Re-imagining the National Research Council of Canada: Summary of the final report on the NRC Dialogue 2016 to 2020

 

Over the 2016 to 2020 period, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the leading federal research and innovation support agency, undertook and substantially completed a major organizational change exercise known as the NRC Dialogue. This report provides a review of the development, output, and implementation of the NRC Dialogue.

The exercise was initiated with the August 2016 appointment of a new NRC President, Mr. Iain Stewart, mandated to align the organization more directly with the priorities of a new government which had been elected a year earlier. He was specifically tasked with engaging employees as a central feature of the process.

The directive to purposefully engage employees reflected a recognition of challenges encountered in previous NRC efforts at organizational change, the complexity of NRC operations, and the need for robust employee commitment in the pursuit of strategic directions.

The NRC Dialogue initiative thus involved an open consultation process including numerous town hall sessions, online surveys, and meetings with employees at every stage of development. But it also drew on expert external advice and issue-specific work undertaken by a portfolio of dedicated committees (Tiger Teams) operating within a highly structured change management agenda.

The exercise encountered many hurdles magnified by a strict timeline and the ambition to contribute to government budgetary planning as well as a desire to limit disruption of NRC services and research operations. Cabinet policy approval in 2017 and endorsement in the 2018 Federal Budget, which provided $258 million in annual resources to the NRC for Dialogue priorities, constituted significant milestones in the NRC Dialogue project.

With this government support and ongoing validation with external advisors and employees, the key issues identified by the NRC Dialogue and opportunities to address them were subsequently articulated in the Dialogue Action Plan. The Plan laid out over 60 initiatives in 3 waves: many aimed at renewing the organization's commitment to research excellence, improving operational efficiency, and facilitating internal linkages. The Plan highlighted initiatives that would increase the NRC's capacity to collaborate with other players in the Canadian innovation ecosystem, particularly on large-scale, multi-sector projects for national benefit. To this end, the NRC established a suite of new Dialogue-inspired programs aimed at supporting the Government of Canada's Innovation Superclusters, pursuing national challenges, and building shared scientific infrastructure with other science-based organizations.

New governance systems were established to manage the Action Plan implementation and its integration into ongoing processes. This included a restructuring of laboratory operations into 14 research centres that now operate with greater authority under centre-specific strategic plans, all harnessed within a 5-year corporate strategy built upon the NRC Dialogue. In 2019, the NRC began a review with a longer-term perspective. Labelled "The Council Project," this initiative seeks to fulfill the NRC Dialogue commitment to ongoing improvement within the innovation ecosystem. As the actions described in this report demonstrate, the NRC Dialogue strived to redefine both the framework and the program capacity underpinning the NRC's work in a drive to better serve Canada's national interest.

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