"Developing Collaborative Cultures at Penn State"

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January 2002

The Quality Advocates’ Network met on Friday, January 18, 2002 to share ideas about developing collaborative cultures at Penn State. Blannie Bowen, Professor & Head, Department of Agricultural & Extension Education, and Patricia Irwin, Manager, Quality Improvement/Risk Management, Penn State University Health Services, opened the session by sharing information on how they have fostered collaboration in their units. Several common themes arose from their examples and the ensuing discussion.

Treat everyone with fairness and equity. Both Bowen and Irwin mentioned the importance of respecting people for what they do, and reinforced the fact that everyone contributes to the department’s goals in different ways. Perceived status differences are often an issue, but treating everyone with fairness and equity can help to minimize problems that may otherwise arise because of differences in education, role, or socioeconomic status. Both Bowen and Irwin stressed the importance of encouraging professional development as a tool for empowering people. Bowen’s college has allocated an amount equal to 1.5% of salaries to professional development. Irwin’s department is working with mid-managers and staff on the issue of empowerment, to ensure their buy-in. Annual evaluations include an assessment of fairness and equity issues.

Remember that we are all one team. Everybody wants to be on a winning team. Bowen states that baseball teams are a useful analogy since everyone goes to bat on a baseball team. We are all a team with the same goal and focus, reinforced in different ways. We are all at the same level in terms of the outcome, even though we’re not at the same level organizationally. There will be disagreements, but Bowen believes that it’s helpful to remember that we still have to “be a family” by collaborating and being civilized towards one another.

Set the tone. Bowen and Irwin both emphasized that expectations set by leaders must be stated and reinforced through follow-up within groups and across groups. Leaders should be approachable and act that way with a friendly “walk around management style”. It can be a challenge to get people to understand that it’s in their best interests to collaborate. Non face-to-face communication such as email can also create challenges. Bowen uses email as a summary device, with important conversations taking place in person. He helps set a friendly tone by encouraging everyone in the department to be on a first name basis with one another.

Manage through values. Irwin recommends using your department’s vision statement as the basis for the identification of core values, and then making sure that everyone understands they are empowered to go to people directly if they have a values conflict. University Health Services will be providing training in conflict resolution and mediation to support this action. The core values they have identified are integrity, excellence, civility, and responsiveness. They find that using core values as a guide can enhance the quality of decision-making.

Provide delicious opportunities for participation. Both Bowen and Irwin agreed with the importance of taking people out of the work environment periodically for a retreat. They recommend getting all relevant parties together, and Irwin emphasizes that mixing people’s table assignments can help to break down barriers. Bowen notes that food should be included, to create “delicious opportunities” for participation.

In summary, both departments have good examples of fostering collaboration. They have used somewhat different approaches to achieve the same end, since they’ve chosen tools and strategies that fit their particular departmental cultures. Many of us may feel that we are on our way to creating a more collaborative department, but that there is always room for improvement. Why not start by bringing the people in your department together to discuss some of the ideas in use within University Health Services and the Department of Agricultural & Extension Education?

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.