partial recall

a blog of ideas, links, and musings.

Effective Culture Change in the FBI

I recently read a CIO Magazine article that discusses some of problems the FBI has faced while attempting to implement technical solutions. Although technology projects have been successfully implemented, there still exists a culture that mimimizes the importance of these solutions. The article states

Azmi [FBI CIO] is aware of the mountain that faces him—not to mention the consequences if he fails to deliver the support systems the agents need to fight against high-tech crime and terrorism. “Looking at the mission of the FBI and how critical it is, I will tell you that we are at war,” he says. “And the best tool we have is information, and if information doesn’t get to agents on the street in time, then we haven’t done our job properly.”

Last year I wrote a paper entitled, “Effective Culture Change.” The paper was written as part of a graduate school team experience for the Department of Justice’s Library Services division. Although the paper was targeted to a specific audience within the DoJ‘s Justice Management Division, I feel the paper could be used to address some of the culture problems within the FBI and the DoJ as a whole.

First, let me define organizational culture. Claver, et al. (2001, p.248) define organizational culture as:

“A set of values, symbols and rituals shared by the members of a specific firm, which describes the way things are done in an organization in order to solve both internal management problems and those related to customers, suppliers and the environment.”

This culture manifests itself at both a visible level (age, ethnicity, gender, dress, organizational structure, symbols, slogans, etc.) and an invisible level (time, motivation, stability vs. change, orientation towards work, individualism vs. collaboration, control, how management views IT, etc.).

I believe the primary reason for failed IT projects and a revolving door of CIOs at the FBI is primarily due to the agency’s culture, not failed technologies or poor CIO leadership. Let me elaborate…

New IBM employees receive a laptop computer when they start working for this technology company. Right from the get-go, these employees receive the cultural message that, “We are a company that relies on information access and information sharing.” What if federal employees in agencies such as the FBI could receive this cultural message too by receiving their very own laptop? Unfortunately, according to the Washington Post,

“Nearly 60 percent of federal employees are over age 45, compared with about 31 percent of the nation’s workforce. More than half of all federal workers will be eligible for retirement or early retirement within five years.”

Could part of this technology resistance be related to the average age of federal employees, including FBI employees? I find it abominable that former FBI Director Lois Freeh didn’t even have a computer at his desk! The CIO Magazine article goes on to state

“The FBI’s dismissive attitude toward IT was embodied by former FBI Director Freeh, who ran the Bureau from 1993 to just before 9/11. “[Freeh] was not an IT person,” says a former DoJ IT manager familiar with the FBI IT culture. He and the businesspeople around him were uncomfortable within technology.”

The CIO Magazine article implies that the culture still hasn’t changed, even after FBI Director Robert Mueller started his post in September 2001. What’s particularly interesting about this is that under Attorney General Ashcroft’s leadership, the 2002 DoJ Information Technology Plan stated:

Establish an Environment That is Conducive to Change

“There will be a large number of changes introduced so DoJ should take steps to increase its capacity to successfully adopt to change. The culture must embrace and reward change attributes, such as flexibility, adaptability, innovation, and resiliency.” (USDOJ-JMD, 2002, p.31)

That “success factor” was documented in a 2002 publication. So, how successful is the FBI? What about the DoJ? So, is it the responsibility of FBI CIO Zalmal Azmi to effectively change the agency’s culture? Here are some of my recommendations:


Leadership should clearly and openly communicate (and model) to employees the value of the desired change. Culture change doesn’t occur simply by implementing a new technology or Director Mueller giving Azmi authority over the IT budget. Leadership means ALL leadership – extended to Director Mueller all the way to the Attorney General. Azmi cannot do it on his own – he must have true support from top-most leadership. The previously mentioned “success factor” stresses a need for change, but have leaders implemented specific policies and reward systems (versus technology solutions) that communicate a support for risk taking and change and provide tolerance for employee mistakes?

Training and Organizational Development

Training is vital for an organization that desires effective culture change. A few suggestions might include:

  • Team-building activities involving cross-functional, or even cross-divisional teams, may foster greater trust and provide better opportunities for information sharing.
  • Large group interventions are organizational development activities that involve representative stakeholders meeting at length to discuss problems and create plans for change.
  • Survey-feedback activities allow leadership to conduct a cultural analysis to determine where the organization stands on these desired dimensions.
  • Initiate a mentorship program like that offered by Fannie Mae [no longer available – scanned hardcopy to PDF – 12.2 MB]


The Department of Justice has a traditionally divisional structure. This structure works well when adapting to the needs of its environment, but this structure (in addition to the needed levels of information security) often leads to poor levels of communication and coordination among divisions. I am not convinced that the Department can abandon its divisional groupings because of its sheer size. However, by implementing a horizontal structure within each division, boundaries would more likely be broken within the DoJ, promoting collaboration for learning and change, which requires changes in employee empowerment, information sharing, and culture. One radical idea might be to look from a macro level to see if the DoJ organizational structure could be combined under an umbrella consisting of the following groupings:

  • Policy;
  • Investigation/enforcement;
  • Litigation; and
  • Administration.


Fostering a collaborative culture in the DoJ and the FBI will affect the likelihood of successfully implementing a technical solution. Damodaran (1996, p. 304) lists the following benefits of user involvement:

  1. Improved quality of the system arising from more accurate user requirements.
  2. Avoiding costly system features that the user did not want or cannot use.
  3. Improved levels of acceptance of the system.
  4. Greater understanding of the system by the user resulting in more effective use.
  5. Increased participation in decision-making in the organization.

Learning from Success Stories

The FBI is not the only federal agency that struggles to change its culture so that it embraces information sharing. The Department of Defense provides the best example of how a federal Department can change, and it seems that the FBI can look to these kinds of success stories to see how it might become more of a learning organization. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, the Army realized that they would need to focus their energies on more complex threats. Leadership determined that there needed to be an abundance of tools to provide all personnel with the information needed at any given time. The Army required training and education programs that rewarded the sharing of “Lessons Learned” and “Best Practices.” In addition, they implemented a number of sophisticated knowledge management systems, including Army Knowledge Online – that provides a wealth of timely information to all personnel. Future plans within the DoD include integrating this system with knowledge management systems from the other defense branches.


Many people are not willing to change unless they perceive a problem or crisis. Resistance to change is often a result of self-interest (fear of loss of power, prestige, pay, benefits), lack of understanding and trust, uncertainty, or differing assessments and goals. The DoJ and the FBI has been accused of having problems with effective information sharing, including the accusation that the Department fosters a culture that resists this activity. The DoJ and the FBI must effectively address these issues and identify strategies for becoming an organization that embraces change attributes and the importance of effective information access and sharing.

When efforts to implement change fail, a common cause is insufficient attention to the people side of change. Too many times CIOs are really CTOs, brought in to implement these cultural and stretegic changes. Unfortunately, their expertise might be more concentrated on implementing technologies, not changing people. I would urge leadership to treat information as a resource (on par with human resources, financial resources, physical resources) and consider how they can change the organization’s information culture first through the people-side of change.

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