Collaboration: R2O in a Nutshell

It has become increasingly popular to collocate National Weather Service (NWS) offices with academic institutions, presumably to maximize the potential R2O benefit. A few years ago, as part of a satellite proving ground demonstration, I was visiting a NWS office that was in a university building. On the research side, we spent long days working with meteorologists in simulating futuristic forecast and warning operations. As the hallways started to clear out and the day was winding down, I preceded to prop open the interior door between our demonstration room and the hallway so that anyone who was interested in what we were doing and finding (from the NWS or university) would feel encouraged to wander in before they set out for home. Not soon after, I was reproved because it was a violation of security rules to do so. The door was shut.

While there are certainly situations where closed doors are necessary to maintain the safety and reduce distractions, an unquestioned security policy like keeping doors closed is inadvertently serving as a barrier to R2O. Due to examples like this, I find that collocation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for inducing a relationship between research and operations. We must work harder to break down organizational silos; this does not happen with physical barriers, and without encouraging employees to rethink, and challenge, institutional constructs.

In one word, the core element of R2O is “collaboration”. It is essential that research and operational sectors work together to build the community and push forth the field. In order to be better at R2O, we need to be better at collaboration as a whole. The September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) contains an article on collaboration, “Collaborate for Real”, that discusses the ingredients for building a cooperative culture. The conclusion is that organizations with strong, inclusive departments or teams can lose track of the larger focus in pursuit of achieving group goals. This way of operating can destroy value over the long haul.

If R2O is about increasing value, then we need to think about collaboration as a community. And there are many examples of this today. We have professional and scientific meetings where researchers, academics, and industry partners all come together to exchange ideas and contact information. The NWS even runs a Collaborative Science, Technology, and Applied Research (CSTAR) program. Formal collaboration is great, and ensuring funds exist to foster R2O relationships is essential, but organic collaboration is cheaper, more sustainable, and impactful in large organizations and communities.

The Facebook campus is known for shared and open workspaces. It uses automatic doors so that engineers keep moving and interacting. But this is not all. Facebook also implemented a multi-week training program that, while maintaining core information, introduced new hires to the entire company and encouraged social bonding among those hires. Given Facebook’s success, we can learn from this design in implementing proximate physical areas for researchers and practitioners, and establishing an orientation program that counteracts geographical constraints existing in the weather community. We must do more to create a community culture that supports innovation in the R2O realm. Let’s keep the doors open, fight silos, and work together.

Further reading for those interested: The HBR article mentions a new book, “The Silo Effect”, by Gillian Tett, that discusses multiple organizations and their silos, and offers some answers on how to deal with them.