Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

What Matters to R&D Workers: Now We Can Add Daa to Outr Hunches as a Result of This Study at Three Major Energy Department Laboratories on What Constitutes a Good Research Environment

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

What Matters to R&D Workers: Now We Can Add Daa to Outr Hunches as a Result of This Study at Three Major Energy Department Laboratories on What Constitutes a Good Research Environment

Article excerpt

OVERVIEW: Surprisingly little empirical information is available to help laboratory managers attract and retain productive R&D workers. Most employee attitude surveys do not focus on the specific attributes that scientists and engineers consider to be particularly important for research organizations. To address this deficiency, the U.S. Department of Energy, in the most comprehensive study on the subject to date, surveyed 2,200 R&D workers in 40 organizations within three major laboratories to determine what constitutes a good research environment and what improvements might be needed to best serve the needs of R&D workers. Thirty-six factors were found to be most important to R&D workers. These findings can help managers to plan their next employee attitude survey and to take actions that improve attraction and retention of R&D workers and R&D performance.

KEY CONCEPTS: Motivating scientists and engineers, improving R&D performance, employee attitude surveys.

Two questions addressed with some frequency in articles on research and development management are, "How do we attract and retain R&D staff?" and "How can organizations support and encourage high performance?" From a big-picture perspective, the answers to these questions are intertwined. High performance in R&D depends on having top-notch, motivated individuals on board. However, organizations can and do make a difference in how and when these individuals generate new ideas and new or improved products and processes. Managers at Sandia National Laboratories, for example, wanting to maintain and improve on an already good record of performance, worry about attracting and retaining talented employees, keeping skills current, and increasing motivation and morale. They also want to change the way the laboratory does business to "do more with the same or less," recognizing that obstacles such as micromanagement, short-term thinking, and insularity inhibit innovation, especially in an era of increased specialization and collaboration.

Despite this interest in managing, attracting and retaining R&D workers, surprisingly little empirical evidence exists that tells how to accomplish this goal. Many surmise that researchers work less for money than for "glory"--that is, the challenge of overcoming scientific or technical problems, the satisfaction of exercising their creativity, and the approval of their work by their peers. At one time, newspapers near Silicon Valley carried advertisements aimed at R&D workers featuring pictures of legs outfitted in unusual and casual footwear, indicating a flexible organization with an environment that welcomes different ideas and nonconformity.

Perhaps this lack of empirical data is what spurred the Industrial Research Institute to support surveys to determine what factors motivate R&D workers. In one such study, published in the Jan.-Feb. 2003 issue of Research Technology Management, Kochanski, Mastropolo and Ledford conclude that companies are concerned about attracting top talent and keeping employee skills current (1). They found that whereas "productivity and cost reduction reign as the people priorities in other functions such as sales and operations ... in R&D labs, issues such as innovation, leading-edge skills, discovery and collegiality are the drivers of success through people."

The lack of empirical data also motivated managers at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories to better understand what constitutes a good research environment and to develop tools to gather reliable data that could lead to improvements. However, existing employee attitude surveys used by DOE laboratories failed to address many of the factors that scientists and engineers consider to be particularly important for a research organization, such as a commitment to critical thinking, the cross-fertilization of ideas, and the presence of a strong foundation of basic research. …

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