When the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Photo montage of NLM staff and programs with a title of One NLM

NLM is about two and a half years into its new strategic plan, and already I’m proud of our many successes!

We’ve used this blog to highlight key activities, from enriching data science skills across the NLM workforce to appending data sets and other materials in support of articles deposited in PubMed Central. We’ve increased our extramural research investment by almost 20% and recruited new investigators to our Intramural Research Program (IRP). A $20 million investment will improve the integrity of our 60-year-old buildings, creating a workplace of the future for this 184-year-old institution.  

Today, I want to take the discussion in a different direction.

Culture is largely local, and in a big organization it’s common to experience the whole through the microcosm of one’s own work group or division. In fact, some of the successes I’ve highlighted reflect the efforts of a single division or the needs of specific stakeholder groups.

Progress assessed at this microcosmic level can indeed look good. However, to quote another old aphorism, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” So, measuring NLM’s progress toward achieving the vision outlined in our strategic plan requires a different approach.

When I arrived at NLM, I discovered that referring to “One NLM” helped focus everyone’s work on the concerted effort of the whole organization. The term defined a pathway linking the contributions of individuals and divisions that are connected to form one entity. Sometimes my colleagues use this phrase ironically or in jest, which reminds me that attending to the whole may not be as natural or intuitive as one might hope. 

Taking a holistic view of progress is not always easy. It can require abandoning efforts that benefit only a single division for ones that will likely have a greater impact on the overall organization. Or reshuffling division-specific priorities to advance trans-NLM priorities. And sometimes it requires coming to broad agreement on prioritizing varied and diverse goals.

This makes me think of NLM’s vibrant and aggressive IRP, which brings together researchers from the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications. Leveraging the synergies of these divisions as a whole makes the most of available IRP resources, research opportunities, and training efforts.

Fortunately, NLM leadership is strong and has developed excellent ways of working together. Our explorations of priorities take place in an atmosphere of curiosity, openness, and mutual respect. While the needs of one division may sometimes supersede the needs of others, our leadership team works hard to remember that as we advance one, we are advancing all.

Progress in the small and progress in the all — that’s one sign of the growth of a great institution. Please let me know what you think of our progress toward One NLM!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

2 thoughts on “When the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts”

  1. While Building 38 is close to 60 years old (it was dedicated in 1961) Building 38A is a mere 40 years old. I remember starting work there in June of 1980 when it was so new only one of the elevators was working and I found it faster to walk up the 8 flights of stairs to the 9th floor than wait for an elevator.

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