In her first job, Barbara Butts Williams punched keys on a Mohawk data recorder in a Pennsylvania state office. Her colleagues told her to aim higher. Over four decades in workforce education and professional development, she helped thousands of her own colleagues move higher. A longtime civic leader, she is now executive dean for Capella University, the Minneapolis-based online education company.
Q: After so many years working on training and staff development in hands-on corporate settings, what is it like to be working in an online education company?
A: I had the great fortune of working for companies with employees all over the world. Having been a chief learning officer and responsible for development in those companies, I recognized early that I needed a different way of achieving consistency and ensuring the right competencies and development opportunities for employees worldwide. I’ve always dabbled into what was next in learning throughout my career. So seeing where the practice is now is not a big step for me. Online is a more convenient delivery model for some people.
Q: When you’re dealing with corporate customers, do you still encounter skepticism about whether workers can learn new skills through online courses alone?
A: Not as much as 10, 15 years ago. Change is not easy and innovation is more difficult. If I was a CEO, the questions I would ask are: Who can provide the best outcome to help our employees succeed, understand our needs and provide an acceptable return on investment? I think the end for us is we have to be transparent in the kind of results that provide. I seldom today have the conversation about whether it’s online or not because many of the large universities have online MBA programs and other programs. So that’s not really a big concern of mine. Also, take health care. When you look at how that industry is now training nurses and doctors, we’re seeing a lot more technology-enabled tools.
We have a lot of regulatory concerns and challenges that we face that may be more than a traditional university. I think that’s good because it causes us to be better. It causes us to look at our results, not only collect the data but be able to draw insights from that and be able to draw meaning and take it to the next level.
Q: Has data taken over education?
A: I don’t think it’s taken over. I think a lot of us are trying to get smart about how we use the data and trying to streamline the amount of data. The challenge is to make meaning and create the ROI we all are looking for in the right set of information.
Q: You’ve been a high-profile civic leader since you were appointed to the Metropolitan Council in the 1990s. What has changed about the Twin Cities?
A: When I first came here almost 34 years ago, I thought about the area as either St. Paul or Minneapolis. When I first joined the Metropolitan Council, it was the first opportunity I had to understand the Twin Cities from a regional perspective. Over the last 25 years or so, as I’ve been involved in community activities, I’ve seen a strengthening of that regional perspective and less of the Minneapolis, St. Paul border type of thinking.
Q: What still needs to change?
A: I always tell people how fortunate we are here in Minnesota. We have about 20 Fortune 500 companies and we have many people and companies who are doing extremely well. And yet, we have significant social and economic inequities. We have a significant achievement gap that we really need to take a look at and use our regional resources to solve. Homelessness, there is no reason why Minnesota should have the level of homelessness that we do. When I walk downtown in Minneapolis and when I’m in St. Paul and I see signs of poverty and inequity everyday, and it breaks my heart because it’s right in the shadows of organizations and resources that could mitigate those challenges. Health disparities is another, an area that is a challenge in urban and rural areas.
Another challenge is the area I work in every day, which is the up-skilling of the workforce. I was attracted to Minnesota, leaving the University of Michigan, because I heard about a great company that was doing some amazing things, whose mission was all about social responsibility. That was Control Data. I think the DNA of Control Data was the DNA of this state, which is very interested in how to provide for a more skilled workforce and sustainable communities. That theme has followed me throughout my career. Thirty-four years later, we still have an up-skilling need within our community, even though we have a very smart workforce. Companies like Capella are focused on making sure we have the right skills and impact.
Q: Your career has gone from Mohawks to iPhones.
A: I tried to run away from it. Today, we’re all key punchers.