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NIH Record

Investing in Employees
'Continuous Learning' Leads to Job Contentment, Success

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...
Okay. Pop quiz: What's the most valuable resource at NIH? Don't answer right away. Put some thought into it. Is it the billions of dollars the agency invests each year in medical research? Or maybe you think it's the high-tech computer network system that automates nearly everything from paychecks to prescriptions? Perhaps it's the millions of dollars of lab, hospital and office equipment in each building? Nope. Not even close, according to a business principle motivated by the Quality of Worklife Initiative and being adopted enthusiastically across campus.


"It's our people," declares NIDR director Dr. Harold Slavkin, a vocal champion of what is called the "continuous learning" concept. "It's really a no-brainer if you think about it. Simply put: People produce more in a workplace where they feel valued, rewarded, appreciated and respected. I'm not talking about this as just an altruistic concept. Being sensitive to human issues is an investment."

Knowledge Is Power

Last June, Vice President Al Gore sent a message to federal managers: "We asked each cabinet secretary to set clear uplifting goals, and make sure everyone understands how the goals relate to their own jobs," he said in a letter, referring to reinvention instructions he and President Clinton issued in January 1997. "We also told them the most important job for government leaders at every level is to unlock the unused creativity and brain power of the men and women in the federal workforce."

Gore's note then asked managers to incorporate continuous learning into each agency's daily operations. In practice for years by corporate business giants such as IBM, Ford Motors and 3M, the concept requires organizations to plan, implement and evaluate learning systematically for all its members.

"The NIH mission is to uncover new knowledge that will lead to better health for everyone," said Steve Benowitz, NIH OD executive officer and director of human resources management. "Learning has always been a critical part of that mission. The learning mission is not characteristic just of the scientists in the laboratories. With increasing demands being placed on employees because of changes in technology, streamlining and reinvention, it is now even more critical that emphasis be placed on individual and organizational learning."

This is especially important for organizations dedicated to the discovery of new knowledge and new technologies -- private as well as not-for-profit sectors, agreed Slavkin, whose early implementation of the principle has included development and publication of an NIDR strategic plan clearly spelling out the institute's short- and long-range mission, goals and opportunities for growth.

"I'm a scientist," he said. "I love science, but I also find exciting this nurturing and training and transitioning of people. It's all about pushing the envelope in a new area. At NIH we push the envelope in the lab everyday. Every day we try to make our last idea obsolete. We get excited about change, opportunity and discovery. Being a learning organization is no different than that."

Follow the Leader

Slavkin said he used principles of diversity to open communication among his organization's managers, supervisors and their coworkers. At his urging, NIDR organized an annual retreat for the entire institute that mixed participants across divisions and grade levels. Intra-institute committees were formed with representatives from a cross-section of the institute. Slavkin began frequent "walkabouts," where he would meet with staff members informally and talk about their ideas and concerns.

"Relatively speaking we're a small institute -- only about 320 people," he admitted, "so it's a lot easier to accomplish what we have than if you have a workforce of 4,000 or 10,000. It still can be done. I don't think we are there yet. We're still fairly early in a process that takes years of consistency and trust, but we're trying. NIDR is a work in progress. When you're successful at this, it shouldn't show. It's a subtle thing. You notice it in thousands of small ways -- like in the hour a meeting starts, in how employees greet each other in the hallway, in how they sit across from their coworkers in a meeting. It's a cultural thing."

Some of the other initiatives Slavkin endorses include "brown bag" sessions where 12-15 people brainstorm about new scientific approaches -- not just scientists, but budget people, science writers, support staff, personnel people and others. NIDR also uses intranet, Internet and email "to communicate with every individual employee so no one feels marginalized," he explained. Last year, after every employee developed an individual performance plan, NIDR leaders pledged to provide flexibility, time and in many cases, training funds and resources so employees could accomplish the performance goals they set for themselves.

What's in It for Managers?

"The result is that morale is probably higher than it has ever been," Slavkin observed. "There's an excitement that wasn't here before. When you make promises, you really have to deliver. Reward people for working in teams. Pay attention to birthdays and holidays. Give credit when and where it is due.

"We're all busy and overextended," he continued. "Don't get me wrong -- it is a sacrifice. You are making time -- amid a very heavy load -- for human resources. But, consider the alternatives: chronic absenteeism, lower levels of enthusiasm, and eventually, lower quality performance."

Within the last few months or so, NIH's Office of Human Resource Management began circulating to all NIH managers the virtual bible for this business strategy -- a little green book written last summer by the interagency Human Resource Development Council. The book, Getting Results Through Learning, opens with Gore's letter, contains useful guidelines for implementing the concept and quotes some of its successful, well-known practitioners.

Says Fortune magazine's Thomas Stewart, in the chapter titled Getting Better Results: "Human capital grows two ways: when the organization uses more of what people know and when more people know more stuff that is useful to the organization."

An offering from GE's CEO Jack Welsh claims, "We would not knowingly hire anyone in our company who wasn't 'boundaryless,' who wasn't open to an idea from anywhere, who wasn't excited about a learning environment."

Success Breeds...

Both OHRM and quality of worklife committee leaders say they hope the book, the concept and the testimonials of its success stories will inspire new ways to help NIH employees do their jobs better in a changing business climate.

"We are looking at means to implement some of the same techniques that these learning organizations use to support our employees, their supervisors and managers in meeting our scientific and stewardship mission requirements," Benowitz said.

"NIH is called the jewel in the federal crown," Slavkin concluded. "We are without question number one in biomedical and behavioral research. We should also be number one in management. We're in a perfect position to do that. There's no dilution of science. You don't give up anything in terms of excellence. Everything from how we park our cars to the way we move the mail to eating in the cafeteria -- every piece of our organization should be equivalent to the same level of excellence. That's what makes IBM sizzle. It's what makes Microsoft so successful. That's what almost all learning organizations have in common."

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