About the National Archives

"Changing Organizations: NARA as a Case Study" in
Changing Organizations: Two Archives Transformation Case Studies


Lewis J. Bellardo
Deputy Archivist of the United States


Address to the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Managers (NAGARA)
Sacramento, California, July 17, 1997


Good morning.

Have you ever wondered what thinking hats, hexagons, and the principles of dialogue have to do with archives? It's not a question that would have even occurred to me two years ago. Managing an archives is about things like description, preservation, reference, budgets, and staffing, right? Yes, but it's also about managing change and helping the people who work for and with archives adapt to change.

Since John Carlin became Archivist of the United States in June of 1995, the National Archives and Records Administration has undertaken a concerted effort to change both the organization itself and the services we provide. Tomorrow in his plenary session, John will talk in more detail about some of these changes. Today, I'm going to share with you the process we went through to begin to effect change. And I say "begin" because we are by no means finished. We still have a lot of work ahead, but I think we've made an excellent start.

Now, effecting organizational change, especially in a bureaucracy, is not a simple matter and shouldn't be undertaken unless you can show a compelling need for change. For NARA in the summer of 1995, the compelling need was clear: NARA had to change or risk becoming an obsolete warehouse of musty paper records.

There were three factors at work here that, combined, made change a requirement. The first was external changes in the types of records that were being created, specifically electronic records, and the ever-increasing user demands for services. The second was space the volume of records we were managing was skyrocketing and the costs of acquiring and maintaining storage space was consuming our budget, with little left over for staff and program activities. And the third was changes within government itself, from budget cuts to the National Performance Review to the Government Performance and Results Act, which requires us to have a strategic plan with performance measurements that are linked to our budget submissions. With the Administration pushing for government reform and at the same time tightening the purse strings, it was clear we had to act, and act quickly.

Although I had been with NARA for several years, both John and I were new to our positions in the summer of 1995. I think that gave us an advantage because we could start over and look at the agency with a fresh eye. And that's just what we did for the first several weeks. We observed, and talked to as many people as we could, both inside and outside of the agency. What we heard was that NARA needed to change. Virtually no one indicated that the agency should continue operating as it was. In essence, we had our mandate, but we needed to come up with a plan.

First, we needed to get everyone focused and moving in the same direction. Everyone thought NARA should change, but no one could agree on how. This is where having a strong leader comes in handy. Although John is not a professional archivist, he does have a great affinity for history and the importance of the records we manage. In discussions with the agency's senior leadership, he shared the concepts that he thought should drive the agency NARA as public trust, essential evidence, ready access, partnerships, and core values. These concepts became the seeds from which all of our plans grew.

In those meetings that summer we developed our now familiar Vision, Mission, and Values statement. But what was equally significant was that we spent as much time planning how we were going to communicate this statement as we did actually writing it. Communication is one of our values and throughout this process we've consciously tried to sustain open communications with our staff and with our constituents, something we at NARA had never so systematically tried before to do.

Acceptance of our re-focused Vision, Mission and Values was extremely important for they would be the foundation for our whole strategic planning effort. And just as it was important to refocus our mission, it was important to bring the staff together as one agency. We have 33 facilities around the country in several time zones. The bulk of our staff is in Washington and St. Louis. In the past, the agency had been very Washington-oriented. DC people got all the perks, it was believed. The field was an afterthought. So we wanted to come up with a communication method that would be inclusive of everyone. So we went video.

John delivered a speech unveiling our Strategic Directions statement to a film crew. They produced enough videos for every facility. We made paper copies of the Vision, Mission and Values statement and shipped them with the video to every site with an embargo. Then at 1:00 Eastern Time on August 24, 1995, the directors in each facility played the video and passed out the statements to the staff. For the first time ever, all NARA staff heard an announcement at the same time in the same way. Whether you were in Washington DC or Washington State, you saw the exact same thing. The videos were an instant hit in the field and we've used this method of communicating several times since then. Staff in Washington were a bit put out at first. They had been used to getting the Archivist in person, not on tape. But they were soon to have their shot at him in person.

We introduced another communication tool at the same time. When John unveiled the Strategic Directions statement, he asked the staff to comment. We wanted their feedback (something new in and of itself) and we got it by taking advantage of e-mail. We set up a special "Vision" e-mail address and staff throughout the agency and at all levels sent in their comments. Then two weeks later we produced a second video, based on the comments and questions the staff submitted. All of this was designed to open the lines of communication and bring us together as one agency.

At the same time we were reaching out to the staff, John also was building his Leadership Team of senior managers. That September we went on a two-day retreat where we were introduced to thinking hats, the principles of dialogue and other tools to help us work better together. Ren Cahoon, who was then an unpaid consultant for us, showed us how these communication techniques could improve our group dynamics, show us all sides of an issue, and lead to more informed decision-making.

For example, we learned -- slowly, we still haven't totally perfected this yet -- to have dialogues with one another instead of discussions or debates. What's the difference? In a discussion, participants try to win others to a particular point of view. People often take sides and defend their position rather than try to understand all viewpoints. In a dialogue, however, participants consider issues from difference perspectives, move away from their own biases, and together come up with the best ideas. To do this, there are three principles to follow: participants must suspend their own assumptions, regard one another as colleagues, and come with a spirit of inquiry. Thus, the final product of a successful dialogue is not the acceptance of one person's viewpoint, but the adoption of a shared understanding. Although we sometimes fall back into old habits, this method allowed us to explore several thorny issues during the strategic planning process.

As the next step in what we dubbed our Strategic Directions Initiative, John and I began meeting with staff throughout the agency. These informal staff meetings lasted about an hour. At the beginning we went over the compelling need for making changes at NARA and what the Vision, Mission, and Values statement meant. Then we took their questions and comments. Inevitably, these were lively sessions. For many staff, this was the first time they had ever met either of us. For many staff this was the first time an Archivist had ever visited them personally. And we came away from these meetings with a better sense of the problems and concerns we faced.

Concurrent with this effort and to continue our focus on communication, we decided to maintain the Vision e-mail address as an electronic suggestion box for the staff. The people who write either receive direct e-mail replies or their questions get answered in a column from the Archivist that runs in every Staff Bulletin. To date, Vision has received hundreds of questions, comments, and suggestions from the staff and John has written more than forty Staff Bulletin columns in response. Vision continues to be a good way for staff, regardless of grade or location, to express their concerns directly to upper management.

Helpful as the staff meetings and Vision mail were, we needed a way to get more focused input on what strategies we should use to implement our mission of ready access to essential evidence. To do this, we decided to take advantage of another new communications tool -- hexagons. Hexagons are a wonderful brainstorming tool. You gather small groups of people together, ask them a specific, open-ended question such as "What are the ideas the agency should try or the steps the agency needs to take to provide ready access to essential evidence?" and then as the ideas start popping out, you jot them quickly on these hexagons, which are magnetic, and stick them up on a white board. When a group has exhausted all of its ideas, you cluster the hexagons by putting related ideas together. Topics and themes that repeatedly show up can reveal significant priorities to be addressed.

Holding what we called "Information Gathering Sessions" with staff across the agency turned out to be a monumental effort. First, we assembled a Strategic Directions Team of twenty staff from technicians to managers and the office heads to be the facilitators for these sessions. The team received training in facilitation, the principles of dialogue, and use of hexagons. Then, the team was divided into groups of three: a main facilitator and two people to capture the ideas on the hexagons. Much to my chagrin, I often was cast as the facilitator because no one could read my writing!

Next we issued a special edition of the Staff Bulletin that explained the information gathering session process to the staff. In the bulletin was a sign-up sheet. We limited the number of participants in a session to 15 to be sure everyone would have the opportunity to contribute. More than 1,000 people signed up and in two months we held a total of 156 sessions agencywide. A team visited every facility, including Anchorage. For example, in addition to doing sessions in Washington, my team facilitated sessions in Atlanta and St. Louis. When it was all over we had more than 10,000 hexagon ideas to work with in developing our strategic plan.

Now came the hard part. We had raised the staff's expectations by soliciting their input. Now we had to deliver a quality plan that would take their input into account. During April, May, and June of 1996, the Leadership Team met in day-long sessions, going over the input, dialoguing about issues, and hammering out language for the strategic plan. After weeks of work, we had a draft that we were ready to make public.

Again, communication was a key consideration in unveiling the plan. John did another agency-wide video to share the draft with the staff. We put the draft on our Web site so the public could comment on it. And we invited more than 100 of our key constituents and stakeholders to a dialogue on the plan. More than 50 people attended one of our all-day sessions. We received a lot of good feedback on the plan and after some key revisions, we issued the plan formally last August.

It was a tremendous, year-long effort to get the plan in place. A lot of people contributed, at all levels of the agency. And John made it clear to everyone that the Strategic Directions Initiative was his number one priority. What soon became apparent, however, was our work wasn't over. Just because we had a plan in place, didn't mean it would get implemented on its own. So with barely any rest from creating the plan, the Leadership Team and the staff were thrust into the much harder work of implementing the plan.

And here's where organizational change gets dicey because as no matter how radical or innovative a plan may be, the plan itself changes nothing. It's in the implementation of the plan where the real change occurs. And so we've struggled some with change in the last year. For some people, it's come too quickly; for others, in particular constituents who'd like to see certain changes happen right away, it's come too slow. Through it all we're trying to move in a straight line, on the course the plan set to achieve our mission.

Many of the things we've learned during the Strategic Directions Initiative, however, have helped us during implementation. We continue to emphasize communication as a key component of any initiative. We've used videos, the Staff Bulletin, Vision, and our internal Web site to keep the staff informed and to keep the lines of communication open. One of the first steps we took to implement the plan was to reorganize the agency around the records life cycle. When we implemented the first phase of that reorganization last winter, John did another agency-wide video and we ran a special edition of the Staff Bulletin focusing solely on the reorganization, complete with charts and frequently asked questions.

Valuing staff input is another concept we continue to practice. We currently are in phase two of our reorganization initiative and the staff who will be affected have been heavily involved in determining what their final organizational structure will be. During this process the Office of Records Services--Washington, DC formed several study groups to determine how we could best meet customer needs in a life-cycle organization. The final report of the structure group is due soon. Similarly, the Office of Regional Records Services is conducting pilots in the Southeast and Great Lakes regions to test organizational concepts that bring records center and regional archives functions under one management structure.

In addition, we're using Vision to help us with our requirements under GPRA. A working group of staff in coordination with the Leadership Team developed performance goals and indicators for our strategic plan as required by the law. We now have those on our Web site for public and staff comment. Those inputs will help us revise the plan before we submit it to the Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

Throughout the agency, I think we've also revived an interest in learning. More and more people are attending conferences like this one. The National Archives Assembly held a conference of its own this spring at Archives II. And the Office of Records Services--Washington, DC sponsored a series of seminars on electronic records based on a literature review of cutting edge theory and practice all over the world. I participated in those discussions, which were well-attended and really got people thinking. And we still use hexagons whenever we want to brainstorm ideas.

Perhaps one of the process changes with the most potential for significant results is our new policy on the reallocation of personnel resources. Previously, if a job was vacated, the manager could just backfill the position. Now all vacant positions go into a vacancy pool that is managed by the Leadership Team. Positions are filled based on their priority status. One of the goals of our strategic plan is to promote front-end records management. This policy allows us to incrementally reallocate personnel resources to the front end. This has resulted in the filling of new positions in critical areas and will have ramifications for some time to come.

Organizational change is never easy or fast. But if your institution is faced with compelling reasons to make changes -- budgets cuts, new external mandates, major technological changes, and increasing user demands, for example -- then you should be heartened by the fact that it can be done. It takes leadership, commitment, perseverance, and time. And it can be enhanced by innovative communication tools and methods, and the help of others who've already undergone the process. But ultimately it means taking a risk.

At NARA one of our values is risk-taking. We want to experiment, take chances, try new ways, learn from mistakes, and be open to change. Not every organization is comfortable taking risks, but if you're faced with compelling reasons to change, it's probably time to act. Change can overwhelm an institution or open its eyes to new opportunities. We can withdraw within boundaries, or find ways out of the boxes that inhibit us. And at NARA, we're not just changing to solve problems; we're changing to create possibilities, and to prosper as we never have before.

Thank you very much. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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