Michigan Engineering News

Culture is key

Why Michigan Engineering is focusing on getting it right.

Image of Tim Bruns and his students observing the buccal mass of a sea slug moving
Tim Bruns, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Michigan Engineering and his students observe the buccal mass of an aplysia Californica (sea slug) moving. Photo by Photo by Marcin Szczepanski

When it comes to the most important aspects of a successful engineering school, the culture may not be the first to come to mind. Yet Michigan Engineering is making it a major focus.

From early in the strategic planning process, College leaders knew it would benefit the organization if there was a shared sense of purpose and action, backed by behaviors that reflected its values.

“When we outlined the vision, mission and values for the College, we did so with the knowledge that nothing was broken, but that there was an opportunity to be intentional about who we already are, and what our legacy will be,” said Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “The results were a reflection of our community, which is why it has resonated so strongly with our students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

This laid the groundwork for the Michigan Engineering 2020 Strategic Plan, in which “culture” is one of the three pillars of focus, alongside “research” and “education.” The work within that pillar emphasizes the College’s values, and how those impact the achievement of its goals.

“The values directly support our vision of being the preeminent college of engineering serving the common good,” said Gallimore, who is also the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of aerospace engineering. “To be preeminent, you must lead, and in order to lead, you must be willing to take risks and be creative, transparent and collaborative. In other words, to achieve our vision, we must live our values.”

To be preeminent, you must lead, and in order to lead, you must be willing to take risks and be creative, transparent and collaborative. In other words, to achieve our vision, we must live our values.

Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering

“In an organization as complex and large as ours, if we really want to accomplish new things and stay true to our mission, then we have to make sure our core values are imbued in our culture,” said Michael Wellman, the Lynn A. Conway Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, associate dean for academic affairs and co-leader of the culture pillar. “We need to make sure our actual day-to-day practice is consistent with and supports our values.”

The College tapped faculty and staff leadership for input. It also worked with its Leadership Advisory Board (LAB), a group of academic, corporate and government leaders, to draw from their experiences.

“For things to be sustainable, and culture is a sustainable advantage, it is important for an organization to ask, ‘Are we still where we need to be?’” said Crystal Ashby (BA LSA ’83), a seasoned executive, lawyer and a member of the LAB. “While something may not be broken, it can always be improved upon. You might affirm, ‘Yes, that is who we still are’ or find that new innovations and different perspectives should be considered.”

As a large enterprise, Michigan Engineering needs to continually reinforce the shared understanding about the fundamentals.

“Culture is both ‘foundational’ and a ‘pillar,’” said Ashby. “It’s foundational because its strength is a key component of the College’s brand and underpins everything that gets done. But if you don’t constantly cultivate it, it won’t stay at the forefront of the way you respect, engage, interact with and treat each other both internally and externally.”

The LAB has helped the planners think holistically about how communications, rituals and career development paths reflect and reinforce an organization’s values. The College has come to understand that culture must permeate all aspects of an organization’s processes. It is a natural fit with strategy, according to Deborah Mero, executive director of resource planning and management at the College and co-leader of the culture pillar. In fact, it’s essential.

“You can’t have one without the other,” Mero said.