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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 5 > Resource Center Goes National|
Resource Center Goes National
by Steve Moler, Marie Roybal, and Gary StrasburgFour FHWA regional centers become one national center operating through virtual teams that can be placed anywhere across the country.
The challenge was a section of I–10 through San Antonio, TX, where the highway was to be widened over an existing culvert that was structurally unable to support the weight of traditional embankment fills. The Texas Department of Transportation (DOT) was dissatisfied with the identified solution using a reinforced concrete mat supported on drilled shafts to span the culvert and support the embankment fill. So the agency approached the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Texas Division Office, which turned to the FHWA Resource Center's geotechnical engineering and hydraulics technical service team for an innovative solution. The team suggested constructing an embankment using expanded polystyrene (EPS) geofoam blocks as a lightweight alternative. With about 1/100th of the weight of soil, the geofoam fill could be easily supported by the existing culvert. State and Federal engineers estimated significant project savings in time, money, and manpower. Cost savings alone were estimated to be more than half of the $8 million for the original design.
One year into its reorganization, FHWA's newly consolidated Resource Center provides technology deployment, training, and technical expertise for transportation customers nationwide.Innovative solutions to complex problems and world-class technical expertise are what FHWA's Resource Center does best.
"With this new functional and organizational structure, FHWA will be better able to embrace new ways of thinking and to support program delivery with technical assistance and technology deployment across the Nation," says Glenn Clinton, manager of the Resource Center office in San Francisco. "We have enhanced our ability to deliver better, more timely service to our customers."Evolution of the Resource Center
The Resource Center was formed in 1998 as part of a major reorganization that included restructuring headquarters into 13 new offices, eliminating regional offices, and delegating program authority to the agency's 52 division offices. The division offices directly administer the Federal-Aid Highway Program in each State and in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Under the 1998 reorganization, the four Resource Center officeslocated in Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Olympia Fields (Chicago), IL; and San Francisco, CA served as a repository of technical expertise but held no delegated authority for program issues. The four offices' technical specialists provided expertise in various disciplines to headquarters, division offices, and local and State transportation agencies, within specific geographic boundaries.
Two years later, in January 2000, FHWA conducted an assessment to determine how the 1998 reorganization was faring. This assessment, which used information from 160 focus groups and structured interview sessions with external stakeholders and FHWA employees, confirmed the effectiveness of FHWA's restructuring. The assessment of the Resource Center revealed that its reorganization was successful as well in many ways. For example, eliminating the regional offices and replacing them with the four resource center offices generally was seen as positive.
The assessment also indicated, however, that the agency needed to make further adjustments to the Resource Center to meet customer needs more efficiently. Some functions of the four offices needed refinement. FHWA formed a steering committee, which recommended establishing "centers of excellence" or teams of expertise. Each team would provide technical services in particular discipline areas, such as environment or structures. But instead of maintaining this same expertise in each of the four Resource Center locations, the teams would serve the needs of the entire country in each of their technical areas. Each of these Technical Service Teams (TSTs) contained a "critical mass" of expertise that could be deployed quickly anywhere in the United States.
To help hold all of this together, a board of directors was established to set the overall direction of the consolidated Resource Center. The board defines the skill and service mix provided by the four offices and ensures that this corporate resource is used effectively to balance the needs of headquarters and the field.
Through implementing the recommendations of the steering committee, the Resource Center evolved from a traditional management structure in which each of the four geographically located offices provides the same services to a centralized structure in which specialized teams service the entire Nation.
Designed to provide technology deployment, training, and technical assistance, the reorganized Resource Center was built around the concept of a manager overseeing core staff in each of the four office locations and specialized teams of experts who would respond to customer needs throughout the Nation. These TSTs would be unconventional in the sense that team members would all report to the same team leader but would not occupy the same office space.
The dispersed or virtual nature of the TSTs enables them to coordinate responses to requests from customers across the Nation quickly. Although the offices may be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, each team member works as part of a cohesive unit. This structure enables team members to align goals and activities with a national scope, yet continue to provide tailored services to customers on a local or regional level and draw upon the national team for best practices and additional expertise.
Reorganization a Success
The Resource Center's new operating plan was in place by July 2003. Under the new structure, the team leaders for the Resource Center's 11 specialized TSTs are assigned to the office that houses their particular specialty. The grouping of specialties in each office "is based on the interdependence of disciplines and the synergy that can be gained while working with others in related fields," says Joyce Curtis, the Resource Center manager in the Baltimore office.
For example, the San Francisco office provides air quality, environmental, and planning technical services. Olympia Fields, the Resource Center office near Chicago, concentrates on technical services in operations as well as safety and highway design. The Baltimore office pairs the specialty of hydraulic and geotechnical services with structures technical services and also includes civil rights. In the Atlanta office, the focus is on construction and project management, financial technical services, and pavement and materials. The pairings of topics that are interrelated, like construction and pavements, facilitate deploying technology and innovation in the field.Working with Virtual Teams
"The restructured organization is clearly a change," says Don Cote, environment technical service team leader. "It allows us to use human resources on a national level bringing the best expertise to a problem wherever it is nationally."
As the concept of a virtual team is put into practice throughout the Resource Center, various advantages emerge. "Because some team members aren't physically located in the same office as the team leader, we can provide superior, timely service over a wider area while still maintaining team interaction and dynamics by effectively using the latest in communications technology," says Gary White, manager of the office in Olympia Fields. Having team members located throughout the country enables staff to develop an understanding of regional issues, which helps them better serve customers.
Most teams include specialists and dedicated backups. Team members have a specialty or "primary technology" that may require most of their time, but they also assist other team members as a backup. That way, if one specialist is overloaded with requests, customers are not left waiting. Instead, another team member with similar skills steps in to assist customers. At times, there also can be a geographic benefit to using a secondary specialist. "Every one of us in the Resource Center has a national customer base," says Susanna Hughes Reck, technology deployment specialist for the San Francisco office, "yet we typically develop a familiarity with regional issues, too."
On many occasions, she notes, an employee in San Francisco can better serve customers in Sacramento, because not only are they physically located closer to the customer, which makes for timelier and more cost-effective service, but also because of that proximity the San Francisco employee typically will be more knowledgeable about the issue. Partnering the specialists also keeps team members from becoming pigeonholed and allows for succession planning.
There also are advantages from a management standpoint. "The structure of a virtual team helps show more trust in the employee," says Operations TST Team Leader Martin Knopp. Advances in communications technology such as e-mail, the Internet, and conferencing that uses video, telephone, or Web technologiesmake the virtual team possible. "With my office phone forwarded to my cell phone, a laptop, and a PDA [personal digital assistant], I can work from anywhere," says Silas Nichols, a member of the hydraulic and geotechnical TST. Since many team members are frequently on the road providing assistance or training, or presenting at meetings or conferences, staying connected is critical.
Without walk-in access to each other, team members and their managers need to make an effort to keep communication flowing. According to Knopp, this structure "forces team members to talk to each other." Using videoconferences for regularly scheduled staff meetings and relying on phone and e-mail communications are techniques that help maintain the cohesiveness of a virtual team.
"With the Resource Center's emphasis on the deployment of technology and the promotion of innovative practices," says Gary Corino, Resource Center manager in the Atlanta office, "it's entirely appropriate that we use the innovative concept of virtual teams and harness state-of-the-art technology to work effectively and efficiently."
"The technology is helpful," says Shoukry Elnahal, team leader for the structures team, "but nothing beats the personal touch. You have to balance the two."
Periodic visits to each team member, holding face-to-face meetings with all team members present, attending conferences together, and giving each teammate equal attention is paramount to keep a virtual team together.
Putting Expertise into Practice across the Nation
When officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina wanted to study potential intelligent transportation systems (ITS) solutions to improve mobility, park administration requested assistance from the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (EFLHD), which organized a workshop and coordinated within FHWA for local representation and support from the operations TST.
The operations TST's rural ITS specialist, Keith Trimels, is based in FHWA's Wyoming Division. (Although he is located in a division office and not physically in one of the Resource Center locations, Trimels works partly for the Resource Center and partly for the division office a virtual office hybrid.) Physically sending Trimels across the country from Wyoming to the Tennessee-North Carolina mountains was impractical, even though this was his main field of expertise.
Instead, Trimels coordinated with his virtual team backups, Road Weather Management and Asset Management Lead Ray Murphy, who works in the Olympia Fields office, and Security and Disaster Preparedness Lead Jeff Van Ness, who works in the Baltimore office. Van Ness, the closest in physical location, attended the workshop and worked alongside representatives from the National Park Service, EFLHD, and the FHWA division office while Trimels and Murphy provided long-distance support when needed.
According to Operations Team Leader Knopp, a followup call revealed that the customer was appreciative of the assistance and felt that he had received the support of the whole operations TST. Knopp believes that customers should see the entire operations team and FHWA through the support of each TST individual team member.
The finance TST's approach to helping customers perform consultant audits is an example of Resource Center expertise focused on a problem of national scope. Public accounting firms were struggling to perform State audits of consulting firms without uniform guidance. At the same time, many State DOTs were outsourcing audits because of internal downsizing and an increase in the use of consultants. To add more confusion, consulting firms frequently were doing business in multiple States with different rules.
The finance TST worked with State DOTs to develop a Uniform Audit & Accounting Guide that is used by State auditors and public accounting companies that perform audits of consulting firms. Endorsed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the guide is available on AASHTO's Web site, and it provides an easy-to-use index with access to Federal regulations, authoritative literature, and other useful information for performing consultant audits. This audit tool was accepted by all State highway agencies and is being used by their auditors and by public accounting firms. Consulting firms use the guide to understand allowable costs.
In addition to updating the guide, the finance TST offers onsite training for consultant auditors and contracting officers. This training and the guide have increased audit efficiency and shortened the time spent answering questions from accounting firms contracted to outsource auditsall of which adds up to a savings for the States.
Training on another topic with a national scope low-cost safety improvements recently was presented by the safety and highway design TST. At the request of a division office and State DOT, the Resource Center developed and piloted a 1-day workshop, then taught three courses in the State with division office and State representatives attending in a "train-the-trainer" capacity. "The workshop," says Team Leader Patrick Hasson, "is already generating a great deal of attention in other locations around the country."
Similarly, when the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) asked FHWA to provide assistance on the topic of effective congestion management systems (CMS), the Resource Center's planning TST answered the call by providing a customized 1-day training session. "The course provided excellent background and fundamental materials for effective CMS and case studies from across the Nation," says Pat Weston of Caltrans.
Because instructors had real-world experience in planning and engineering, and attendees found added practical insights and value in the course, California asked the trainers to come back to present a 2-day course. The target audience will include MPO staff and the DOT planners and traffic operations engineers.
In another recent training project, the Alaska Division Office asked the environmental TST to provide training and support in understanding the Federal-Aid Highway Program and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to the Alaska DOT, which had undergone significant changes recently. In September 2003, two onsite training sessions were offered, one for staff-level members of the DOT and the second a daylong executive briefing. According to Team Leader Cote, the training was well received by the participants, and the project provided exactly what was needed when it was needed. The training, says Cote, "enhanced understanding of the process for all involved." This form of short, rapid-response training also complements the National Highway Institutes' (NHI) courses, many of which also are taught by Resource Center experts.
In addition to training, the Resource Center often is a useful facilitator for sharing information. A recent Internet conference on high-performance concrete (HPC) provides a clear example. As State DOTs use more HPC to prevent deterioration of reinforced concrete bridge components (caused by salts and deicing chemicals used during inclement weather and to slow the penetration of moisture, chloride, and other aggressive ions), lessons learned will prove to be valuable.
To communicate these lessons learned, the structures TST hosted a 5-hour Internet conference on HPC technology implementation involving more than 1,000 bridges in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Fourteen States, the District of Columbia, and the FHWA Federal Lands Bridge Office made presentations detailing current HPC projects, past problems and solutions, and ongoing research. More than 50 conference attendees traveled no farther than their own computers to hear presenters while viewing PowerPoint® slides and other visual media. Implementation tips ranged from findings that silica fume and fly ash work best for HPC decks to temperature match curing provides more accurate strength results. By facilitating this information exchange, the structures TST was able to provide a tightly focused snapshot of the state of the practice regarding HPC implementation.
Better still, it all occurred over the Internet and required neither travel time nor expenses beyond normal work hours to attend the conference.Applying the Best Resources
The development of TSTs with teams that contain national topic experts "allows us to put the best resources to the problem at hand without focusing on geography," says Cote. This national presence is a direct result of the Resource Center's reorganization. FHWA division offices act as gateways to the Resource Center; however, State transportation staff also may contact the center directly. For additional information on the Resource Center, its offices, TSTs, staff, or other information, visit the Resource Center Web site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter.
Steve Moler is the public affairs specialist at the Resource Center office in San Francisco, where he provides customers with expertise in public relations, media planning, media relations, and community outreach. Moler also is an instructor for the FHWA media training course. He holds a B.S. in journalism.
Marie Roybal, marketing specialist at the Resource Center office in Olympia Fields, joined FHWA in 2001 after working in the private sector for 8 years. Her experience includes public relations, marketing communications, special events, and services marketing. She holds both an M.B.A. and an M.S. in marketing.
Gary Strasburg is the public affairs specialist for FHWA's Resource Center office in Atlanta. He has been with FHWA for 2 years, and his previous experience includes more than 18 years of public affairs work with the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve.
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