Member Profile: Michelle Turchin, WCS

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April 04, 2017

Member Profile: Michelle Turchin, WCS

Ecuador landscape, above, and photo of Michelle Turchin, below, both by Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing

The mission of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is to save wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature—a mission that’s supported by 4,000 employees in 60 countries. In February 2016, the organization launched WCS U, a new learning platform for professional development. In the lead-up to the InsideNGO Annual Conference with LINGOs this year, we checked in with Michelle Turchin, who leads learning and capacity building at WCS, to see how organizational learning has progressed at WCS over this past year.

Q: Start at the beginning, for those who may not know. How did the idea of WCS U come about?

For a number of years, the WCS Human Resources team had been assessing organizational learning needs and preparing a business case for greater investment in learning and development.  In 2013, WCS undertook an organization-wide strategic planning process. As part of this process, a core team was formed to study the current state, conduct benchmarking, and determine ways to attract, develop, and retain a great team worldwide. One of the Human Capital outcomes was for all of our colleagues to engage in professional learning and development by 2020. In 2014, WCS gathered feedback from our colleagues worldwide via an internal survey on a range of topics, and learning emerged as one of the top priorities. In addition to the grassroots interest in learning and growth, senior leadership saw that an investment learning and development could help WCS achieve greater impact as a conservation organization.  In the fall of 2015, senior leadership called for the creation of WCS U, and we launched in February 2016.

Tell us a little bit about the platform. I understand it has both live and online self-directed learning? How does that work?

We have a very diverse employee population around the world.  We knew that we needed to be able to offer various learning modalities: self-paced and live, in-person and online, individual and cohort-based.  Based on the content area, employee access to technology, and other considerations, we determine the most appropriate learning format for a given program.  WCS U online serves as the hub for professional development at WCS.

WCS U launched just over a year ago. In the first eight months, you had more than 500 employees enroll in 1,100 courses. Now that it’s been a full year, what do those numbers look like?

We now have over 1,200 learners in 26 countries who have enrolled in over 2,600 courses.  

What kind of feedback are you getting from your learners?

Our learners are saying that WCS U programs and online training help them do their work more effectively and efficiently.  A number of managers have set collective learning goals for their departments to strengthen certain skills that are necessary to achieve the goals.  While it is still early, some managers have begun to see improvements in their departments’ effectiveness and performance.

What are some of the more popular learning offerings?

Enrollment has been high for communications courses, both in-person and online offerings. Enrollment has been high for management and leadership courses, including self-paced online courses, live workshops, and a blended, 6-week certificate program.  Enrollment has also been high in time management and language courses.

Operationally, what does it take to make this all work? What kind of staffing, technology, etc?

Within human resources, we created a team comprised of three full-time employees dedicated to learning and capacity-building.  We partner closely with other members of the human resources department and other departments at WCS, including public affairs, communications, education, and information technology who have contributed critical expertise toward the launch and growth of WCS U.  We also have a community of 70 colleagues around the world who help to cultivate learning and development within their departments.  Through our partnership with LINGOs, we have access to learning technologies and high-quality training from a range of different providers.  We also work with other partners such as ConservationTraining.org to be able to offer technical and industry-specific content where needed.  Lastly, we are committed to developing the next generation, and therefore we host undergraduate and graduate interns throughout the year.

What lies ahead for you as you and your team as you move through this second year?

We are excited for the coming year.  We are working with senior leadership to launch a WCS orientation program for all colleagues worldwide.  We are expanding management and leadership programs and making them increasingly accessible around the world.  A year from now, we look forward to reporting a significant increase in organizational engagement around learning.

Is there any advice you’d offer to colleagues within the international NGO community who are considering a similar type of initiative?

In our first year, we’ve learned many lessons.  First, it’s important to be patient.  A meaningful investment and focus on learning can take years to come to fruition.  It’s critical to be methodical in your approach: understand your workforce demographics and gather objective data about employee learning needs to frame your learning strategy.  Stay informed about where your organization is headed, what the critical challenges are, and how learning could help address those challenges.  Sponsorship by senior leadership is paramount. Internal and external partners can help ensure the success of your initiative.  At the right time and with a strategic approach, learning can help to enable your organization to deliver on its mission.

Want to learn more about WCS U? Don't miss Michelle's session, The Future is Now: Recounting a Year of WCS U, at the InsideNGO Annual Conference with the Global Learning Lab presented by LINGOs.

  • The Future Is Now: Recounting A Year Of WCSU

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