Zoo lessons

Thomas R. Temin

Shortly after Thanksgiving, an Asian elephant at the National Zoo in Washington gave birth. The calf weighed 325 pounds and looked tiny next to its mother. Yet when looking at the mother elephant, I still found it astonishing she could deliver a living being weighing so much.

For many reasons, breeding elephants in captivity is extremely difficult. Bulls are rare and dangerous to handle. Perhaps they are shy. But unless zoos breed elephants, eventually there will be no more of them in zoos.

Zoo management might have lamented the lack of an amorous culture in their elephant pens. Instead they painstakingly applied a variety of animal husbandry arts and sciences to get the job done.

Maybe this is a bit of leap, but it reminds me of federal e-government and systems modernization efforts: a durable behemoth laboring mightily to produce small but profound results. Small at first, perhaps, but if nurtured properly, those results can grow.

E-government's slow progress has been often attributed to the inability of agencies to change their culture, a word often left undefined. But I wonder, does changing culture produce results or, in fact, is it the other way around?

Culture, as describing how an organization behaves, is a nebulous word, an indistinct quality. Being hard to nail down, it's also hard to change. That makes it an easy thing to blame for lack of progress on tangibles, such as updating system X to do functions 1, 2 and 3 in compliance with regulations a, b and c, all with a known amount of money and time.

Blaming culture absolves top management from its responsibility for leading change. To get results, you've got to know what you want, make sure everybody understands, pay attention throughout the process and, finally, reward those who get the job done. The smart people will assume leadership roles on their own, magnifying the forces for progress. It's hardly rocket science.

In short, blaming the culture distracts management into trying to treat a symptom instead of a cause. This year, resolve to create baby elephants.

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