporate CDO, CAO, CDAO’s, Vidrine’s remit entails developing and implementing “strategies for enterprise data management, analytics and digital transformation to optimize performance and drive out innovation in and across all missions and operations.” Supporting this remit is the Department of Defense Data Strategy and its vision statement which states that the “DoD is a data-centric organization that uses data at speed and scale for operational advantage and increased efficiency.” Additionally, a “core tenet” of the DoD Data Strategy is that “data is not an IT asset, but an essential and integral part of the mission itself.” Because data is seen as part of the mission, it’s absolutely critical that all individuals involved in any mission understand the data and what it means so that they can react appropriately and inform real-time decision making. Below are some ways the USAF is accomplishing this work along with three tips for organizations to consider when it comes to upskilling around data.

Knowledge Sharing - Curated Training & Skills Catalog

One of the outputs of the Federal CDO Council and Federal Data Strategy was to publish a Curated Data Skills Catalog. The purpose of the catalog was to level set on a “common vocabulary of data roles and skills in the Federal data ecosystem” and provide details around different “governmental learning opportunities to help agencies develop staff data competencies within the Federal Data Lifecycle. The catalog can also help agencies develop training programs by highlighting existing government resources and curricula.” One of the things that is really nice about this catalog is that it starts to move everyone – across every Federal Agency – in the same direction when it comes to common definitions including roles and responsibilities. The second part of the catalog provides multiple pages of data courses and abstracts along with an-in depth look at some training program curriculum.

  • TIP: It’s important to note that while this catalog is accessible for anyone to view, most of the courses are only available to federal employees but this catalog is a terrific example of how a company could organize all its training activities into one document and publish on a company intranet site. As an analytics leader, work with your L&D and/or HR partner to inventory all data and analytics training materials so that it can be made accessible to the larger organization when the timing is right. This initial activity inventorying resources may kickstart plans for a more formal data literacy or upskilling program; keeping materials organized upfront will help inform gaps in content and curriculum.

Advanced Training - Certification

This past summer, the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) launched an online data analytics certificate program that includes five 10-week courses that “focus on the use and understanding of data analysis applications and tools while covering topics such as database design and management, machine learning, statistics, and computer programming.” The graduate level coursework is available to all active duty and civilian USAF personnel at no cost.

Vidrine underscored the upskilling effort by stating: “A graduate certificate in data analytics is a key component in our workforce development approach to improve the Air Force data enterprise and increase data-driven decisions.”

  • TIP: If your organization decides to move forward with a more formal training and/or support a certificate program for employees, it’s critical that those individuals can learn and apply the approaches and techniques in the proper business context and put it to use as soon as possible (this also means access to quality data). One of the challenges with training is that when people can’t put their knowledge to immediate use or make it relevant to the work they’re doing, they can become a victim of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. “In a training context, the Forgetting Curve shows that learners will forget an average of 90% of what they have learned within the first month.” “Reinforcement and repetition” are important activities to incorporate throughout training and post-training so be sure to include that component in your planning.

Inspiring Creativity & Showcasing Innovation

Another interesting way that the USAF is generating excitement around data and analytics activities is with its AFWERX Spark Tank event which mimics the Shark Tank TV program. The impetus for the event was to “empower intrepreneurs, celebrate their problem-solving skills and give them a stage to share their projects with fellow service members and the world… Spark Tank offers the opportunity to get their ideas in front of key enabling agencies that can share expertise and resources such as funding or personnel for the projects being presented and demonstrate pathways for intrepreneurs to make their initiatives successful.” This year’s winner explored an issue around C-130 wheel repair and “presented a novel concept that helps produce more wheels, save taxpayers money, and keep C-130's flying.” This type of engagement with boots on the ground expertise not only acknowledges and rewards service members for their ingenuity but it has practical applications.

  • TIP: This type of event or activity is easily replicable in a business environment and I have heard multiple IIA clients share that a Shark Tank like activity or hackathon has become an annual tradition that draws participation across the enterprise and is sponsored by the data and analytics team. Here are some additional points to consider if your organization decides to host a similar event: encourage cross-team integration by having business unit/LOB team members collaborate with analytics team members to co-develop and pitch a project, solving real world business issues in a fun and engaging activity makes the work relevant and actionable, and prizes can be awarded to drive participation and generate interest.

If you’re interested in learning more about the data and analytics work that Eileen Vidrine is tackling at the USAF, there is a great podcast interview between Samir Sharma and Eileen that I’d recommend on The Data Strategy Show. Next month, a different federal agency will be featured along with its CDO and the work they’re leading.


Lise Massey is the Senior Program Director for IIA’s Analytics Leadership Consortium (ALC) and has been with IIA since 2014. The ALC is a closed network of senior analytics executives from diverse industries who meet to share and discuss best practices, as well as discover and develop analytics innovation, all for the purpose of improving the business impact of analytics at their firms. Prior to IIA, Lise spent over 10 years designing, managing, and leading media analytics programs for a diverse portfolio of clients and has experience in many aspects of program and project management, account management, strategic and tactical planning, business development, and training. Lise is a graduate from the University of Oregon.