URS – a case study of an organisation that values the resources and knowledge of its employees

A few years ago, URS had a change in Managing Director for its UK business, and an opportunity to re-appraise how it was running the business.  It recognised that a key factor was the resource and knowledge of URS’s employees, and its desire to not only retain people, but also ensure that they had a strong career path, and a sense that their contributions are valued.

URS is an extremely large environmental and engineering company, with 55 thousand employees spread across the US, Asia-Pacific, and most of Western Europe, and a turnover of $10.5 billion per year.  Its HQ is in San Francisco.  It is split into 3 divisions: the URS Division, which focuses on engineering and environmental consultancy and design; the Washington Division which focuses on programme, construction and project management for transportation and energy sector projects and for the nuclear industry in particular; and the EG&G Division which focuses on defence projects.

I spoke to Malcolm Weston, Knowledge and Information Manager in URS Corporation Ltd the UK-based company within the URS Division, and Treasurer on the NetIKX (Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange) committee, to get a better understanding of what URS was doing to build strong teams, foster knowledge sharing, and generally enable good morale within its organisation.

URS are recipients of the Investors In People (IIP) award. When the new UK Managing Director was appointed and URS Corporation Ltd was established as the company through which the URS Division would operate in the UK as part of the wider URS group, it was an opportunity to take what was already a core of good practice in the Bedford office, and introduce it as a model for the rest of the UK organisation.  The Divisions’ clients also strongly encouraged them to apply for the IIP award as a formal badge of approval for the way they worked.  URS got its first certification in 2003 / 2004 on the strength of what they already had in place, and were again successful on the IIP’s second visit, despite increases in the level of standard expected.

The kind of practices that URS has adopted to qualify for the IIP award include:

  • Strong employee empowerment in areas such as safety and employee / team recognition.  Safety is a key aspect of URS’s work, and any employee can stop a piece of work if they see that something unsafe is taking place.  Likewise, any employee can nominate an individual, or a team that they feel has gone out of their way to help others or to contribute to the organisation’s work.
  • There are also strong employee benefits such as sports & social clubs in most offices – which build the quality of interaction within teams; opportunities to take part in charitable events during company time, and with matching company sponsorship; the ability to buy extra holiday time; medical membership for the individual plus reduced rates for family members.
  • There is an annual staff satisfaction survey, the results of which are reviewed as part of the quarterly team briefings relating to the IIP award held by Department Heads.

There are examples of how URS values expertise and knowledge sharing:

  • The career progression path enables individuals to be recognised and to progress as technical experts, rather than having to become part of the management progression.
  • Strong relationships are maintained with those who decide to leave, such that some of them continue to collaborate as external consultants with URS, or indeed return to URS on a higher grade after gaining external experience.
  • URS will sometimes support smaller specialist consultancies, for instance by providing Health & Safety advice.
  • There is a UK Business Improvement Board, on which Malcolm sits as an advisor for knowledge sharing strategies and techniques.
  • The corporate intranet includes subject / group areas for sharing knowledge and experience, and Malcolm is also introducing ways to capture and share knowledge between projects.

Altogether, URS illustrates an appealing range of approaches for building strong teams, fostering knowledge sharing, and generally enabling good morale within its organisation.

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