Motivating a Diverse Group of People and Planning for Success - Novacrea Research
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Motivating a Diverse Group of People and Planning for Success

Photo by Matthew Wisniewski, GLBRC

Novacrea recently helped the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) conduct an organizational survey for its members, who include researchers, graduate students, post-docs, and staff. I caught up with Dan Lauffer, Chief Operating Officer at GLBRC, and Catherine Carter, Operations Process Manager, after completing the survey. Here’s our interview, edited for length.

Pi Wen: Could you tell us a little bit about the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, its mission and the activities that your members engage in?

Dan: The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center is one of three biological research centers funded by the Department of Energy, with a mission of conducting basic research that generates technology to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol.

We have a wide variety of research in our Center that looks at corn or other plants that are used for biofuels. And we have a group that looks at how do you break those down? How do you take apart the cell walls and actually get the sugars out? It’s the sugars then that we want to convert into fuel.

Catherine: It’s a very diverse group, too. We have people in multiple disciplines within the university working together, which makes us really unique. We span departments and we span colleges at the university.

Pi Wen: Yes indeed. So how do you manage such a diverse group of people, and what are some of the challenges that you face?

Dan: We have 14 member institutions, which are different universities and private companies in the U.S. and one international center in British Columbia.

With the diverse population of research scientists, graduate students, post-docs and staff, we spend a lot of time trying to coordinate communications and build a culture of working together. Since this is an academic institution, it’s more challenging because most of our project leads and research scientists really only participate in the Center about 10% to 20% of their time. They have many other factors that affect them on a day-to-day basis.

So through constant communication, we try to engage them. We have newsletters and regular leadership updates. And through our education and outreach efforts, industry engagement efforts, and our research with industry, we continually try to pull people into the Center.

Pi Wen: I understand you conducted a member survey before, and this time we did a different and more focused survey. What’s the impetus behind the member surveys?

Dan: Three years ago we were essentially a start-up company. We went from zero employees to 350 in less than three years. That was very rapid growth. We needed to listen to our people and see what they were thinking. Were we serving the research that was there? So we did two surveys. One was a paper survey and then another year we did interviews with some members of the Center.

And then we looked at our investment that the Center wanted to make in continuous surveys, and we determined that an electronic survey would be the best way to go.

The purpose of the survey that we just completed was to look at a high level across the Center, what operational areas are we succeeding in, how are we supporting member research, where we could use improvement, and to get feedback about the diversity and the culture within the Center. The goal is to have this be a baseline, and repeat the survey over the next few years so we can actually look at trends across the Center for our next five years of funding.

Pi Wen: Catherine, you have a survey team that spans across different functions. Could you briefly talk about your survey team and how the team worked with Novacrea?

Catherine: The survey team consists of people in operations and people who work with researchers. We had experts in communications, human resources, and event planning. And I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades within Business Services. One of our interests was looking at the processes and the tools that we use to do business, and what’s working and what isn’t. I thought we had a real good balance with that in our team. And we had regular status update calls with you, you were part of our team too.

Pi Wen: Great. What are some of the interesting things you learned from this survey?

Catherine: One of the most interesting things we learned was how people are collaborating. The survey demonstrated that people are very passionate about collaboration. What we struggle with is the balance between letting people in a research organization do their own thing versus coordinating it in some way so everyone’s using the same tools. We got a lot of really valuable feedback from the open-ended questions.

Pi Wen: What are some of the follow-up actions or next steps for you?

Dan: We are still in the process of giving feedback to various groups. One thing great about doing the survey in the Center is it gives us real data. Our scientists want to see data. (Laughter) And now, after taking that data and turning it into evidence of what we need to change, that’s the next step.

We were pleased to see that people felt that communication from the leadership team was reasonable, at the high 60% to 70% range. It was a pleasant surprise. We are taking action to improve communication across the Center. Our information hub is designed to provide information to everyone in the Center. We’re starting the redesign process as we improve it, and we’re using a lot of the feedback from the survey to do that.

What we need to think about as well is how do we communicate that we’re doing this. Because what we’ve done in the past is that we get good advice, we act upon it, but in a piecemeal sort of way. We’d have different events where something has changed because of surveys, but we never communicate a comprehensive view of what we’re trying to do. So people don’t see that actions have been made because they don’t see all the pieces come together as a whole.

Pi Wen: Yes. Looks like communication is really key, especially when you have such a diverse group of people. I’m glad to hear that you are taking action to address some of the concerns that were uncovered in the survey. That’s really a key characteristic of successful organizations — to act on the survey results.

Dan: In an academic institution like ours, each lab has its own culture. And so there are some hurdles that we want to overcome to create a culture in our Center. We want to show, in a productive way, how we’re using the survey results to improve how we service the researchers and members. It’s going to take time — you have to have two or three years of results to show, with data, that this is making a difference because we are hearing from the community.

Pi Wen: Very good point. Do you have any other thoughts or comments for organizations that are in a similar situation as GLBRC?

Catherine: My comment is that sometimes groups at companies and organizations can get insular and they only look within themselves for all of their answers. And they feel as though that they might have all the tools they need to complete a project, like a survey. But having a third party who does not have the insider bias look at the questions, clarify the reasoning for asking the questions, and asking what kind of information you’re trying to gain is very helpful. That’s one thing that you provided that was very helpful.

Also, your experience with doing surveys in the past helped us. You gave us best practices and benchmarking information. And you were very flexible throughout the project, you worked with our people’s hectic schedules. So thank you!

Pi Wen:
You are welcome!

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