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Science meets culture.

An interview with Oregon Research Institute's Cynthia Guinn

Oregon Research Institute is an independent nonprofit behavioral sciences research center in Eugene. Its scientists focus on social and medical issues such as adolescent depression, childhood behavioral problems, tobacco and substance abuse, and chronic physical illness. Funding comes primarily from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. Besides enjoying an international reputation in the behavioral sciences, ORI, which ranked 13th among this year's Best Companies to Work For, has been lauded for its worker-friendly culture, democratic management style and wide-ranging menu of benefits.

Oregon Business associate editor Janet Colwell spoke with Cynthia Guinn, ORI's administrative coordinator, about the group's research directions and management strategy. This is the first in a series of Q&As with Best Company leaders that will appear monthly in Oregon Business.

Oregon Business: What is the history of ORI?

Cynthia Guinn: Paul Hoffman, a former University of Oregon psychology professor known for his research on human judgment and decision-making, founded ORI in 1960. During the next decade, the institute attracted an extraordinary ensemble of young scientists, many of whom have become world-renowned, making contributions in the areas of personality assessment, judgment and decision-making, and social learning theory.

When Paul left in 1977, many of the scientists left to create their own research centers, some of which are still here in Eugene (such as Oregon Social Learning Center and Decision Research). Four scientists remained, continued to write proposals and were successful, and the institute once again began to grow. We refer to this as the rebirth of ORI because the focus shifted from basic research to applied research that could make a difference in people's daily lives.

What are some examples of ORI's applied research projects?

One of our projects works with dental hygienists by giving them the tools and training to talk to patients about the dangers of chewing tobacco. Another project is collaborating with the Oregon Health Division and the Oregon Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs on a three-year study to discover the effects of both tobacco control practices and individual risk factors on the prevalence of tobacco use among high school and middle school students. This information will help state agencies select and support effective programs in their efforts to decline adolescent tobacco use.

What are ORI's main areas of research?

We have done pioneering work on adolescent depression and adolescence and family substance abuse. Some studies have been following kids for almost 20 years, monitoring how their family interactions affect their substance abuse. We work with schools, communities and parents to improve child-rearing practices. We're currently working in Portland to promote physical activity among teenagers and the elderly. We also collaborate with doctors' offices to test interventions that help diabetics maintain their regimens.

Oregon Business and others have singled out ORI for creating an employee-friendly workplace. What makes this such a great place to work?

Our standard medical, dental and pension benefits are quite generous. In fact, our board made a conscious decision to offer benefits over and above the usual. That's one of the ways that we attract people. Some of our nonstandard benefits are reflected in our Work environment. We offer yoga and tai chi classes, bicycle tune ups and chair massages. We have a company raft trip every year. We allow pets in the workplace. We allow people to bring in their babies and young children. We have a humor group that sponsors board games and snacks once a month. We also have a very generous professional development program and a state-of-the-art computer lab for employees' personal use.

Our scientists are often attracted by our commitment to allowing them as much freedom as possible. There's no one here dictating what they should be researching. We allow people to follow their stream of interest.

ORI also has an unusual management system that involves all of its employees. Can you describe that?

Yes, we are participatory managed. Every one belongs to one of two councils. If you're a scientist, you belong to the scientist council. If you're not a scientist, you belong to a science support council. The councils elect representatives to committees and ORI's board of directors. Two-thirds of the members of our board of directors are employees. We're run by committees that function like mini boards of directors for various departments of the organization, such as facilities, computers or human resources. The manager of a particular function answers to his or her mini board about any policies or procedures that they want to put forth. In addition, any employee can bring an issue or idea forth to me, a committee or the board.

So, everyone who works here can have a say in the way the company is run?

Yes, and we listen to anyone and everyone. Many times our great ideas for HR, for example, come from employees in other departments. Once a policy or procedure is okayed by that committee, it goes to the councils for approval and then on to the board of directors. So things come to the board from the bottom up most of the time.

What is your personal management philosophy?

I believe in two things: giving employees independence to do their jobs and in working together as a team. Teamwork is very important to us. Part of our 360 degree evaluation system is how well you work within a team. Given that we have a committee sys tem, being able to work and play well with others is integral to working well here.

How do employees respond to the team-based approach?

They love it. It's so motivating to have someone ask your opinion and then listen to you. I couldn't imagine working any other way.

ORI allows employees a lot of freedom to manage their own time. For example, they can attend a child's afternoon soccer game or attend to other family commitments during the day. How does this affect their productivity?

Our employees are very productive. As much as possible, we give employees the freedom to come and go as they need. If you have a doctor's appointment or your child has to do some thing in the middle of the day, you're free to do that. I think that produces a very productive employee -- they may not be working in the 8-to-5 timeframe, but in our business that doesn't really matter. As long as you get the work done. It's all about treating people as individuals and respecting them.

As a nonprofit, ORI depends on government grants. Does this create uncertainty or lean times during government cutbacks?

We have been very successful with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in particular. It's scary getting your money primarily from one agency, but it hasn't been a problem for us, mostly because we have bipartisan commitment for medical research in Washington and we don't see a change in that for at least the next eight years. There have been quite a few surveys that show that people want medical research to happen, and that includes behavioral research. So, we don't see the money drying up. NIH, NSF (National Science Foundation) and other agencies have been getting increases every year.

What is your relationship with the University of Oregon?

We have no official connection with the UO. We do have a few scientists who are also professors at the university and some of our scientists collaborate with scientists there.

Do ORI scientists collaborate with colleagues at other institutes or universities?

Our scientists collaborate with other scientists all over the world. For example, one of our scientists just got funded for basic research on personality. His group is going to Africa to test African languages and how they define personalities. This is our first study in Africa and we're very excited about it!

To put your company on the list for next year's "100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon" mailing.


Oregon Research Institute Employees: 240 (32 scientists; 208 support staff)

Financials as of Dec. 31,2000:

Net assets: $521,959

Total revenues (primarily from grants and contracts): $12,604,449

Number of grants: 52

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Title Annotation:Oregon Research Institute
Publication:Oregon Business
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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