Northeastern helps FBI transform its culture

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has made a transformational shift to be more intelligence driven and place greater emphasis on terrorism prevention and strategic thinking, according to Thomas Harrington, the FBI’s associate deputy director.

Changing the culture of the nation’s top law enforcement agency hasn’t been easy, Harrington told more than 50 members of the Northeastern University community at the Alumni Center Tuesday night, but it’s been a necessary shift to combat the emerging challenges of tomorrow — including the growing threats of cyber security — and keep Americans safe.

“When you really look at where we were 10 years ago and where we are today, it’s been a remarkable change,” Harrington said.

Northeastern has played a key role in helping the FBI manage its way through this transformation over the last few years. Through a College of Business Administration (CBA) custom executive education program, about 400 FBI managers, analysts and other officials have gone through strategic change management and leadership training led by CBA faculty, with input from Harrington.

David Abdow, CBA’s associate dean of executive programs, said: “We provide frameworks, concepts and tools that they can use back on the job to help implement the kind of transformation and change processes the organization is looking for.”

“[At the FBI], we’re looking to build alliances with other professional organizations, and in the academic world, we see Northeastern as one of those centers of excellence that we can gain a great deal of value from,” said Harrington, adding that he often refers to CBA professor Bert Spector’s text book, “Implementing Organizational Change: Theory Into Practice.”

Abdow said that for the last five years, CBA has placed a renewed focus on custom executive education — offering company-specific programs that are customized to meet their partners’ needs.

The executive education program stems from Northeastern’s leadership in experience-based education. In addition to the FBI, other executive education corporate partners include IBM, EMC, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Putnam Investments and The MathWorks.

During his campus visit to Northeastern this week, Harrington also met with members of Northeastern and CBA’s leadership teams and interacted with students in Spector’s High-Tech MBA class on strategic change management.

In August 2010, Harrington was appointed associate deputy director, the third-highest post in the FBI. Prior to his appointment, Harrington led the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, the FBI’s largest operational entity. He also worked to establish the FBI’s National Security Branch in 2005.

“Most companies can produce a very good strategy,” Harrington said, “but it’s a very small percentage that can handle the premium of the execution piece. We think we’ve done that at the FBI, even though we have a long way to go.

“We continue to want to look at tools and process and bringing people who can help us understand the way forward in what’s becoming a very complex world with all kinds of new threats and challenges.”