Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cyberspace as Social Science

by Jack Holt

This is a bit of a different take on Cyberspace, but I've always believed it is less about technology and more about the behavior that technology enables.

I attended a National Association of Public Adminstrators meeting yesterday morning discussing “Creating a Culture Where Employees Thrive and Agencies Succeed.” Speakers included Marlise Streitmatter, Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Transportation and Toni Dawsey, Assistant Administrator for Human Capital management and NASA’s Chief Human Capital Officer.

Focal point of the discussion was the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” 2010 survey results. DoT ranked dead last in the last survey and was voted “Most Improved” in 2010, and NASA has consistently been in the top 10 in every “Best Places to Work” survey.

This discussion was almost a reiteration of the WaPo interview with Gregory B. Jaczko, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was ranked the #1 overall best place to work in the federal government.

Main take-aways are that listening and engageing the workforce makes all the difference. Not a new concept to be sure, but woefully under-exercised. I’m reminded of the Cherokee proverb my grandfather taught me: If you listen to whispers, you’ll not hear screams. Also points out what I’ve been saying; there is a difference between managing, directing, and leading. Rear Adm. Grace Hopper once astutely noted: “You manage things, you lead people.” A leader’s role is to strengthen and unify the workforce by managing the workflow, directing the action and meeting the needs across the spectrum of the force. One of Jesus’ leadership lessons is: “The first must be last and the last first.” A leader’s focus and effort should be toward strengthening the weak points. These three thoughts have always guided my efforts when in leadership positions.

Social media played a very large part in making the dramatic turnaround in both the DoT and NRC and is what has kept NASA at the top. Inside the firewall employee communication and engagement are essential; but the tools are of little effect without leadership. It is the engagement piece that is most important.

DoT focused on leadership and supervisory training as part of a strategic plan to address the previous survey results which placed them dead last. Yet two of their agencies rated very high in the survey, the Federal Railroads Administration and the Federal Highways Administration. Marlise Streitmatter engaged them to learn how they did it. Finding ways to stay in communication were the keys. She found that the DoT, as a whole, was experiencing the siloed effects of an isolated, dispersed workforce. Subcultures developed because of the lack of communication between the hierarchies as well as between management and employees. This gave rise to a lack of trust compounded by a question of supervisory competence. Sound familiar? The DoT Secretary and agency administrators developed a strategic plan to address the failings. With a series of townhall meetings, luncheons, and other face-to-face meetings with employees and building a communication infrastructure, dialogue opened across the DoT encouraging ideas and innovation. Lead, show action, and listen is what Ms. Streitmatter acknowledges brought the DoT the “Most Improved” award.

NASA has for some time, been working to improve employee satisfaction with a focus on recruiting and retaining a younger workforce. The average age of the NASA employee in 2001 was 48 years. The question was, to whom do we hand this mission? Where is the succession management? In 2008 NASA produced the “Gen Y Perspectives” done by Gen Y employees for the NASA leadership to understand what needed to happen in order to cultivate the next generation workforce. The influencers for NASA, and I’ve seen this in other organization as well, are:

1. The Mission – understanding the importance of the mission at all levels and how every employee contributes.
2. An engaged leadership – (you cannot lead if you are not engaged – jh)
3. Engaged employees – (as a rule they won’t be engaged if leadership is not engaged – jh)
4. Progressive programs – Strategically thinking about how you engage and address the needs of the workforce in a human capital strategy.
5. Communication – multiple venues. (Communication is a human development activity. It is the tie that binds one to another and each to the whole. – jh)

Some of the tactics of NASA’s Human Capital Strategy are:

1. Leadership benchmarking – sharing lessons learned and best practices in leadership across the enterprise. When mission changes cause confusion and uncertainty, leaders communicate with each other to help unify the needed vision of the future and openly share with the dispersed workforce to create the common direction of the organization.
2. Opening avenues and encouraging “alternate views.” Even the terminology is chosen to be inclusive. Consider “alternate views” rather than “dissenting opinions.”
3. “Skip” luncheons. Brown bag lunchs or dinners where employees meet with the next higher level in the organizations. Basically informal meetings with your bosses boss.
4. Beginning leadership training at lower levels. Cultivating the leadership you will want and need in your organization.

It is not the "network" but "people networking" that makes the difference. Facilitating the access to information for better individual situational awareness, enabling the sharing of knowledge to create and enhance corporate wisdom and leadership that leads allows for employees to self-synchronize around the ideas, topics and events as needed to contribute to the corporate mission.

For the federal government as a whole performance management has always been a problem. NASA has addressed this by constant evaluation of their processes, constant evaluation of the workforce, and constant evaluation of the leadership. It is NOT pro forma, but a focus on a consistent process of improvement. In a word, management. Consistency is paramount in expectation management. Expectation management is paramount in leadership and leadership should be exercised at every level of the organization.

There is nothing new in any of this but these are good examples of what cultivating a culture of success looks like.

– Jack

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