The Importance of Listening—and Listening More—in Strategic Planning

I have spent much of the last year deeply involved in the creation of the very first NIH Digital Strategy Plan—an effort that requires listening across myriad NIH institutions and our stakeholders to glean what each finds important to our mission of seeking out and applying fundamental health care knowledge. I am proud to serve as co-chair of this effort with Andrea T. Norris, MBA, NIH’s Chief Information Officer and Director of NIH’s Center for Information Technology. Since October 2021, more than 40 staff members from across NIH have been working to develop this plan.

The purpose of the NIH Digital Strategy Plan is to identify 10 to 12 key capabilities needed to support NIH’s intramural research and extramural research program management, administration, and operations. Intramural research is NIH’s internal research program, and extramural research is research and training opportunities funded by NIH at universities, medical centers, and other institutions around the world. This helps create a vision for the future in which agency-wide commitments and institute-specific investments unite to form an information infrastructure vigorous enough to support the largest organization in the world that conducts and funds research.

In terms of information infrastructure, NIH is like other large, complex organizations where individual institute, center, office, and division investments complement enterprise-wide resources. We are creating a roadmap to make sure the organization has a robust, efficient, and secure information platform on which to conduct business. Developing the NIH Digital Strategy Plan is a lot like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where different people can have different perceptions of the same thing. So how do we build a holistic strategic vision for the information technology capabilities needed for the future of NIH?

Actually, in much the same way as the Rajah in the parable gently nudges the six blind men towards truth: by instructing them to share their own vision on the journey of putting all the parts together!

Well, that’s what our committee has been doing. We’ve held over 25 listening and benchmarking sessions with stakeholders across NIH, as well as government and non-governmental enterprises that share a similar mission. We listened, and we asked questions, and then we listened some more.

Listening takes time, attention, and presence. As co-chairs of this effort, Ms. Norris and I have attended almost every session to convey our commitment, our interest, and our realization that the future of NIH depends strongly on the information technologies needed to support it. We’ve gleaned novel ideas and heard echoes of important themes. We’ve heard where there are areas of consensus and some frank differences. We’ve listened, learned, and discussed what we’ve heard. We’ve also listened for things that may not have been said.

In an enterprise this large, no single team can or should do all the listening. Our committee members also attended many of the sessions, and we used our conversations with them to verify or refine what we heard. Committee members also reached out to stakeholders around the country to hear how they viewed their future and what best practices they followed to make IT investments.

Listening works best when guided by questions, verifying what is being heard, and elaborating when needed. Listening is NOT list-making nor a process of determining which themes are raised more often or which ideas gain resonance. Listening is engagement, deepening one’s understanding of a complex environment by reaching deeply within and without.

In a few months, I’ll report on the results of our efforts to build the inaugural strategic plan for digital strategy at NIH. For now, I’ll continue to listen.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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