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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 71 · No. 4 > The Corporate Master Plan Shapes R&T Practice|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-08-002
The Corporate Master Plan Shapes R&T Practice
by Debra Elston and Ariam Asmerom
FHWA provides a progress report on implementation of this leadership and management framework for delivery of a multimillion-dollar research and technology program.
In 2003, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) adopted the Corporate Master Plan (CMP) for Research and Deployment of Technology & Innovation (FHWA-RD-03-077), accepting the challenge to raise the bar on research and technology (R&T). The CMP is a strategic management framework for improving the quality, timeliness, and cost efficiency of FHWA's R&T program. The plan is intended to set the course for future management and delivery of highway-related products that include processes, procedures, management, design, contracting, and funding; new materials and machinery; software; and other knowledge-based products.
The movement to substantively review and evaluate FHWA's R&T program grew from FHWA's 2002 restructuring assessment. It also was given impetus by recommendations found in the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) Special Report 261, The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology (Special Report 261), and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report 02-573 to Congress in May 2002, Highway Research: Systematic Selection and Evaluation Processes Needed for Research Program (GAO report).
FHWA conducted its restructuring assessment to review the agency's roles and responsibilities in the changing transportation environment. Of particular interest was how FHWA headquarters functions might complement a restructured field organization after eliminating all of its nine regional offices and establishing a Resource Center in four locations. The restructuring assessment focused on the need to continue to improve FHWA's successful lead role in R&T and identified the following opportunities for improvement:
Stakeholder views are critical to FHWA's evaluation and improvement of its research program. Such input was provided through Special Report 261. The purpose of this report was to examine the Federal role in the national highway R&T effort and to determine whether the focus and activities of the Federal program were appropriate for the overall highway system, stakeholder needs, and the roles and activities of other national highway R&T programs. Special Report 261 states that "the Federal role in highway R&T is vital to highway innovation." However, FHWA's R&T program "is missing an opportunity to address this critical Federal responsibility." To address this concern, RTCC recommended that the FHWA R&T program:
The GAO report reinforced several recommendations from the restructuring assessment and Special Report 261. Specifically, the GAO report recommended that FHWA adopt a systematic approach for obtaining input from external stakeholders and also "develop a systematic process for evaluating significant ongoing and completed research that incorporates peer review or other best practices in use at Federal agencies that conduct research."
Adopting the CMP in 2003 was the first step toward improving the FHWA R&T program, and implementation of the CMP began shortly thereafter. Four years later, in 2007, evidence suggests that the guiding principles and commitments established in the CMP are being used in the R&T program. Today, research at FHWA is not only aimed at doing the right things but doing the right things well.
"We have looked for and continue to search for opportunities to change the way we do business, to do a better job of providing service, and to better manage our programs," says Associate Administrator Dennis Judycki, head of FHWA's Office of Research, Development, and Technology and director of FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC). "Collectively, the FHWA R&T leadership team has been instrumental in making that happen, even as during this period FHWA addressed the challenge of a lack of flexibility in resources. The agency commitments in the Corporate Master Plan have guided our actions in raising the level of expectations and performance for the R&T program."
Built on Seven Guiding Principles
FHWA's mission is "to improve mobility on the Nation's highways through national leadership, innovation, and program delivery." The CMP defines FHWA's corporate strategy for investing in and conducting research that supports the agency's mission.
The CMP was developed with input from stakeholders representing local, State, and Federal transportation officials. This input revealed that in research programs the three keys for effective program management are (1) involving stakeholders throughout the R&T process, (2) using merit reviews of the research at key stages of its development, and (3) evaluating research and deployment on an ongoing basis. The CMP's seven guiding principles embody these elements and lay the foundation for a new and improved R&T program. (See "Guiding Principles of the Corporate Master Plan" on page 32.)
A number of activities such as lab assessments now are incorporated as state of the practice in R&T program management. One-time events, such as an open house for university researchers, also are commonplace and contribute to application of the guiding principles.
From a corporate perspective, a fundamental issue is how to know when FHWA's R&T program has achieved the desired results and raised the quality of R&T. The CMP workgroup identified several likely indicators as measures of success, and FHWA uses those indicators to gauge the program's achievements: (1) improved stakeholder trust and confidence, (2) better data availability as input to R&T investment decisions, (3) increased deployment and implementation of technologies and innovations, and (4) broader communication of the R&T vision and program.
A Life Cycle Approach—Guiding Principle 1
Research is the cornerstone for meeting FHWA's objectives of improving safety, reducing traffic congestion, improving efficiency in freight movement, increasing infrastructure capacity, and protecting the environment. To advance the body of knowledge produced by researchers, the critical next steps are technology development and deployment. It is critical to the R&T program's success that research addresses real-world needs by putting ideas into action.
The stages of research and technology development, from setting the research agenda to assessing the impacts of new technologies, exemplify an integrated system that reflects the continuous and cyclical nature of R&T. In particular, a reliable method for assessing impacts provides feedback for measuring overall effectiveness. Impact assessment not only quantifies improvements but also enables a research or program manager to set priorities and revise program agendas to reflect changing needs.
This integrated system is referred to as the innovation life cycle. The life cycle approach has created the framework for a systematic R&T program—as prescribed in the CMP's guiding principle 1—while proving to be an effective communications tool. Each stage of the R&T process can be tracked and measured, with reference to the elements described in the life cycle. Consequently, the overarching first guiding principle is addressed systematically as guiding principles 2 through 7 are implemented.
A Balanced Portfolio—Guiding Principle 2
The second guiding principle refers to identifying an appropriate Federal role in carrying out a balanced portfolio of applied and advanced research, as well as deployment of innovations. This principle has played a significant role in establishing a new Exploratory Advanced Research Program as authorized under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Prior to creation of this program, FHWA primarily invested in incremental, low-risk research. The current level of investment in advanced research is close to $10 million annually throughout the 5-year life of SAFETEA-LU.
Development of the Exploratory Advanced Research Program led many at FHWA to ask about the appropriate Federal role for engaging in research and deployment. In March 2006 the R&T leadership team participated in a daylong retreat to explore this question. Participants reached a consensus that FHWA would play a limited role in higher risk advanced research. Instead, the agency would focus on transitioning breakthrough technologies into useful applications. The conduct of advanced research through contracts or other means would be limited in scope, in line with existing institutional capabilities.
Christine Johnson, director of Field Services (West) and member of the R&T leadership team, offers her views on the complementary roles of applied and advanced research: "FHWA is a mission-oriented agency that aims to serve our primary constituents in the highway sector. While the majority of our research program is in problem-focused applied research, we certainly recognize the potential for more dramatic benefits as we take on higher risk research. Our commitment is to maintain an appropriate balance of the two while being careful not to compromise our mission focus."
Stakeholders at the Table—Guiding Principle 3
Joint outcomes maximize value. In the R&T world, joint ventures and leveraging of resources are especially desirable, whether a partnership pools resources or simply provides an opportunity to solicit input from stakeholders. Guiding principle 3 calls for engaging partners and stakeholders throughout the R&T process. Stakeholders range from expert advisers to research partners, technology evaluators, and technology users.
Since adopting the CMP, FHWA has led a collective effort to raise the level of stakeholder involvement in the R&T program. Likewise, at the project level, input from users typically is solicited during the contract phase of a new research activity through the implementation of the research outcomes.
A broader level of influence is likely to lead to more collaborative efforts and a more coordinated national highway research program. The R&T research team has made a number of recent efforts to grow stakeholder involvement and solicit input in program administration. For example, the team has given particular attention to increasing opportunities for collaboration with the UTCs. At TRB's annual meeting in 2006, FHWA hosted an open house for university representatives to meet one on one with research program managers.
Building on that event's success, FHWA managers decided to host topic-specific workshops to give university researchers the opportunity to discuss topics in their fields of interest. FHWA held three workshops in 2006-2007 and is planning additional workshops.
"It is clear to me that FHWA has worked hard at outreach to [UTCs]," says Dr. Daniel Turner, professor of civil engineering, director of the UTC at the University of Alabama, and past president of the Council of University Transportation Centers. "Examples include special interactions with professors at TRB, hosting three topical FHWA-UTC workshops, and providing high-level managers to attend and make presentations at meetings of the Council of University Transportation Centers. The result has been a significant increase in UTCs'—and professors'—understanding of FHWA research goals and needs."
FHWA also developed the Exploratory Advanced Research Program with a high level of stakeholder input. In 2005, more than 100 participants took part in three forums to provide input to the advanced research agenda. Input from the forums was used to define priority research areas that were highlighted subsequently in project solicitations. In addition, outside experts played a critical role in evaluating research proposals submitted in response to two rounds of solicitations in 2007.
Another example of a strengthened commitment to involving stakeholders in the process, at the program and policy levels, includes the stakeholder-driven development of an environmental research program authorized by the Surface Transportation Environment and Planning Cooperative Research Program. At the broader agency level, TRB's RTCC is a primary adviser for the R&T program, bringing top-level officials to the table to help guide FHWA's multimillion-dollar program.
Mission-Driven Roadmaps—Guiding Principle 4
Multiyear program plans, also referred to as "roadmaps," have become an FHWA R&T management tool with multiple purposes. Program offices use the plans to manage research and other programs. The plans support budget decisions and enable decisionmakers to view key strategies and milestones against timelines. The roadmaps also help to translate abstract concepts into concrete goals and strategies that link to FHWA goals. The roadmaps identify technology and innovation deliverables, describe stakeholder interests, and specify the resources needed to ensure that projects and programs are advanced in a timely fashion and on budget. Multiyear plans also have been used to communicate the R&T program and agenda within the highway research community.
Ensuring that FHWA's R&T pursuits are genuinely in line with the agency's mission is a CMP commitment under guiding principle 4. Establishing this coherence, however, is challenging, particularly with higher risk research where the outcome is not generally known and therefore is difficult to tie to specific goals. As the level of certainty increases, from research to a resulting technology or innovation, the relationship between goals and outcomes becomes more defined.
At this stage in delivery of the CMP, FHWA has established a clear connection between its priority list of market-ready technologies and its deployment goals. Beginning in 2004, two such lists were released, each with more than 20 market-ready technologies. Single-page factsheets are available for each technology or innovation, providing general information, stating a corresponding deployment goal, establishing project champions, and identifying contact information for technical assistance.
SAFETEA-LU and Budget Delivery—Guiding Principle 5
As Albert von Szent-Györgyi, 1937 Nobel Prize winner, once said, "Research is four things: brains with which to think, eyes with which to see, machines with which to measure, and, fourth, money."
The current transportation authorization bill, SAFETEA-LU, exerted a significant negative impact on the level of flexible spending for R&T. The available budget in the legislation included an increase in designations and earmarks, with all the R&T funding allotted to specific projects and programs. This kind of allotment left no flexibility for FHWA to carry out its R&T roadmaps.
Despite the legislative climate, FHWA has maintained its stewardship role under guiding principle 5 through continuous assessment and cooperation with the highway research community. Internally, the R&T leadership team has used the roadmaps to guide budget deliberations. However, limited flexibility has constrained FHWA's prioritization process and its ability to respond to all identified needs. Instead, the agency's leadership has realigned its approach and emphasized the importance of leveraging needs with the resources made available to others. The effectiveness of this approach will be measured by FHWA's success in forging partnerships where mutual interests exist.
Measuring Success—Guiding Principle 6
Guiding principle 6 lays out commitments to measure performance on all fronts—at the agency, program, and project levels. At the agency level, performance in delivering R&T is measured by success in achieving performance goals. Success at the program level is measured by doing the right things, such as identifying priority research areas. Project-level performance measurements determine whether the agency is doing things right, such as following standard research protocols.
The standard for R&T performance measurement at the agency level has been in place for several years. As with all FHWA programs, R&T contributes directly to the agency's mission and principal role as "Innovators for a Better Future." FHWA performs this role by focusing on eight strategic goals, each with corresponding performance objectives.
Annual performance plans affirm these eight goals, define agencywide priorities, and establish measures and interim performance targets. The goals and objectives in FHWA's plan are aligned strategically with the U.S. Department of Transportation's strategic and performance plans. Each year, FHWA publishes a performance report to demonstrate progress in achieving the stated goals.
R&T performance at the agency level also is measured by annually tracking deployment of priority market-ready technologies. FHWA measures technology deployment by using a five-phase system—goals and strategies, promotion activities, delivery activities, deployment, and benefits and results—described in full at www.fhwa.dot.gov/crt/lifecycle/deploytrack.cfm.
At TFHRC, one form of program-level review is accomplished through a laboratory assessment designed to enhance research performance and quality. An independent evaluation by technical experts ensures that research performed at TFHRC meets established standards. The lab assessments also determine the potential value of research activities and whether they have achieved stated objectives, that is, "Are we doing the right things?"
In other program areas, periodic self-assessments are conducted to measure progress in meeting CMP commitments. This approach to performance measurement helps raise the level of individual accountability for the program's collective successes. Used consistently, this approach is a key ingredient in meeting the objectives of guiding principle 6.
To answer the question "Are we doing the right things well?" TFHRC established a project-level tracking system. Results are published annually in a Research Project Status Summary Report, available online. (See www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/general/06084/index.cfm and www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/general/07049/index.cfm.)
Perhaps the greatest satisfaction in research comes from the realization of years of development and analysis into a commercially viable product, overcoming the proverbial "valley of death" between research and product deployment. Although research conducted at FHWA typically results in new standards or new methodologies that enable stakeholders to carry out the Federal-aid highway program, there are occasions where innovations have been developed into marketable products. Recently retired FHWA scientist Richard A. Livingston cites the recent commercialization of a nondestructive testing method for suspension bridge cables as one example. An FHWA-sponsored research contract led to the discovery that magnetostrictive sensing can be used to locate defects on a bridge structure. This solution addresses concerns with the current technology—a testing process that is difficult and time consuming. The summer 2007 collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis, MN, was a grim reminder of the critical need for more efficient testing methods.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate—Guiding Principle 7
When all is said and done, and done well, the extent to which positive outcomes are shared is the greatest measure of success. The final guiding principle of the CMP pertains to effective communication of R&T program activities. R&T messages are delivered using a number of communication channels and media outlets. Newsletters, brochures, briefing papers, and other publications are circulated routinely to ever-growing distribution lists covering a wide stakeholder network.
The R&T program also relies on participation and presentations at domestic and international conferences, encouraging personal contacts and networks to communicate information. FHWA currently is engaged in developing communication strategies to deliver targeted messages that address stakeholder needs.
In this era of Web sites, FHWA strives to avoid the pitfalls of information overload and deeply embedded information that is difficult to find. The agency recently undertook a major effort to consolidate R&T news and reports in a one-stop shop, the "Corporate Research and Technology" Web site (www.fhwa.dot.gov/crt). With links to major FHWA program Web sites, the corporate site also includes cross-cutting reference materials and agency initiatives.
The Road Ahead: Challenges And Opportunities
Challenges remain in the push to sustain a stakeholder-driven Federal R&T program. One challenge is the need to establish creative partnerships that will leverage designated or earmarked research funding effectively to various private and public entities. On the other hand, newly legislated programs, such as the Exploratory Advanced Research Program and Long-Term Bridge Performance Program, must be exploited fully and strategically to address the critical needs of the transportation system.
Monique R. Evans, administrator for the Office of Research & Develop-ment at the Ohio Department of Transportation and vice chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Research Advisory Committee Region 3, faces similar challenges and opportunities at the State level. "Maximizing the benefits of transportation research requires the use of multiple yet limited resources to address a variety of needs," says Evans. "The challenge is to coordinate this effort in a way that capitalizes on the strengths of all participants, leverages the available resources for optimum gain, and results in noticeable improvements to [the Nation's] transportation system. The creation of [the] Corporate Master Plan led to visible improvements in the level of outreach to FHWA's State partners, and I think this has fostered a greater sense of cooperation."
FHWA Associate Administrator Judycki adds, "As with all things, organizational improvement comes with its share of challenges and opportunities, and FHWA's R&T program is no exception. The Corporate Master Plan has been effective in its purpose and will continue to guide the R&T program for many years to come."
Debra Elston is acting director of FHWA's Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management, and has played a key role in implementing the CMP. She has helped meet the challenges of stepping up outreach efforts, strengthening research partnerships, promoting market-ready technologies, and facilitating a coordinated and balanced R&T program. Elston has been with FHWA for 17 of her 25 years in the transportation field.
Ariam Asmerom, P.E., is a transportation specialist and coordinator of FHWA's advanced research initiative in the Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management. She has 16 years of experience in transportation planning and engineering, working in both the public and private sectors, and joined FHWA in 2001. Asmerom holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Virginia.
For more information about CMP implementation, contact Debra Elston at 202-493-3181 or email@example.com.
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