Sandia LabNews

Sandia human resources team visits Chelyabinsk-70, Moscow to help Russian labs address 'people' issues

A team of Sandia human resources experts and their counterparts and technical managers at two Russian weapons laboratories have completed an "historic" series of workshops intended to help the Russians come to grips with modern human resources issues.

HR issues ‘begged’ for attention

Snezhinsk, a company town comparable in some ways to Los Alamos, is home of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center of Technical Physics (VNIITF), also known as Chelyabinsk-70. The team also visited the All-Russian Research Institute of Automatics (VNIIA) in Moscow, where they conducted a whirlwind one-day version of their four-day VNIITF presentation.

The Russian hosts, says Karen, considered the visit historic because of the central importance it placed upon HR issues in labs

She says the Sandians traveled to Moscow and Snezhinsk at the behest of Russian HR professionals who heard Don Blanton, Director of HR Center 3500, make a presentation during a previous Russian technical visit to Sandia in early 1997. The Russians, Karen says, had come to realize that during the transitional period from a Cold War, command-society mindset to an enterprise-driven system, HR issues begged for "some very focused attention."

The Russians realized that "the human resources problems [at Russian weapons labs] are so severe that they are impacting their ability to get their technical work done," Karen says.

In Russia, the end of the Cold War also marked the end of the entire political, social, and economic framework upon which the nation was built. All the old rules, the old ways of doing things, the old solutions — all were gone with the receding winds of the Cold War. More to the point, in the area of HR, the Russians were rank beginners, at least by Western lights.

In a program agenda that Karen describes as "very formal," the US visitors in their workshop presentations covered the full spectrum of HR issues.

Subjects presented to the audience of 50 to 75 Russian HR and technical managers included: staffing planning and recruitment, training, student intern programs and how such programs help cultivate tomorrow’s workforce, the use of technology in HR management, and compensation and job structure. UNM’s Prof. Walters provided an overview of the US education system.

"We actually went beyond purely HR concerns by addressing the subject of strategic planning," Don says. "We talked about how HR planning policies must occur in a broader context of overall strategic planning. This enables you to base your HR policies and goals upon where you think the laboratory is going to be one, three, and five years down the road."

Recruiting workers a new challenge

The Russian hosts, Don says, responded with HR presentations of their own. Their presentations addressed staffing practices, training, and management-union labor relations.

As one small insight into the challenges the Russian labs face in the HR arena, consider the issue of staffing. In the old days, VNIITF didn’t proactively attract people from outside. Much of its workforce was drawn from the local "secret city" educational stream. To round out its talent pool, the lab would send a list of skills it required to a central planning bureau, which would in turn see to it that the slots were filled by the cream of the crop from the nation’s technical schools.

"So for them," Don says, "learning how to recruit workers is a new requirement, one for which they have no track record of experience."

Making a paradigm shift

Karen says she doesn’t think the labs management at VNIITF has "made the necessary paradigm shift" from a weapons design and production mission to one of dismantlement and commercial application.

By contrast, she says the Moscow-based VNIIA has conducted operational planning to identify technologies that can be converted to commercial use and is generally further along than its sister lab on the road to defining a viable post-Cold War mission.

Karen says the Russians valued the interaction because they believe it will help them focus on what issues they should work on and provide guidance on what to do next. And they are full of questions. "What kind of HR database do you have? How do you use the Internet? How important is it to introduce technology into the HR process?"

While the Russian hosts were pleased with the interaction, Karen says the Sandia team members often discussed among themselves whether they were "really going to make a difference."

The answer to that question, Karen says, is yes. "What we did was establish a linkage; this truly has the potential for making a difference. I believe it was a very critical beginning. If the Russian labs don’t look at these [HR] issues — and they understand this — they’re sunk. They’re bringing an excitement and a passion to this issue."

And the Sandians, Karen makes clear, are bringing their own enthusiasm to the process. "The way our team views this [interaction] is that we’re enhancing the security of the US by helping the Russian laboratories establish some stability in a remarkably unstable time."

The Sandia visit culminated in a formal agreement drafted and signed by Don Blanton and VNIITF personnel director Vladislav Nikitin. The agreement pledges the Russian and US labs to continue their dialogue and to identify specific subjects for future workshop presentations. A similar agreement was worked out with Moscow’s Institute of Automatics.