Friday, 17 December 2010

What is & what produces organisational health?

The GFC highlighted that what we measure, for organisational health, determines what we get. As Colin Price, Director, McKinsey & Company, puts it in his Dec 14 2010 blog on MIX: “Focusing exclusively on performance  simply does not produce long-term shareholder value,  sustainable competitive advantage, or an ability to achieve the mandates of the organization in the public sector.”

Price proposes instead that organisational health is: “the ability to get aligned, to execute at a world-class level, and to renew.”  I’ll go for that. Those are the abilities I want, but I’m still left with the problem of what to do to produce that kind of health. 

Achieving that health requires us to see our organisations in a revolutionary new way: not as bureaucratic hierarchical machines but as communities of collaborating people. Seen in that light, the fundamental purpose of all the policies, procedures, systems, processes is to enable, to free people to collaborate better.

Thus organisational health has its roots in the health of the interrelationships between the people that comprise the organisation.  So what are healthy interrelationships and how do you get them?

Some useful perspectives can be drawn from the field of population health: the qualities of interrelationships that produce community wellness and productivity, and conversely illness and dysfunction are fairly well known and are evident, for instance, in the recovery approach to mental illness.

To achieve the kind of organisational health that Price proposes we have to revolutionise the way we see and manage our organisations: the purpose, nature and content of our organisational communication and interrelationships. That requires concerted, deliberate action to change the detail of the way we communicate with each other  at work. 

For more on this see How to Fix a Mental Organisation (December 2009) and my more recent blogs (December 2010).


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Communication compulsory in only 50% of NZ undergraduate Business degrees when employers want skilled communicators

Research by Sandra Barnett & Susan O'Rourke, published in the December 2010 issue of the Communication Journal of New Zealand, shows that although employers want graduates skilled in communication, business communication is compulsory in only 50% of Business degrees from major NZ tertiary education institutions. On top of that, it's very difficult for employers to gauge what graduates may have gained from any communication courses that they did complete.

In contrast to USA & Europe, New Zealand undergraduate business education grew largely out of the accountancy field. As a result most Bachelors of Commerce have not included business communication. It has long been included in the NZ Diploma of Business but focused on skills seen as appropriate to the relatively narrow requirements of the accounting profession rather than to business in the wider sense.

With recent writers in the business management field calling for a transformation in management and organisational communication (see Stephen Denning, The death & reinvention of management. Nov 2010) it seems clear that a transformation in communication education is overdue.

Further indication of the importance of sophisticated communication skill is in the December 2010 McKinsey Quarterly.  In “The rise of the networked enterprise: Web 2.0 finds its payday” McKinsey report research showing that firms are experiencing measurable benefits in increased speed of access to knowledge, effectiveness of marketing, reduced communication costs and increased customer satisfaction.

I issued a challenge to communication educators at the December 2010 annual conference of the New Zealand Communication Association, to transform the way they organise and do communication education. Actually I challenge them to transform the way that business education generally is organised and done. Read my challenge here: Wanted: communication educators for management revolution.


Thursday, 2 December 2010

WANTED: Communication educators for management revolution

Being able to collaborate better than the competition is gold in today’s globally competitive market: the most valuable differentiator; the greatest competitive advantage a firm can have; hard to copy or replicate. But such collaboration is pretty well impossible for conventional firms to achieve because the essential behaviours and attitudes are culturally alien; beyond the experience of people in most modern workplaces; contrary to the assumptions and practices of management. To achieve collaboration requires the end of Management and the key to that is in transforming the way that people communicate at work.

As Garry Hamel says:
“Management was originally invented to solve two problems: the first—getting semiskilled employees to perform repetitive activities competently, diligently, and efficiently; the second—coordinating those efforts in ways that enabled complex goods and services to be produced in large quantities.

In a nutshell, the problems were efficiency and scale, and the solution was bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, cascading goals, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures. Equipping organizations to tackle the future would require a management revolution no less momentous than the one that spawned modern industry.”

If we accept that Garry Hamel is right, and I most certainly do, then the problem is how do we achieve that revolution; that transformation? The firm conclusion I’ve come to over a couple of decades of leading learning in Business Schools and coaching business owners for change and growth, is that a large part of the solution lies in transforming the way we manage and do education; transforming it from what it has determinedly become over the last couple of decades. That’s the opportunity for Communication educators: their mission, should they accept it.

As change leader for university business students and SME owners and managers I realised that deep learning and change was continually derailed by deep seated tacit assumptions about knowledge and how to behave in organisations; how to behave at work; how to organise work.

I realised that I and my students, colleagues and clients are deeply imbued with a picture or organisation that is imprinted, learned and reinforced through industrial-age, synchronised education where experts have authority over “children”, requiring compliance in prescribed, synchronised, trivial ‘work’.

What we learn most powerfully from that education: what remains after we’ve forgotten everything we were taught, is how to organise and behave at work.

That unconscious imprinting, which begins at around year 7 at school when children leave the ‘learning nest’ environment of pre-school and primer years, is reinforced and ingrained right through University. It’s a major reason why we unthinkingly perpetuate the mechanistic bureaucratic, hierarchical systems in which people are cooperating, synchronised machine parts; organisations are structures; and processes are engineered sequences. This is absurd when we increasingly need people to be highly engaged collaborative agents for change and innovation, dynamically linked through rich, diverse interrelationships in pursuit of shared aspirations and goals.

To be a successful entrepreneur it apparently pays to leave the industrial education process early. Many successful entrepreneurs did: before the imprinting process was complete; likely because they didn’t fit that process.

In the academic world, Business Schools have long been criticised for perpetuating outmoded, ineffective organisational behaviours, assumptions and practices. It’s only recently however, most noticeably post 2008 crash, that the more popular literature, The Wall Street Journal for example, has pronounced the “End of Management” and begun to seriously criticise and question the underpinning assumptions and the revered Harvard MBA model of business education has come in for public scrutiny and even some scorn.

Steve Denning, an author whom I stumbled across a couple of years ago and have since  become a big fan of, even participating in the editorial process of his latest book The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management (Oct 2010), puts it well in his draft article on The Death and Reinvention of Management. Here I summarise some of the main points with excerpts from that draft:

What are we to make of a rash of recent books suggesting that management as we know it today is seriously problematic? According to Matthew Stewart, management is “a myth”. Professor Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School tells us that management has “failed”. According to Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal, we are looking at “the end of management”, while CEO Jo Owen has written about “the death of management”.

“[In the USA] ROA is 25% of what it was in 1965; life expectancy of firms in the Fortune 500 is down to 15 years, only one in five workers are passionate about their work. Moreover established firms are not creating new jobs: Friedman, T. “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts” New York Times, April 3, 2010”

“This is why business leaders and writers are increasingly exploring a fundamental rethinking of the basic tenets of management. Among the most important changes proposed are five basic shifts, in terms of the firm’s goal (a shift from inside-out to outside-in), the role of managers (a shift from control to enablement), the mode of coordination (from bureaucracy to dynamic linking),  the values being practiced (a shift from value to values) and communications (a shift from command to conversation).”

“Individually, none of these shifts is new. Each shift has been pursued individually in some organizations for some years. However what we have learned is that when one of these shifts is pursued on its own, without the others, it tends to be unsustainable because it runs into conflicts with the attitudes and practices of traditional management.”

“When the five shifts are undertaken simultaneously, the result is sustainable change that is radically more productive for the organization, more congenial to innovation, and more satisfying both for those doing the work and those for whom the work is done.”

“The challenge for managers today is that in trying to elicit the energies, imagination, and creativity of their workers, they need to communicate predominantly through the language of social norms, against a history in organizations of relationships dominated by hierarchy and to a lesser extent by market pricing.”

“. . . . . management in the 21st Century requires a shift in the mode of communication from command to conversation, with adult-to-adult interactions, human being to human being, using stories, metaphors and open-ended questions. Authentic leadership storytelling has an important role to play, particularly in dealing with social media.”

So, on the one hand we have a dawning realisation that high collaboration is crucial to competitive advantage, but on the other a generally weak experience and scarce knowledge of what it is, could be, and how to get it; and organisational settings that militate against that learning. Ironically, education institutions are among the organisations where this problem is most chronic.

But here’s the thing: Communication educators, researchers and practitioners as a profession are potentially among the best equipped to lead this transformation because they presumably know of what collaboration is, can be, and how to get it. That’s because, by my understanding at least, Communication is about what happens between individuals: the shared meaning that they create.

That’s the key to the transformation. Communication educators, this is your opportunity. Your mission, should you accept it, is to focus on enabling people to experience collaboration through changing the detail of their communication behaviour; changing the way they communicate with each other; the way that they generate shared meaning; the way they produce and implement organisational knowledge.

So that’s the opportunity. That’s the challenge. Now let’s consider the organisational and pedagogical detail of how you might go about that: how you can be and produce organisational Recovery Support Workers in the recovery of organisations, currently so dysfunctional that they are effectively insane, to competitive advantage (see previous blog: "How to Fix a Mental Organisation" ).

I’m not talking about a Communication course or even a Communication programme. I’m talking about the pedagogical foundations of all courses and programmes including Communication programmes. I’m talking course process, not content. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Communication professionals.

The aim is to radically change the learning context, which is the organisational experience, from individualistic to collaborative. Remember that student’s individualistic and content-based assumptions about achievement and learning will be deeply engrained and largely unconscious. They will find the transformation process deeply disturbing, at least initially. Expect them to project their anxiety, confusion, anger, and blame on to you. This anxiety and confusion is a necessary precursor to the transformation you aim to achieve.

Expect to feel and behave similarly yourself as you learn to collaborate deeply with your colleagues. You aren’t just going to do this to your students. You’re doing it to yourself too. Denning’s five shifts have to occur simultaneously at both levels.

So if you’re highly averse to conflict and have a history of conflict avoidance, maybe don’t try this approach. Whatever, you need a well informed process plan and supporting supervision; you need to collaborate. That will be a learning experience for you too.

Because students (and employees) typically adopt a highly instrumental approach to their work (that’s the way they’ve been trained) you must radically redesign the tasks and measures to specifically reward collaborative behaviour (as mutually assessed by team members). The effect of this is to motivate teams to move beyond the usual fake-team division of tasks.


Because students (and employees) will tend to revert to accustomed child, instead of adult behaviour, wanting to be spoon fed processed information, remove yourself from the direct teaching (management) process and ban trivialised information.


I predict that you will find, as I did, that students (and employees, and you) will be amazed at the quality they (and you) can achieve together and that they become natural collaborators without realising how different they are from conventional graduates. Issues such as racial bigotry, dependence of trivialised information (PowerPoint), passive/aggressive behaviour, withdrawal, boredom, laziness and shallow instrumentality, melt away and behaviour actually changes (real, deep learning). Students achieve real insight.

You will find that when your graduates enter employment their employers credit them with exceptional “intuition”, marvel at how rapidly they become project leaders and how engaged their project teams are. They seem to adapt to and flourish in their workplaces three times faster that A grade honours graduates in their fields: in 6-8 months they are achieving what conventionally taught graduates take two years to achieve. When they enter a new situation they don’t look to the boss for a clear set of instructions. They assume that they’re to figure that out through collaboration.

It’s those radically different fundamental assumptions about communication that make these people so valuable. Yes they need subject specific knowledge, but it’s organisationally useless unless it can be productively, collaboratively shared.

As Noshir Contractor posited in The New Handbook of Organisational Communication (2001), knowledge doesn’t exist in the nodes; it exists in the web. In other words, organisational knowledge exists only between individuals as shared understanding. The most crucial skills are in generating a rich and productive shared understanding in the messy dynamics of interpersonal communication relationships.

That’s your opportunity and your challenge. You can do it.