Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Kenyan Institutions Can Learn From the Van Andel Institute!

The Van Andel Research Institute - Organizational Analysis

The Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) has a strong corporate culture that is seen in all levels of culture: artifacts, values and basic assumptions. VARI has both visible manifestations of its culture as well as strong currents beneath the surface. At first glance it is clear that culture of VARI places a very high importance on the outside perception of others. Additionally, there is a culture of collaboration although this is clearer at the artifact level than throughout the organization. The personal beliefs and values of the scientists also provide a strong sense of individual achievement and a culture of autonomy amongst the scientists.


Artifacts, or observable symbols, architecture, behaviors and slogans are apparent at VARI from the moment an individual approaches the building. The building architecture was designed to give the impression of a high tech, cutting edge facility, a notch above others. The building fa├žade provides an impressive image along the Grand Rapids Medical Mile. By breaking away from a traditional square building, VARI sets itself apart from others and creates a culture of elitism. This supports the culture at VARI that the scientists are world-class and utilize the most recent and newest technologies in support of the mission of improving human health. The culture of VARI is one of sending a strong image into the community of cutting edge science and high tech experiments – the building clearly shows this.

In addition to the interesting building structure, upon entering the lobby of VARI an individual is greeted with a large expansive space and a hanging exhibit by Dale Chihuly. The exhibit and the large space again support the culture of being an exclusive group and successful institution. The front lobby area has an expensive look and feel which furthers the culture of elitism.

In addition to the building and lobby area the culture of being an advanced science facility and again, separate from the other entities on the Medical Mile is exhibited through the number of security checkpoints in the building – even to enter the office space and elevators security badges are needed. The front desk is staffed by security rather than a receptionist. Theses artifacts support the notion that Van Andel Research Institute is a step above the others and also that is highly values that others have that perception as well.

Values are the levels of a corporate culture that are shared by members. They are the underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and feelings that members of a group have. At VARI the values of the staff are diverse due to the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds but they area few values that are shared by all. The main value shared by all employees at VARI is the strong desire to improve human health and advance scientific research. This is a value that is held by scientists and administration. This is a value that began with the founding of the Institute and the formation of the endowment to further life sciences. It is the strong value of Dave Van Andel and of the found Jay Van Andel to improve human health. The nature of the work at VARI – medical research – is evidence of the value. Scientists are very focused around their specific areas of expertise all with the same goal. The publications and discoveries scientists produce are artifacts that exhibit this value.

However, although all scientists and employees have the same value of improving human health and clearly exhibit that in their work there is also a value of personal success. Scientists are recognized and awarded based on individual achievements – not over VARI success. The more publications, grants and funding as well as internationally recognized discoveries the more successful the scientist. This value of individual success is reflected in the lack of interdependence and lack of group efforts between the 18 individual labs. The scientists work independently from one another and are more likely to collaborate with an outside partner that with another scientist in the Institute. While artifacts such as press releases and joint authorship on articles gives an impression of collaboration the underlying value is still to build individual credit and esteem.

Basic Assumptions
Basic assumptions are the underlying beliefs that individuals have – and may not even realize – yet they can greatly influence the culture of an organization. At VARI there are basic assumptions that are illustrated in the demographics of the employees. The management of VARI is dominated by white males; additionally the majority of the PIs are male as well. Whether or not this was a purposeful decision it is still an underlying aspect of the culture at VARI. Additionally, VARI has conservative values at its core from the Van Andel family. While it is harder to see the basic assumptions in artifacts and actions the support of Senator McCain and opposition to embryonic stem cell research by the majority of leadership are two recent examples of the conservative nature of the organization.

Mechanistic vs. Organic Structures

The Van Andel Research Institute operates primarily in an organic structure. The administrative group operates in a more mechanistic way but also works on changing project teams and on task-adjusted working groups and teams which is characteristic of an organic structure. In an organic structure employees contribute to a common task of a department and work on task adjusted projects through team work. Additionally there is less hierarchy of authority, less control and fewer rules. Finally knowledge and control of tasks is distributed throughout the organization and communication is horizontal. These are all characteristics of VARI.

Scientific labs each have a Principle Investigator however the scientists collaborate within the lab planning their own experiments and making adjustments based on continual findings. For example, if an assay produces an unexpected result the scientists work as a team to determine what happened and plan subsequent experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses. This highlights the distributed control of tasks and horizontal communication that is key to an organic structure. Additionally, due to the exploratory nature of the work there are very few rules implemented through vertical communication. While the scientists are required to act in fiscally responsible ways they have flexibility in spending lab budgets, are able to design experiments as they see fit rather than following strict rules and may publish or collaborate with any partners or publications. As previously mentioned, the administrative side is slightly more mechanistic and has rules with regard to accounting and information technology procedures but employees still have discretion in activities and are encouraged to join project teams and help where their skills can be best utilized even if outside the department. This encouragement of cross-function collaboration and task adjusted work adds to an organic feel.

Organic structures work best in uncertain and complex environments. The area or scientific discovery and research is highly uncertain and complex – new discoveries are being made daily that challenge conventional thought and require adjustments to research efforts. The uncertainty in the success of experiments and the low probability of success in research and drug development further the need for a structure based on teamwork.

From a structural design perspective, the Van Andel Research Institute operates in a cross between a divisional structure and a matrix structure – while still maintaining its organic nature. From the divisional perspective, each lab could be seen as a division operating independently from other laboratories. However, each lab does not have its own HR, accounting, purchasing and IT functions – these are centrally housed. With the core administrative services and core technology labs servicing multiple labs or projects a matrix structure could be applied. In the matrix structure each lab would be a product or project that utilizes the core services as needed. The matrix approach encourages innovation and creative thought but takes a significant amount of time to coordinate. As VARI is still a relatively new organization (only 10 years old) it will be interesting to observe changes in structural organization as the Institute grows and matures.

Technology, Differentiation, and Integration

Technology is much more than the computer and electronic technologies utilized in office and homes and it is also more than the scientific equipment used at the Van Andel Institute. Technology encompasses all the tools, techniques, machines, processes and actions used to transform inputs into outputs in a system. Looking at VARI technologies from multiple approaches will provide greater insight into the operations of VARI.

Joan Woodward classified technologies based on systems of production – small batch and unit production, large batch and mass production and continuous process production. Each method of production is a technology used to create a product. At VARI small batch and unit production is the technology used. Scientific experiments and trials are used to create output specific to customer specifications. Often the customer is the scientist seeking results but in some cases service work is done for pharmaceutical companies where each project is custom designed. A recent example is was a project for a major pharmaceutical company in which human lymphomas were implanted into mice in order to test an experimental new treatment. This highlights the customer specific nature of the projects. The scientific experiments are not mechanized and require highly skilled human workers to complete; additionally as previously mentioned there are few formalized rules or procedures and they operate in an organic manner.

A second aspect to analyze technologies from is from departmental technologies framework presented by Richard Daft and Norman Macintosh. Looking at the variety and analyzability of the tasks performed different technologies are needed. Analyzability refers to the extent in which a task can be reduced to predetermined steps and variety refers to the frequency of unexpected and novel events. The tasks at VARI have high variety and low analyzability. While the steps in a set process, centrifugation for example, are high analyzable the overall experiments are always different and changing due to the high variety and uncertainty of what the results will be. An interesting aspect of scientific research is that the results are not known prior to starting a task or activity – this is extremely high variety. These factors require nonroutine departmental technologies. The majority of the tasks at VARI fall into this category with the exception of the administrative support functions such as accounting, purchasing and contracts which are much more analyzable and have lower variety. The administrative functions require routine departmental technologies.

In looking at the relationship of department technology to structural and management characteristics, as expected, nonroutine departmental technologies are related to organic structures with low formalization, low centralization, an importance of training plus experience (at VARI PIs all have Ph.D.s and have completed post-doctoral fellowships to gain experience).

Differentiation and Integration

In order for the Van Andel Research Institute to have success individual laboratories and individual scientists need to have scientific discoveries that will lead to the award of federal funding or to revenues from outlicensing technologies to pharmaceutical, biotech, diagnostic or device organizations. To do this coordination and workflow interdependence is essential.

As discussed in an earlier analysis, VARI is increasing differentiation in job function with the addition of more specialized core services and the addition of new scientists. With this increased differentiation in job role integration through coordination is needed. The Van Andel Research Institute operates in a reciprocal interdependence model as described by Thompson. What makes VARI a reciprocal model rather than a sequential model is the mutual adjustments that are required throughout a research program. While there are sequential steps to follow each step creates an output that may require a change in course or the repeating of early steps. Additionally, this reciprocal coordination extends to the relationship the labs have with the administrative team. Depending upon discoveries or research needs continual adjustments to agreements and budgets are made. There are cross-functional teams made up of scientists within a lab and scientists from core labs and potential individuals from the external environment as well – these complex relationships require face-to-face communications often through unscheduled meetings and a focus on integrating the pieces. An example of a reciprocal interdependence is in VARI’s relationship with Spectrum Health. At any given time multiple projects are occurring with many individuals – recently a new protocol was initiated to obtain tumor samples from surgical patients – as patients entered surgery a team was called together to properly obtain and transport the sample and then scientific experiments began and were continually adjusted with input from both researchers and physicians.

In addition to the coordination and workflow interdependence, VARI also should consider the sociotechnical system model to design for joint optimization. For the most success organizations need to combine the characteristics of the social system, analyzed in organizational behavior with the technical system seen through organizational design.

The writer is a graduate Management student in USA.

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