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Cooperation Flounders When Subcultures Clash
DG Study of Organizational Behavior Finds that Cultural Distance Hampers Collaborative Success
For the DGRC

"Scientist, Politician, Bureaucrat"

" Paper presented at dg.o2003
" Project profile
" Oregon Health & Science University


A recent New York Times editorial [8/29/03] by Henry Petroski, professor of engineering and history at Duke University, stated there is a new emphasis on the corporate culture of NASA in the wake of the second shuttle accident.

For Tim Tolle of the Forest Service, it took something far less dramatic than an aerospace tragedy to recognize that well-intentioned colleagues often can't understand each other.

Tolle was one of the lead participants of a project among three federal agencies: (The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service) were trying to jointly manage ten 10 federal land holdings - timberlands bordering small towns that had been hard-hit by recent changes in federal logging policy.

They were trying to follow a principle called, "adaptive management," in which, ideally, participants regularly provide feedback to themselves - if a plan or management style doesn't work, it is re-adjusted mid-stream. "The ultimate goal, says Tolle, "[Is that] when a manager monitors a project, she alone hasn't learned from it, but the entire organization learned from it. Communication, or lack of it, seems to be the ambient atmosphere."

Unfortunately, adaptive management itself didn't seem to be working for the folks at the Forest Service, BLM and Fish and Wildlife, says Tolle. People would try to adjust to each other's cultures and codes, but somehow the theroy wasn't going forward as expected in practice.

Finally, Tolle perceived the problem of trying to integrate the management styles of three very different agencies:

"It wasn't the technology that was lacking, or formal policy barriers, it was cultural," says Tolle. He sought a partner who could help identify what the cultural issues were, as a way to help resolve them.

Tolle spoke with Nicole (Niki) Steckler, Associate Professor in the Management in Science and Technology Department at the OGI School of Science and Engineering of Oregon Health & Science University. Steckler was already working with him on another project studying knowledge management in remote distributed environments. When she used the phrase, "Organizational Facilitators and Inhibitors to Information-Sharing Across Federal Agency Boundaries," Tolle said he thought, "That's it! That sums our problem up exactly." Steckler became PI on a DG-funded grant with that title, aimed directly at discovering the cultural challenges for inter-agency collaboration.

The team presented an intriguing paper on the project at the 2003 National Conference on Digital Government, held in Boston in May.

Cultural conflicts between agencies are certainly assumed: No one would expect, the EPA and the Department of Commerce, for example, to share the same goals. But what is often overlooked is the conflicts that arise within agencies, Steckler explains, since some professional sub-cultures treat each other like incomprehensible in-laws.

Years of training and experience produce professionals who view problems through the filters of their own expertise and job-related goals. A mosquito-infested pond is a hazard to a public health official, but an environmental benefit to a wildlife official concerned with avian nutrition. With the advent of West Nile virus, both officials may agree that it's now a danger, but it's still unlikely they'll both agree on a solution for what to do about the bugs.

In the natural resource agencies Steckler, she found differences in worldview among scientists, public managers and politicians. Each needed different types of information in order to do its work, and processed the same data differently to meet their needs. In turn, each produced different results based on their different approach to information.

For scientists, according to Steckler, "Information is a connection between different bodies of knowledge, or communities of practitioners. They think about how it will be seen by their peers or how it might connect into existing knowledge."

For public managers, "Information becomes a foundation for action, something on which decisions are based. Information needs to be collected and managed to support effective operations."

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For politicians, "Information is currency. Data are used to support public policy positions."

So from the beginning, collaborations by the three groups will approach any given problem in three different ways. Adding to the complications, each agency has its own culture. In some agencies, information gathered by scientists is used to support decisions that have already been laid down by politicians or managers. Others are more science-driven, with managers and politicians waiting to sign off on the results of research.

As a consequence, members of each subculture may not comprehend why their cohorts in other agencies react differently to what would appear to be the same situation, the researchers determined. A scientist in Agency A just doesn't get why her colleague in Agency B thinks writing a research report will be useless. A manager in Agency A won't make a decision without a report from the agency scientist, while a manager in Agency B wonders why he's being so slow to act.

"When agencies are trying to act together," says Steckler, "you have to ask how does all this affect agency interaction, especially if agencies have different dominant sub-cultures?"

The answers come in acknowledging that subculture-driven problems exist.

Once members of each subculture recognize the unique ways in which their colleagues view the world, they can begin to translate their ways of thinking.

"It's the reality of a pluralistic society that there are not always reconcilable differences," says Steckler, "but professionals need to learn not to polarize each other."