Penn State Great Valley professor helps U.S. Army build unified teams

10/31/19

MALVERN, Pa. — The research conducted by Penn State Great Valley faculty has an extensive reach, not only in the Greater Philadelphia area and in terms of academics, but also across the country and throughout industry and the military. Kathryn Jablokow, associate chief academic officer and professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, recently expanded her work with the United States military through a presentation to the senior leaders of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC).

CCDC is the Army’s science and technology execution arm and supports multiple research labs across the country, focusing on developing and delivering a variety of technologies.

“We often say that something is greater than the sum of its parts,” Jablokow said. “When it comes to science and engineering in the Army, that should be true. We’ve got all these labs and they’re all doing cool things, but imagine what they could accomplish if they were all doing things together.”

Jablokow’s presentation centered on building a unified team, crucial for CCDC as it navigates major changes; the United States Army is undergoing a reorganization, including the introduction of a fourth Army command — the first new command in over 40 years.

The new command created by the reorganization is the Army Futures Command (AFC), established in July 2018 to modernize and advance the Army. With the inception of AFC, the United States Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command (RDECOM) was rebranded as CCDC and transitioned under AFC.

Like many transitions and mergers in the corporate world, there were some bumps in the road, so AFC initiated a change management team to help orient CCDC personnel to Army goals and key tenets.

“[The transition] impacts a lot of people, and our people are our number one asset,” said Elizabeth Groover, who was part of the change management team. “What do we want to look like behaviorally? What pillars do we want to stand on? How do we want to work together? That’s part of what the Change Management team was designed to operationalize."

Lt. Col. Manuel “Manny” Ugarte, an alumnus of Penn State Great Valley’s Master of Engineering Management program, was a key part of the transition. Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, Commanding General of CCDC, wanted to create a forum focused on collaboration for the senior leaders. Ugarte was working with Wins and his staff at the time, and something about the situation struck him.

The cultural transformation CCDC was facing paralleled topics Ugarte had learned about in Jablokow’s class at Penn State Great Valley. Her themes of engineers as leaders and communicating to create a fluid team particularly stuck out, he said. Unlike most branches of the Army, CCDC is comprised mostly of civil servants; less than two percent of the more than 14,000 employees are active duty military.

“Within this organization, we have all these different perspectives and cultures that we have to align so we can be on the same frequency,” Ugarte said. “That clashes. It’s bound to clash. … We have to recognize those behaviors to help create those synergies and trust so we can be effective and move forward as opposed to looking sideways.”

Ugarte knew Jablokow would be the perfect presenter for the CCDC senior leadership forum, so he shared an article she wrote in 2007, titled “Engineers as Problem-Solving Leaders,” with CCDC leaders. The article presented three key concepts for engineering leaders: communicate, collaborate, and do the right thing.

When Wins took control of CCDC, one of his priorities was to create a culture of unity. With that and the transition to working under AFC in mind, CCDC identified three pillars: communication, collaboration and trust.

“I think that [building] a unified command, a unified effort, was right on cue with what we were trying to do,” Ugarte said. “How we go about embracing trust, communication, and collaboration, trying to create that positive organizational culture that basically outlasts our individual time.”

Once Groover and others involved in planning the forum read Jablokow’s paper, they were eager for her to share her knowledge, and Jablokow jumped at the opportunity.

John Willison, Deputy to the Commanding General, had also read her article and agreed that her presentation could be a strong addition to the forum.

While Willison, Ugarte, Groover and others saw the value in what Jablokow would be discussing, there are always questions on how a presentation will be received by such a highly educated and experienced group. CCDC’s senior leadership team is comprised of about 30 manager leaders and 30 technical leaders, many of whom have doctorates and decades of work experience.

“You always worry for your presenter, who’s coming in with probably not much context,” Willison said. “It wasn’t really a doubt; you’re just wondering how it’s going to go. In the end, I think the combination of what she spoke to, as well as the exercise [she used] and how she handled the topic, was managed very well.”

Jablokow used Penn State’s efforts to build a unified culture across all its campuses while remaining diverse as an example during the presentation. The leaders enjoyed it, and the similarities between CCDC and Penn State resonated well, she said.

“I was trying to help them see that it’s important to both recognize your diversity and be unified at the same time, and that it’s possible to do so,” Jablokow said.

Part of Jablokow’s presentation included a group activity that asked participants to identify and analyze CCDC’s current structure and how it could be improved. Jablokow noticed people were not only engaged in the activity, but also discussing how they could collaborate better going forward.

Ugarte and Willison noted Jablokow’s ability to connect with the group was part of what made the presentation successful. Given many of the senior leaders had backgrounds in academics and engineering, Jablokow and her approach were familiar and relatable.

“In some respects, she was speaking the same language and was able to put it in context,” Willison said. “If [the presentation] came off as purely academic, it would have fallen flat, so the fact that it was both rooted in strong academics but also can be practically applied is what made the session worthwhile.”

Wins was also pleased with the results and gave Jablokow a commendation for her work. Several of CCDC’s sub-commands approached Jablokow following the workshop to discuss the possibility of her presenting to their groups.

For Jablokow, her presentations and workshops are all part of her service to the public. The impact she’s made goes beyond that, though — improved collaboration, communication and trust ensures CCDC can continue to develop cutting-edge technologies that benefit both the military and civilians.

“Whatever we do, it’s about people,” Ugarte said. “It’s about being able to resonate what you do with that core value of the human being involved in that activity.”

 

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A man presents a woman with a document and shakes her hand

Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins presents Kathryn Jablokow, associate chief academic officer and professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, with a commendation following her presentation.

We often say that something is greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to science and engineering in the Army, that should be true. We’ve got all these labs and they’re all doing cool things, but imagine what they could accomplish if they were all doing things together.”

— Kathryn Jablokow, associate chief academic officer, professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, Penn State Great Valley

 
 

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