Culture at our core

26 April 2023

By Steve Foxley, CEO, University of Sheffield AMRC 

Article featured in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

We focus most of our attention on technology. The developments in machining, composites, castings or automation. The improvements we bring in capability; the impact and the opportunity for growth across multiple firms, sectors and places. But for this edition of the Journal, I want to talk about culture.  

It is hard to think of a time when we have been more tested as an organisation, as communities and as individuals. For me, that is when culture comes to the fore.

We emerge from a COVID Pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of peoples lives, changed how we behave and how we do business. There is a painful and extremely worrying, ongoing war of attrition in Ukraine. We are operating in the teeth of economic uncertainty and cost increases that impact on all of our lives and the choices we make.  Our climate is vulnerable and changing. Our inboxes are busy and getting busier. This trend is not reversing anytime soon.

These are the conditions we navigate and operate within and can serve to sap confidence in ourselves, our organisation and wider community. It is in these moments of challenge and change that our culture is most important. It sits at our core and it is the reason that I have for a long time subscribed to the Paul Drucker totem that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

In this tight grip of circumstances, I am immensely proud of all that we have achieved. We have effectively responded to some of the challenges presented and continue to show resilience and adaptability when faced with the unexpected. As individuals, I know that many have been profoundly affected by the pandemic in particular but also by challenges in the workplace and cost of living pressures. The demand for our services has increased across a breadth of manufacturing and technology challenges. We are rightly seen in our locations as a vital driver of future economic growth. We are having an impact which makes us a magnet for those thinking about future policy. This thrives not just on our technical acumen, but how we work as an organisation spread across groups and geographies.

We are delivering. Whether on our financial metrics or the outcomes desired of our industrial partners we are meeting and often exceeding expectations. Our skills and capabilities are enjoying increased demand. With our centres in Lancashire and Broughton we are spreading our wings into fresh manufacturing challenges, building new capabilities and working with a greater array of companies with manufacturing challenges. 

Alongside this we are improving our organisation and the spread of impact we are having in the places we operate.

In the teeth of so much external churn, I am thrilled with how we are developing our organisation to be more effective in how we operate, more transparent and driving our wider external impact:

  • Our digital transformation. As we regularly advise companies, understanding data can support better decision-making and ultimately better outcomes. Through our adoption of digital tools, we are gaining a much better understanding of the AMRC. Our project management tool of Harbour is giving us a single version of truth across the hundreds of ongoing innovation projects, which we can share in real time with our collaborators and partners.  
  • STEM. Illuminating the value of science and engineering to the school children across South Yorkshire, Lancashire and Wales is a key priority for us. Our STEM engagement is a vital part of our mission. Whether we are encouraging girls to stay longer in STEM subjects with AMRC role models they can look up to or providing focused classroom activities around core principles of engineering, our team are bringing to life opportunities that may not otherwise be clear. Last year we provided 953 STEM Ambassador hours to 24 schools, with more than 100 engagements with 2,714 children. This involved a mixture of in-school activities, site tours, work experience and large events such as MACH 2022 and North Star which featured Prof Brian Cox.
  • At the National Science Museum our AMRC engineers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with heroic key workers from the NHS and the geniuses who make the magic happen in Marvel superhero movies in a new gallery exhibition at the Science Museum in London celebrating the vital role of technicians. Visitors can experience the work of technicians and engineers at the AMRC, by testing innovative designs using computer-aided design (CAD) and experimenting with simple coding to optimise the movement of a robotic arm, watching it in action in a task inspired by the use of robotics in recycling facilities. The gallery allows visitors to hear the inspirational stories of real-world technicians. Huge illustrations of engineers Rebecca Wright and Charles Oglesby at work adorn the walls, alongside bespoke exhibits that were created with the expertise and support of our technical leads David Kay and John Halfpenny. To have our people, from apprentices right through to project engineers and technical experts, involved in such an important gallery at a national museum - one that attracts millions of visitors every year from across the world -  is a real pride point in our AMRC story and our role in encouraging the talent pool of tomorrow.
  • Resilience matters. I know that day-to-day experiences of work are not a parade of highlights. It can be disruptions, change, often unpredictable and too often a litany of frustrations. I am proud that despite the pressures, we have been resilient and grown stronger. Not bounced back, but forward. Colleagues and friends have left the AMRC, and we have welcomed new ones. The results of the staff survey and our mood indicator tool signals that we are pointing in the right direction.

We have a lot to be proud of.…. but there is a lot more to do.

If we take a longer view, our organisation has changed. We all know that we have grown enormously in capabilities, staff numbers, square footage of buildings and revenue, but so has our complexion and outlook. If we are going to have the impact we aspire to - leaders, software makers, grant writers, data scientists, project managers, storytellers, administrators and events specialists are a critical part of our team. 

This array of talent helps us to innovate better technology, but vitally to better connect with our funders, our partners and our communities. 

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