The Simula Culture

This article describes the culture at Simula; not necessarily as it actually is, but how we would like it to be. It is an attempt to set out some of Simula's defining characteristics. Describing what is meant by a company culture is no easy task. What are the key characteristics of Simula? What is it that sets us apart? What does a good work atmosphere mean, and how should things be done here to achieve that? An overall, abstract description of workplace culture is likely to be difficult to understand and to relate to daily work, and will also probably be rather similar from one company to the next. That is why we give concrete examples here to make this all more tangible. These examples are not more important than other aspects of the work environment we could have chosen, but have been used merely to make this easy to understand and easier to relate to.

The work of creating a Simula culture involves developing a research laboratory in which a strong focus on high-calibre research is key. Simula will only be successful if its employees are successful. Developing a Simula culture is about creating a work environment where people are happy and feel they are able to do a good job. It is about establishing ground rules for how we act in the research community and interact with society in general, and it is about working to ensure that the name Simula is synonymous with quality, honesty and efficiency.

It is important that we all share the same ideas about what sort of culture we want to have, what the culture means and how it can be sustained in the future. Members of staff who have been at Simula for a number of years, some even since its establishment in 2001, will recognise the ideas in the article and hopefully find that the descriptions comply with their own experience. However, Simula has grown and is still growing, and the number of employees is rising. For us, it is paramount that all newcomers, and especially research fellows who are in temporary positions, get the feel of how we relate to each other, our tasks and the world around us. By reading and relating to this article, we hope all employees will understand and find guidance as to how things are done at Simula. For other readers, we hope the article can provide ideas for improvements or at least be a source of thought and discussion about how to organise and run a research lab.

The Simula model

Before we describe the Simula culture, it may be useful to go over the main features of the Simula model (this description of the Simula model was originally written for the Annual Report 2008).

  • Organisational model. The organisational and management models used in the Norwegian research system can basically be divided into the university model and the company model. Research institutes in Norway employ the latter. We strongly favoured the company model, as it appeared to be much clearer, more transparent, and easier to comprehend. Simula is thus managed more or less like a commercial company, with the prominent exception that commercial companies are set up to produce revenues, whereas Simula is constructed to produce research results, educate researchers, and enable innovations. Specifically, Simula is managed according to the Limited Company Act.
  • Full-time researchers. At Norwegian universities the teaching and supervising duties are rather severe. On the other hand, at Norwegian research institutes most researchers have to spend a large part of their time trying to obtain funding from industry. Based on the financial freedom that came with Simula, we wanted to establish a situation where highly skilled researchers were allowed to focus more or less exclusively on research; we wanted to revive the full-time researcher.
  • The recruitment process. A research lab is as good as the researchers employed there. Therefore it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a sound recruitment policy. As a part of that, efficiency is crucial; we need to be able to move forward very quickly when a unique opportunity arises. At Simula, we try to recruit extremely promising candidates and the best researchers will be given funds to build their own activity. The recruitment process aims at setting up a truly international lab and whenever possible we try to achieve gender balance.
  • Directed research.[i] We never subscribed to the view that excellent research can only be performed when each individual researcher is completely free to follow his or hers individual ideas. Rather, we wanted a model where we could determine a set of long-term goals and collectively work towards these in an organised manner. The research at Simula addresses fundamental problems, but the research is directed more or less as if the activity were organised in a private company. The freedom in day-to-day or week-to-week assignments is very great but the long-term goals are decided in a comprehensive process and everyone has to adapt to these goals. In particular, we have derived a careful procedure of initiating new projects.
  • Usefulness. The aim of basic research is rarely to be of use in the short term; indeed, it is widely acknowledged that deep knowledge ultimately is useful but that the path from science to application may be very long. At Simula we address research questions whose solutions would be applicable; that is, we do not pursue strictly curiosity-driven projects. Generally speaking, we address problems where the likelihood for important applications of a positive result is high.
  • Concentration. Diffusion is a natural process that moves a substrate from an area of high concentration to a region of low concentration. The process is extremely strong and affects many parts of life. Given a substantial amount of money, there are very strong mechanisms trying to spread these resources over a large number of worthy assignments. At Simula we have tried very hard to maintain focus on core issues and avoid the diffusion of resources.
  • Collaboration with industry. Since we want to deliver applicable results, we seek strong collaborations with industry at large. Such collaborations, however, must be long-term and directed towards really challenging problems; short-term consulting should be completely avoided at Simula. Furthermore, our aim is to educate PhDs and post-doctoral candidates with a firm grasp of the problems of industrial interest in their field of research.
  • Creating new businesses. Since real-life applications are the long-term goal for our research, Simula consistently aims at aiding researchers to enable the application of their research efforts.
  • A characteristic culture. We wanted to create a strong and characteristic research culture based on a few governing principles accepted by everyone, enabling efficiency, quality, excellent results, and a very good working atmosphere.

How did it all begin?

We were assigned a task and receive State funding to fulfil that task. The task Simula has been set is to carry out research of a high international calibre, to educate students at MSc and PhD level in collaboration with Norwegian universities, and to set up business activities based on the work done at the centre. Simula's research activities fall within three subject areas: networks and distributed systems, scientific computing and software engineering. These are also the three subject areas in which we help to educate students. 

Focus

The area of ambitions equals the width multiplied by the height. All else being equal, the area of ambitions is constant; we may have broad ambitions that are not particularly high, or we may have narrow ambitions that are extremely high, but we must never believe that we can have high ambitions across a wide range of fields. In this respect, Simula has made its choice: we will have high ambitions in a few select fields. That is why the three subject areas we have chosen will remain constant, and we will not spread ourselves too thinly even within these fields. All our research efforts will be devoted to these few carefully chosen areas. But in these areas we will make every effort to succeed. We will participate at the international elite level; we will be invited to speak at professional events; we will be sought-after partners; we will be a natural destination for visiting researchers the world over; we will educate good PhD students; we will be attractive partners for Norwegian industry, and we will develop companies based on our research in these areas. If we are to achieve all of this, we must concentrate our efforts and resources. 

The full-time researcher

Wherever researchers meet and discuss their work situations there is one issue that comes up time and time again; researchers find that they simply do not have enough time to devote to research itself. There are a number of reasons for this; they have to apply for research funding to secure the resources needed to run their research groups, they have to teach, they have to serve on committees, they have to mark papers and theses, and they have to support the work of the research councils. A lot of experienced researchers find that their entire working days are spent on activities that are related to research, but that are not research itself.

At Simula, we will make every effort to shield skilled researchers from other duties. We will work hard to revive the concept of the full-time researcher. This is an ambition that is extremely difficult to achieve. We cannot redesign the realities of research policy. All over the world, researchers have always had to work to secure research funding. However, it is widely believed that all these research-related activities are taking up too much time and getting far too much attention. At Simula, we will work constantly and deliberately to reduce the administrative burdens placed on researchers. We want ours to be an efficient organisation. We will not be overly bureaucratic. We will give rapid, clear answers. We will have short meetings. We will have few committees and those that we have will be small. We will not write reports that no one will read. We will not ask for information no one needs. We will know what we want and what our aims are, and we will work with determination to reach those goals. In everything we do, we will be conscious of the fact that it is the scientific staff that is our productive force. They are the ones who produce the results that are the lifeblood of Simula. They are the justification for our existence. That is why we will all strive to ensure the best possible conditions for them to work under. 

Research fellows

A large proportion of our researchers are research fellows. Both doctoral and postdoctoral research fellows are employed by Simula. Research fellows are an essential research resource and should be integrated as well as possible into the planning and execution of projects. As far as possible, they should participate on an equal footing throughout the whole research process. Just as a lack of time to conduct research is a recurring topic in discussions among many experienced researchers, the absence of genuine academic supervision is a recurring theme in discussions among research fellows. Research fellows need to receive in-depth feedback on what they are doing. It is both frustrating and inefficient for research fellows to be left to their own devices without feedback about their work. At Simula, supervisors will be accessible to their research fellows electronically, physically and, not least, as mentors. Supervisors must ensure that the research fellows' projects are central to their own research so that supervision is not seen as an extra, that comes in addition to research. As far as possible, supervision should be research. 

IT Operations and administration

Excellent research needs excellent support. It is the responsibility of the IT Operations to ensure that the IT infrastructure supports the research activities as effectively as possible. Operational decisions should always be taken with a view to finding solutions that enhance the focus on research. Solutions that make great demands on researchers' time should be avoided as far as possible. We need to use solutions that are stable and that keep operating problems to a minimum. We will try to avoid exposing researchers to unstable solutions from second-rate providers. In this context, quality and stability are, within reason, more important than price. Today, researchers are more or less unable to do anything useful if their PCs are not working. Reliable back-up solutions to all common problems  must be available at all times (PCs are stolen, they break down, they are left at airports; mobile phones are also lost and - believe it or not - flushed down the toilet in airplanes. Our IT support staff has to be able to come up with back-up solutions at short notice).

The Simula administration provides support for the researchers at the centre and it is this support function that should inform any decisions that are taken. It is the task of the administration to ensure that the research can be carried out under optimal conditions. Procedures should be kept simple, and efforts should be made not to waste other peoples' time unnecessarily. All employees must be aware of and must respect the relevant procedures. The Intranet is an important source of information and must be used actively.

Management

Simula is a limited company. The Board of Directors employs a managing director. He or she takes on leaders responsible for Simula's activities. There are no elected positions at any level at Simula. In this respect, Simula differs from universities as we know them today.

The management group of Simula, heads of the departments and directors of the subsidiaries, should always bear in mind that Simula employs extremely well-educated and highly gifted individuals. Strategic issues should be discussed throughout the organisation and any employee who wishes to should have the opportunity to express his or her opinions at all levels. All leaders should be highly accessible and open to discussion about everything that goes on at the centre. All leaders should encourage employees to express their opinions and be prepared to discuss them thoroughly, so that all aspects of an issue are considered before a final decision is made by a leader.

This mode of operation presents great challenges to all leaders at Simula, and it is now fully acknowledged that we have to invest much more in the process of educating our leaders. From 2009, Simula will have its own programme for research leaders. 

Directed basic research

At Simula everybody works on research projects that involve other people. The research addresses fundamental problems of an applied nature. The research activities are managed along the same lines as the centre itself. In carrying out the research, it is especially important that all the researchers take part continuously in discussions about how the research should proceed. But here too, decisions are ultimately taken by a leader, who will be accountable for his or her decision. Within the parameters that are set and the research projects that are defined, Simula will strive to ensure that each individual researcher has the freedom to work in the most effective way possible.

Freedom for individual researchers to pursue their own ideas is a key feature of Norwegian universities. There is less freedom to do that at Simula. Everyone has the opportunity to take part fully in discussions about the choice of strategy, working methods and research tasks. However, once those decisions are made, everyone must work to achieve the targets set for the research group. The researchers will have the greatest possible freedom to make their own choices within the parameters set, but they cannot choose their own areas of research independent of the constraints chosen for the project as a whole. In other words, the freedom of individual researchers at Simula is limited compared with similar positions at universities.

At Simula we carry out directed basic research. We set targets for our activities and then work hard to achieve them. This places restrictions on the freedom of the individual. However, the freedom of a group is considerable, the freedom of a department is even greater and the freedom enjoyed by Simula is extremely large. But, we must have a common understanding of what we are trying to achieve, the problems we intend to solve and how we intend to solve them.

Although the freedom of individual researchers to pursue their own ideas at Simula is restricted, Simula is an organisation characterised by openness and intense debates. Traditional academic ideals regarding free debate and vigorous discussion are a key part of the Simula culture. 

Freedom, responsibility and initiative

At Simula, freedom divided by responsibility is constant. A large amount of freedom carries with it a large amount of responsibility. All the researchers and all the research groups have considerable freedom, but this freedom is accompanied by responsibility; the responsibility to conduct valuable research and deliver valuable results, and to carry out that research in accordance with the Simula culture. Simula will welcome good initiatives, but they need to be followed up and developed. At Simula, employees must be able to support their ideas and be prepared to work hard to put into place any necessary measures. 

Publications

Simula aims to publish its scientific results in the leading professional journals, in books and/or in good conference proceedings. The research will be focused on issues that are important and relevant. It will not be focused on the most publishable issues. Researchers at Simula will publish when an important problem has been solved or new insight has been gained, and will not publish their findings simply to boost the number of publications. Important publications will be given clear priority over less significant observations. At international gatherings of researchers, our researchers will take the floor when they have something new to tell the research community.

Publishing research findings is vital for researchers trying to establish their careers. Our record of publications is used when we apply for new positions, when we apply for professorships, for funding from the Research Council of Norway, etc. So it is natural that younger researchers are very keen to publish their work as often as possible. Also, learning to write scholarly articles is an important part of a PhD. Younger researchers need to learn to write articles even when the results are not ground-breaking. Simula accepts that this as an essential part of career development for individual researchers. We also accept that evaluations of Simula will, to some extent, be based on the number of publications we produce. But we will not lose sight of our ideal; to provide new insight into important issues of value to others. 

Quality

Quality will be paramount at Simula. Quality should be all-important in everything we do, everything we deliver, in our whole working day. This means that:

  • All our publications will go through a thorough quality control.
  • Everyone at Simula is free to express their opinions in the media, preferably in the form of letters to the editor, feature articles or similar contributions. But if an author signs any piece of work as a Simula employee, it must be of a high quality; careless work, tactless remarks etc. must be avoided.
  • Everything Simula buys (all the software, machinery, equipment, coffee cups, stationary, Christmas gifts, T-shirts, etc.) must be of a high quality. We will not buy unnecessarily expensive products, but we will never buy low-quality products, and we will always have a view towards making an environmentally friendly choice.
  • Simula employees should be on time for appointments and should meet agreed deadlines. If for some reason this is not possible, the relevant person should be notified regardless of whether or not an appointment is especially important. When we meet others in connection with work, we represent Simula, which means that we have a reputation to maintain. A high level of professionalism is a key component of that reputation. Attention should be paid to the nature of the meeting and participants should dress accordingly.
  • We will give a warm welcome to any visitors we receive. Meetings should be well prepared. All technical equipment to be used at a meeting should be checked in advance. Presentation slides should be printed out on paper or sent as attachments. Meeting rooms, coffee/tea and refreshments should be booked and ordered in advance. It is important to make sure that everything runs smoothly at all meetings so that this forms part of the overall impression a visitor to Simula receives. Simula will receive new graduate students in the same way, showing them respect and treating them as equals.
  • All new employees at Simula should be received by their immediate manager. The head of department or director of the subsidiary are responsible for ensuring that they are introduced to colleagues and shown around the premises, and that they are acquainted with procedures, standards and rules, as well as their rights as Simula employees. During the first week, new employees will make their own home page and have their photograph taken. An email containing a brief introduction to the employee in question will then be sent out, along with a link to the new employee's home page.
  • Presentations of our activities should be well prepared. All employees should be able to introduce Simula and give an overview of what we do.
  • Anyone representing Simula should always behave professionally. Telephone calls should be answered in a friendly manner, including telephone calls from people trying to sell us something. Emails from Simula that are not of a personal nature or not to people we know well, are to be written in correct language. The sender's address should be @simula.no; the use of Hotmail, Gmail accounts etc. should be avoided in professional emails from Simula. Simula, including the subsidiaries Simula Innovation and Simula School of Research and Innovation, is subject to the law on the right of access to public administration documents (Freedom of Information Act). The act stipulates that the organisation's documents should be made available to the public, and we are obliged to comply with a system for managing documents. To ensure that documents reach the archives and are assessed with regard to the public record it is necessary that everyone complies with the procedures for managing documents and post.
  • As Simula employees, we should respond to queries quickly and succinctly. If in doubt, ask your immediate manager for help.
  • When Simula employees are given an assignment or are asked to do something, they should always send a reply so that the sender knows that the assignment has been received and when it will be done.
  • We should be on the look out for any major and minor improvements we can make. Is this something Simula as a whole could do better? Are there areas in which we have poor procedures or in which we come across as disorganised or unprofessional? Are there any mistakes on our website? Is the reception area untidy? Does all our technical equipment work properly? Everyone should be on the look out for such matters and point them out to the person they believe to be responsible. We can correct little things ourselves, but larger issues should be reported to an immediate manager. And such queries should be followed up. A few days later, ask what happened. What has been done? Was anything done? There will, of course, be things we choose to do nothing about, but there should be a good reason for that and the person who brought up the issue should receive a clear explanation as to why that is the case. 

Integrity

Simula makes its living from the truth. Our job is to uncover connections and convey them to other scientists and to the public at large. In all research communities, this calls for reliability and honesty. Simula will go further than this. Integrity will be paramount in everything we do. We will act fairly towards students, partners, vendors, the authorities, the media and each other. We will give praise and recognition based on merit and not on position. Whenever the Simula name is used, the information given should be reliable and accurate. Our web pages will include up-to-date, accurate information. Our annual reports will be accurate. Our surveys of publications, patents, enterprises, etc. will be truthful and always completely verifiable. Simula will never tweak numbers or reports to make them look better than they really are; nor will Simula ever present its research as better, or more important, than it really is.

Credibility

Simula's reputation depends on its credibility with the Norwegian IT industry, the authorities and other partners. Credibility demands that we behave professionally with regard to agreements and deliveries; we anonymise results from industrial studies, unless otherwise agreed; we demonstrate considerable caution in what we say and write about our partners in presentations and at meetings; and we maintain a continuous focus on good research ethics in our studies. 

Efficiency

Simula should be an efficient organisation. All queries directed to Simula should receive a response within one working day. Naturally, it will sometimes be necessary to reply that a full answer may take time, but where appropriate, queries to a Simula employee should receive a response within one working day.

At Simula, it is assumed that departments, research groups, subsidiaries and the individual employees will work in accordance with the plans that are drawn up. To carry out this work, the department, research group, subsidiaries and individual employee will have as much freedom and as much responsibility as possible. The aim is to promote efficiency. Decisions are not to be left hanging. Any employee can bypass his or her immediate manager and go to the next level of authority if the manager in question fails to make a decision within a reasonable length of time. However, this should not be done lightly and should only be done in cases where an employee finds that his or her immediate manager is too slow, or where his or her decision is obviously inappropriate or motivated by personal interests. 

The media

The Government pays our salaries because it believes that research is valuable. Our work is valuable because it enhances insight into complex problems, contributes to the education of qualified people and leads to new solutions. However, research is also important because researchers share their findings with society through the media, either through their own contributions or through interviews. For that reason it is important that researchers at Simula make themselves available to the media when appropriate, and that researchers contact the media when they have significant scientific findings to communicate. As mentioned above, all Simula employees are free to express their opinions in the media. However, when doing so, Simula employees should be clear about whether they are giving an opinion as a Simula employee or as a private individual. When making a statement as a Simula employee, it is important to be aware that Simula's reputation is at stake. Careless work and inaccuracy must be avoided. Furthermore, employees of Simula should be careful not to come across as experts on a topic they are not actually researching themselves. In cases concerning Simula as an institution, only the Managing Director will respond to questions from the media. 

Integration

All PhD and postdoctoral positions at Simula are announced internationally. To a large extent Simula recruits employees, both from international and national academic environments, through headhunting. At Simula we will do our best to make sure that everyone finds their way around when they are new to the country or the area, both in the workplace and socially. We will make sure that new colleagues are introduced to the workplace. Colleagues within the departments and groups should also make an effort to show newcomers around and help them get started with the process of finding friends and a place to live, and cope with the practical issues associated with relocation. In 2008, a survey was conducted for the purpose of assessing whether employees from abroad were properly welcomed. The survey showed that, in general, our policy is working well, but there are still some specific areas where there is scope for improvement. 

Equality and diversity

Simula should be a good place to work. It should be a place where all employees feel that their jobs are important, where they understand why they do their jobs and why their jobs are important for Simula. At Simula there is no room for condescending attitudes to colleagues or to other vocational groups. Embracing diversity enhances an organisation's range of experience, ideas and creativity.  Simula will encourage all employees to recognise and respect the diversity of their colleagues in terms of gender, age, sexual orientation or national origin. All employees and all students are important and will, without exception, be treated as such. 

The workplace

Simula should be a good place to work when everything is going well; it should be a place where employees are able to realise their ambitions. But Simula should also be a good place to work when things are not going so well, whether on the professional or the personal front. Consideration for colleagues and recognition that all employees are individuals with individual needs should be dominant features of the work environment. Whether an employee has just had a baby or is ready to retire, Simula should be a good place to work, just as it should be for a 30-year-old researcher hungry to conquer the world of science. Simula will work to create a work environment where people are happy and one that is stimulating and creative. However, such a working environment does not develop by itself. Everyone at Simula should feel a sense of shared responsibility for creating a good working environment. Employees at Simula should appreciate each other's efforts across disciplinary divides. Everyone must accept and respect the fact that Simula will thrive when everyone thrives, and for that to happen, everyone must feel that their efforts are valued by the lab as a whole.

[i] In OECD terms, our research can be classified either as oriented basic research, which is defined to be search carried out with the expectation that it will produce a broad base of knowledge likely to form the background to the solution of recognised or expected current or future problems or possibilities, or as applied research, which is defined to be an original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective (see http://stats.oecd.org/glossary. )