This article describes the culture at Simula; not necessarily as it actually is, but how we would like it to be. It is an attempt to set out some of Simula's defining characteristics. Describing what is meant by a company culture is no easy task. What are the key characteristics of Simula? What is it that sets us apart? What does a good work atmosphere mean, and how should things be done here to achieve that? An overall, abstract description of workplace culture is likely to be difficult to understand and to relate to daily work, and will also probably be rather similar from one company to the next. That is why we give concrete examples here to make this all more tangible. These examples are not more important than other aspects of the work environment we could have chosen, but have been used merely to make this easy to understand and easier to relate to.
The work of creating a Simula culture involves developing a research laboratory in which a strong focus on high-calibre research is key. Simula will only be successful if its employees are successful. Developing a Simula culture is about creating a work environment where people are happy and feel they are able to do a good job. It is about establishing ground rules for how we act in the research community and interact with society in general, and it is about working to ensure that the name Simula is synonymous with quality, honesty and efficiency.
It is important that we all share the same ideas about what sort of culture we want to have, what the culture means and how it can be sustained in the future. Members of staff who have been at Simula for a number of years, some even since its establishment in 2001, will recognise the ideas in the article and hopefully find that the descriptions comply with their own experience. However, Simula has grown and is still growing, and the number of employees is rising. For us, it is paramount that all newcomers, and especially research fellows who are in temporary positions, get the feel of how we relate to each other, our tasks and the world around us. By reading and relating to this article, we hope all employees will understand and find guidance as to how things are done at Simula. For other readers, we hope the article can provide ideas for improvements or at least be a source of thought and discussion about how to organise and run a research lab.
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The Simula model
Before we describe the Simula culture, it may be useful to go over the main features of the Simula model (this description of the Simula model was originally written for the Annual Report 2008).
How did it all begin?
We were assigned a task and receive State funding to fulfil that task. The task Simula has been set is to carry out research of a high international calibre, to educate students at MSc and PhD level in collaboration with Norwegian universities, and to set up business activities based on the work done at the centre. Simula's research activities fall within three subject areas: networks and distributed systems, scientific computing and software engineering. These are also the three subject areas in which we help to educate students.
The area of ambitions equals the width multiplied by the height. All else being equal, the area of ambitions is constant; we may have broad ambitions that are not particularly high, or we may have narrow ambitions that are extremely high, but we must never believe that we can have high ambitions across a wide range of fields. In this respect, Simula has made its choice: we will have high ambitions in a few select fields. That is why the three subject areas we have chosen will remain constant, and we will not spread ourselves too thinly even within these fields. All our research efforts will be devoted to these few carefully chosen areas. But in these areas we will make every effort to succeed. We will participate at the international elite level; we will be invited to speak at professional events; we will be sought-after partners; we will be a natural destination for visiting researchers the world over; we will educate good PhD students; we will be attractive partners for Norwegian industry, and we will develop companies based on our research in these areas. If we are to achieve all of this, we must concentrate our efforts and resources.
The full-time researcher
Wherever researchers meet and discuss their work situations there is one issue that comes up time and time again; researchers find that they simply do not have enough time to devote to research itself. There are a number of reasons for this; they have to apply for research funding to secure the resources needed to run their research groups, they have to teach, they have to serve on committees, they have to mark papers and theses, and they have to support the work of the research councils. A lot of experienced researchers find that their entire working days are spent on activities that are related to research, but that are not research itself.
At Simula, we will make every effort to shield skilled researchers from other duties. We will work hard to revive the concept of the full-time researcher. This is an ambition that is extremely difficult to achieve. We cannot redesign the realities of research policy. All over the world, researchers have always had to work to secure research funding. However, it is widely believed that all these research-related activities are taking up too much time and getting far too much attention. At Simula, we will work constantly and deliberately to reduce the administrative burdens placed on researchers. We want ours to be an efficient organisation. We will not be overly bureaucratic. We will give rapid, clear answers. We will have short meetings. We will have few committees and those that we have will be small. We will not write reports that no one will read. We will not ask for information no one needs. We will know what we want and what our aims are, and we will work with determination to reach those goals. In everything we do, we will be conscious of the fact that it is the scientific staff that is our productive force. They are the ones who produce the results that are the lifeblood of Simula. They are the justification for our existence. That is why we will all strive to ensure the best possible conditions for them to work under.
A large proportion of our researchers are research fellows. Both doctoral and postdoctoral research fellows are employed by Simula. Research fellows are an essential research resource and should be integrated as well as possible into the planning and execution of projects. As far as possible, they should participate on an equal footing throughout the whole research process. Just as a lack of time to conduct research is a recurring topic in discussions among many experienced researchers, the absence of genuine academic supervision is a recurring theme in discussions among research fellows. Research fellows need to receive in-depth feedback on what they are doing. It is both frustrating and inefficient for research fellows to be left to their own devices without feedback about their work. At Simula, supervisors will be accessible to their research fellows electronically, physically and, not least, as mentors. Supervisors must ensure that the research fellows' projects are central to their own research so that supervision is not seen as an extra, that comes in addition to research. As far as possible, supervision should be research.
IT Operations and administration
Excellent research needs excellent support. It is the responsibility of the IT Operations to ensure that the IT infrastructure supports the research activities as effectively as possible. Operational decisions should always be taken with a view to finding solutions that enhance the focus on research. Solutions that make great demands on researchers' time should be avoided as far as possible. We need to use solutions that are stable and that keep operating problems to a minimum. We will try to avoid exposing researchers to unstable solutions from second-rate providers. In this context, quality and stability are, within reason, more important than price. Today, researchers are more or less unable to do anything useful if their PCs are not working. Reliable back-up solutions to all common problems must be available at all times (PCs are stolen, they break down, they are left at airports; mobile phones are also lost and - believe it or not - flushed down the toilet in airplanes. Our IT support staff has to be able to come up with back-up solutions at short notice).
The Simula administration provides support for the researchers at the centre and it is this support function that should inform any decisions that are taken. It is the task of the administration to ensure that the research can be carried out under optimal conditions. Procedures should be kept simple, and efforts should be made not to waste other peoples' time unnecessarily. All employees must be aware of and must respect the relevant procedures. The Intranet is an important source of information and must be used actively.
Simula is a limited company. The Board of Directors employs a managing director. He or she takes on leaders responsible for Simula's activities. There are no elected positions at any level at Simula. In this respect, Simula differs from universities as we know them today.
The management group of Simula, heads of the departments and directors of the subsidiaries, should always bear in mind that Simula employs extremely well-educated and highly gifted individuals. Strategic issues should be discussed throughout the organisation and any employee who wishes to should have the opportunity to express his or her opinions at all levels. All leaders should be highly accessible and open to discussion about everything that goes on at the centre. All leaders should encourage employees to express their opinions and be prepared to discuss them thoroughly, so that all aspects of an issue are considered before a final decision is made by a leader.
This mode of operation presents great challenges to all leaders at Simula, and it is now fully acknowledged that we have to invest much more in the process of educating our leaders. From 2009, Simula will have its own programme for research leaders.
Directed basic research
At Simula everybody works on research projects that involve other people. The research addresses fundamental problems of an applied nature. The research activities are managed along the same lines as the centre itself. In carrying out the research, it is especially important that all the researchers take part continuously in discussions about how the research should proceed. But here too, decisions are ultimately taken by a leader, who will be accountable for his or her decision. Within the parameters that are set and the research projects that are defined, Simula will strive to ensure that each individual researcher has the freedom to work in the most effective way possible.
Freedom for individual researchers to pursue their own ideas is a key feature of Norwegian universities. There is less freedom to do that at Simula. Everyone has the opportunity to take part fully in discussions about the choice of strategy, working methods and research tasks. However, once those decisions are made, everyone must work to achieve the targets set for the research group. The researchers will have the greatest possible freedom to make their own choices within the parameters set, but they cannot choose their own areas of research independent of the constraints chosen for the project as a whole. In other words, the freedom of individual researchers at Simula is limited compared with similar positions at universities.
At Simula we carry out directed basic research. We set targets for our activities and then work hard to achieve them. This places restrictions on the freedom of the individual. However, the freedom of a group is considerable, the freedom of a department is even greater and the freedom enjoyed by Simula is extremely large. But, we must have a common understanding of what we are trying to achieve, the problems we intend to solve and how we intend to solve them.
Although the freedom of individual researchers to pursue their own ideas at Simula is restricted, Simula is an organisation characterised by openness and intense debates. Traditional academic ideals regarding free debate and vigorous discussion are a key part of the Simula culture.
Freedom, responsibility and initiative
At Simula, freedom divided by responsibility is constant. A large amount of freedom carries with it a large amount of responsibility. All the researchers and all the research groups have considerable freedom, but this freedom is accompanied by responsibility; the responsibility to conduct valuable research and deliver valuable results, and to carry out that research in accordance with the Simula culture. Simula will welcome good initiatives, but they need to be followed up and developed. At Simula, employees must be able to support their ideas and be prepared to work hard to put into place any necessary measures.
Simula aims to publish its scientific results in the leading professional journals, in books and/or in good conference proceedings. The research will be focused on issues that are important and relevant. It will not be focused on the most publishable issues. Researchers at Simula will publish when an important problem has been solved or new insight has been gained, and will not publish their findings simply to boost the number of publications. Important publications will be given clear priority over less significant observations. At international gatherings of researchers, our researchers will take the floor when they have something new to tell the research community.
Publishing research findings is vital for researchers trying to establish their careers. Our record of publications is used when we apply for new positions, when we apply for professorships, for funding from the Research Council of Norway, etc. So it is natural that younger researchers are very keen to publish their work as often as possible. Also, learning to write scholarly articles is an important part of a PhD. Younger researchers need to learn to write articles even when the results are not ground-breaking. Simula accepts that this as an essential part of career development for individual researchers. We also accept that evaluations of Simula will, to some extent, be based on the number of publications we produce. But we will not lose sight of our ideal; to provide new insight into important issues of value to others.
Quality will be paramount at Simula. Quality should be all-important in everything we do, everything we deliver, in our whole working day. This means that:
Simula makes its living from the truth. Our job is to uncover connections and convey them to other scientists and to the public at large. In all research communities, this calls for reliability and honesty. Simula will go further than this. Integrity will be paramount in everything we do. We will act fairly towards students, partners, vendors, the authorities, the media and each other. We will give praise and recognition based on merit and not on position. Whenever the Simula name is used, the information given should be reliable and accurate. Our web pages will include up-to-date, accurate information. Our annual reports will be accurate. Our surveys of publications, patents, enterprises, etc. will be truthful and always completely verifiable. Simula will never tweak numbers or reports to make them look better than they really are; nor will Simula ever present its research as better, or more important, than it really is.
Simula's reputation depends on its credibility with the Norwegian IT industry, the authorities and other partners. Credibility demands that we behave professionally with regard to agreements and deliveries; we anonymise results from industrial studies, unless otherwise agreed; we demonstrate considerable caution in what we say and write about our partners in presentations and at meetings; and we maintain a continuous focus on good research ethics in our studies.
Simula should be an efficient organisation. All queries directed to Simula should receive a response within one working day. Naturally, it will sometimes be necessary to reply that a full answer may take time, but where appropriate, queries to a Simula employee should receive a response within one working day.
At Simula, it is assumed that departments, research groups, subsidiaries and the individual employees will work in accordance with the plans that are drawn up. To carry out this work, the department, research group, subsidiaries and individual employee will have as much freedom and as much responsibility as possible. The aim is to promote efficiency. Decisions are not to be left hanging. Any employee can bypass his or her immediate manager and go to the next level of authority if the manager in question fails to make a decision within a reasonable length of time. However, this should not be done lightly and should only be done in cases where an employee finds that his or her immediate manager is too slow, or where his or her decision is obviously inappropriate or motivated by personal interests.
The Government pays our salaries because it believes that research is valuable. Our work is valuable because it enhances insight into complex problems, contributes to the education of qualified people and leads to new solutions. However, research is also important because researchers share their findings with society through the media, either through their own contributions or through interviews. For that reason it is important that researchers at Simula make themselves available to the media when appropriate, and that researchers contact the media when they have significant scientific findings to communicate. As mentioned above, all Simula employees are free to express their opinions in the media. However, when doing so, Simula employees should be clear about whether they are giving an opinion as a Simula employee or as a private individual. When making a statement as a Simula employee, it is important to be aware that Simula's reputation is at stake. Careless work and inaccuracy must be avoided. Furthermore, employees of Simula should be careful not to come across as experts on a topic they are not actually researching themselves. In cases concerning Simula as an institution, only the Managing Director will respond to questions from the media.
All PhD and postdoctoral positions at Simula are announced internationally. To a large extent Simula recruits employees, both from international and national academic environments, through headhunting. At Simula we will do our best to make sure that everyone finds their way around when they are new to the country or the area, both in the workplace and socially. We will make sure that new colleagues are introduced to the workplace. Colleagues within the departments and groups should also make an effort to show newcomers around and help them get started with the process of finding friends and a place to live, and cope with the practical issues associated with relocation. In 2008, a survey was conducted for the purpose of assessing whether employees from abroad were properly welcomed. The survey showed that, in general, our policy is working well, but there are still some specific areas where there is scope for improvement.
Equality and diversity
Simula should be a good place to work. It should be a place where all employees feel that their jobs are important, where they understand why they do their jobs and why their jobs are important for Simula. At Simula there is no room for condescending attitudes to colleagues or to other vocational groups. Embracing diversity enhances an organisation's range of experience, ideas and creativity. Simula will encourage all employees to recognise and respect the diversity of their colleagues in terms of gender, age, sexual orientation or national origin. All employees and all students are important and will, without exception, be treated as such.
Simula should be a good place to work when everything is going well; it should be a place where employees are able to realise their ambitions. But Simula should also be a good place to work when things are not going so well, whether on the professional or the personal front. Consideration for colleagues and recognition that all employees are individuals with individual needs should be dominant features of the work environment. Whether an employee has just had a baby or is ready to retire, Simula should be a good place to work, just as it should be for a 30-year-old researcher hungry to conquer the world of science. Simula will work to create a work environment where people are happy and one that is stimulating and creative. However, such a working environment does not develop by itself. Everyone at Simula should feel a sense of shared responsibility for creating a good working environment. Employees at Simula should appreciate each other's efforts across disciplinary divides. Everyone must accept and respect the fact that Simula will thrive when everyone thrives, and for that to happen, everyone must feel that their efforts are valued by the lab as a whole.
1 In OECD terms, our research can be classified either as oriented basic research, which is defined to be search carried out with the expectation that it will produce a broad base of knowledge likely to form the background to the solution of recognised or expected current or future problems or possibilities, or as applied research, which is defined to be an original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective (see http://stats.oecd.org/glossary. )