|Inside windowless brick buildings sequestered in a high-security compound in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency carries out a mission that, although seemingly mundane, is vital to national security: it creates maps. Not just ordinary maps. The organization’s 8,000-member workforce of scientists, engineers, and technicians peruse a mountain of data—photographs from spy satellites and aircraft, intelligence reports, and other sources—and boil it down to create up-to-date digitized maps for the U.S. military, the CIA, and the highest-level policymakers.
NIMA’s photographic and data-analysis expertise creates what an agency official once described as a “God’s-eye view” of the world as events unfold. Much of that work is a closely guarded secret, but in recent years, the agency has conducted other projects, ranging from tracing the spread of oil from a leaking tanker off the Galapagos Islands to helping NASA search the surface of Mars for a lost space probe. In the 1990s, the agency’s maps guided air strikes against Iraq and Serbia. More recently, it assisted U.S. pilots in their attack on Al-Qaeda lairs in Afghanistan. NIMA also helped to protect the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City against terrorist attacks by producing satellite-photo maps of the stadium site. Security officials used the information to plan street closings and secure travel routes.
To create an agency capable of performing such sensitive duties, Congress in 1996 merged five entire separate intelligence agencies and pieces of four others. As complex and technically demanding as the new agency’s mission was, from an HR standpoint the more daunting challenge was bringing together formerly independent organizations with diverse management styles, personnel practices, and types of employees. The task was to find a way to fashion a system that allowed all of the disparate parts to work together as one smooth-running machine.
The HR team had to convince the managers and staff members to accept the new work culture, even though it meant adjusting to new practices. And because the work assigned to NIMA might shift abruptly in an international crisis, the new HR system had to be flexible enough to provide employees with services and support to cope with the unexpected.
In 1998, after nearly two years of development, HR leaders began implementing a revolutionary new system. They scrapped traditional government-style longevity pay, replaced it with a performance-pay plan, and introduced an evaluation system that shifted emphasis from an employee’s job description to the person’s role in achieving strategic missions. They developed new tools to analyze and classify the workforce, enabling NIMA to shift its skill base toward performance of core tasks and away from support functions that could be more cost-effectively outsourced. Just as important, HR figured out how to get the agency’s diverse management and workforce to embrace the new system, in large part by inviting the stakeholders to participate in its design and advise on how to fix its imperfections.
The results have been impressive. Last year, an outside review board appointed by Congress gave NIMA’s new HR system a glowing review. The system, the report states, “moves away from what some have considered the overly paternal civil-service model, and toward heightened individual accountability for one’s performance and one’s career development.” The National Academy of Public Administration, another independent evaluator, cited NIMA’s system as a “best practice” for other agencies to emulate. And the system has had a tangible impact on the organization’s ability to perform sensitive missions.
Its adroit analysis of occupational needs has enabled the agency to reduce its support staff from 43 percent of the workforce in 1998 to 38 percent today, with a corresponding increase in the number of staffers in core occupations. And after the September 11 attacks, the system’s flexibility allowed NIMA to quickly reorganize and shift resources to fight the new war on terrorism.
For these achievements, NIMA receives the Workforce Optimas Award for managing change.
Integrating a diverse workforce by creating a new system
Eventually it dawned on the HR team that the stalemate actually presented a novel opportunity to fashion a totally new system. Toward that end, the HR team had one extremely useful advantage. Congress recognized the difficulty of creating a new intelligence agency from military and non-military components, and had exempted NIMA from many of the rules that generally govern hiring, pay, promotion, and other HR practices at federal agencies.
“We had this enormous flexibility,” Brunger says. “If we wanted, we could create something specially suited to our mission, without worrying about the usual constraints.” Rather than rush to cobble together a new system, HR convinced NIMA’s management to temporarily adopt the HR practices of the Defense Mapping Agency, the largest piece of the new agency, while a new plan was being developed. Then Brunger and her colleagues went to work. It was a process that would take most of the next two years.
Since intra-agency politics preclude simply modeling the practices of NIMA’s predecessor agencies, the HR team amassed information and ideas from a variety of sources. An outside contractor was hired to do a study benchmarking best HR practices in a variety of federal and state agencies. In addition, HR conducted focus interviews with NIMA’s new employees to get a better feel for their backgrounds and needs. Finally, HR established a project steering team, composed of 20 employees from various parts of the new agency.
“We took them off-site several times, for a total of five days, so we could get a more free-ranging discussion going,” Brunger says. “We gave them the material from the research about what other organizations were doing, and the [internal] interviews, and just hashed it all over. What did they want from an HR system? What sort of environment did we need to create, to succeed at the agency’s mission?”
Gradually, that process came up with a set of values that were considered an essential part of NIMA’s work culture. For one thing, the organization had to be nimble. It had to mobilize its talent and form teams quickly to be able to deal with unexpected situations overseas, and then just as deftly move people back into other post-crisis roles. At the same time, in order for the new organization to achieve cohesiveness, it had to be fair and consistent in pay and promotions for employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills. And since the nation depended on it to be a high-performing organization, NIMA had to develop a system that promoted both excellence and continual acquisition of new skills.
One critical building block would be a performance-based pay system, the HR team decided. In an environment accustomed to pay based on seniority and job rank, that innovation presented a tricky problem. Budgetary constraints made it even tougher. “We looked at other agencies that had experimented with performance pay, and their costs went way up,” Brunger says. “We couldn’t afford to have that happen.”
To control expenses, HR came up with an ingenious solution. NIMA replaced the government’s standard 15-grade system with just five broad grades for base salary. Longevity was completely eliminated. Additionally, HR grouped employees into pay pools. The managers who supervised employees in each pool were given money that they could distribute among employees according to performance and the value of their contribution to the agency’s missions. “The manager has only so much of a performance allocation, so if employee A gets a certain amount, someone else has to get less,” Brunger says. HR created a standardized spreadsheet to help managers calculate the distribution and ensure that it accurately reflected the performance and mission-value criteria.
The agency developed a similar mission-oriented approach to recruiting, training, and promotions. The first step was to come up with a tool for understanding the work that NIMA had to perform to achieve its missions. HR studied its workforce and missions, and then developed a new occupational structure in which more than 600 position titles were consolidated into 24 basic occupations.
From there, it identified the tasks that each occupation performed and what skills and knowledge were required. For each occupation, HR set up an occupation council, composed of experienced workers in that field, so that it could continue to gather information and keep skill levels and staffing relevant to NIMA’s present and future needs. HR uses that input, along with analysis of the agency’s strategic goals, to create an annual plan for workforce development, including the number of promotions needed.
To actually determine who is promoted, HR doesn’t use the typical ranking-by-position system often used in government. Instead of simply moving employees up through a hierarchy of positions, HR set up boards that evaluated how well an employee’s particular skill sets and performance in achieving missions fit the agency’s needs for a particular higher position. To encourage employees to develop in a way that would advance both their careers and the agency’s missions, HR had the occupation councils develop guides that sketch out possible career paths within NIMA and what sort of skill acquisition and performance might be needed to pursue them.
The intensive analysis of the workforce also helped HR to make the agency leaner and more efficient. By identifying precisely which skills were needed to achieve the agency’s missions, HR conversely was able to identify which positions or skills provided support.
Giving the workforce a role in creating the system
HR decided that the best way to get employees to buy into the new system was to give them a role in creating it. The 20-person council that provided initial advice was just a start. Once the parts of its plan started to take shape, HR recruited 100 additional managers and staffers to participate in eight design teams, charged with developing details of the new HR policies. As each piece of the policy was rolled out, HR recruited still more employees to participate in implementation teams that monitored the success of the policy and further refined it if necessary.
Each of these teams included an HR professional, but that representative was supposed to remain in the background as much as possible. “We wanted people to feel that they, not HR, owned the new culture,” Brunger says. “We even made a joke of it, saying things like ‘HR is too important to leave up to the office of human resources.’ We wanted people to feel accountability at all levels of the organization.”
Edward J. Obloy, director of the agency’s Office of General Counsel, was one of those who participated in the process. “I told people, ‘Remember all the things you used to complain about?’ Now you have the opportunity to fix all of that. We don’t have any constraints here. Let’s create a better place to work.’ ”
To give more weight to workforce input, HR deployed the various parts of the program gradually. “We decided that we were going to build pieces, test them, implement them, and then step back again and evaluate how well they were working,” says HR program manager Jeri Buchholz. “We weren’t going to wait until something was perfect before we deployed it. But by the same token, we were prepared to adjust things to fit what people told us they needed.”
Flexibility to cope with global crises
Under Clapper’s direction, NIMA began to reorganize its talent around the new needs of its intelligence agency and military customers, rather than production of its existing line of map products. For HR, that meant further tinkering with its occupational classifications and skill requirements. “One thing that’s good about our new system is that it allows us to do that,” Brunger says. “We can create a new occupation without struggling to fit it into an OPM [federal Office of Personnel Management] classification.”
Despite the new Afghanistan-related workload, NIMA’s system proved to be resilient in the face of a crisis, and the agency’s managers were able to complete their performance evaluations by the end of December, on schedule. “It would have been easy for them to say, ‘I don’t have time to do this,’ since they already were working around the clock,” Brunger says. “But nobody did. We didn’t get any complaints. I think that shows that people really believe that the HR system works, and is important to them.”
Workforce, August 2002, pp. 46-52 -- Subscribe Now!
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