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I am currently writing up my PhD which focuses on how organisations manage change.  Well, there is more to it than that but it takes a while to explain!  Anyway, I was reflecting the other day on the key themes that have come out of my research so far and once I had started writing them, I thought that they might also be interesting to a broader audience.

In the organisation that I am studying, the corporate culture and values (it is a mutual insurance organisation) are seen as really important to employees and something that resonates strongly with their own personal values.  This has come out really strongly with all the participants in my study and is something that they are anxious to save during the current period of change.  Whilst there is recognition amongst them that the organisation needs to modernise, there is real fear that the organisation will change too much and lose something important from the past.  Fair enough you might say!

But, when I have tried to delve deeper into how this culture and values manifests itself in everyday life; what actually happens in the organisation to show that this is ‘the way things are done around here’; I have been unable to find any answers, despite my best efforts.  Something just seems to happen to people once they join, and they feel part of the organisation and identify strongly with it.  There are no formal induction programmes or communication of the culture or values to reinforce them, it seems to happen by osmosis.

This got me thinking about all the change programmes that I have been involved with as a consultant and made me realise that as consultants, we talk a lot about creating a new corporate culture, how to communicate it so that employees understand it but very little about maintaining the bits of the organisation that are important to employees during and after a period of change.  And, I would guess, these aspects of the organisation are probably important to customers too.

Additionally, if we are not able to define how the culture and values are maintained in the organisation on a day to day basis, then how can we keep this culture going through a period of change?  How can we allay the fears of employees that all the good bits of their organisation are going to be lost?  I’m not sure I have the answers to this one yet but perhaps it will become clearer to me as I continue to write my thesis.  Watch this space!

The other thing that occurred to me was how the perceptions of the participants have changed through my work with them over the last 12 months.  When I first started working with them in action research groups, they were negative about employees who had been in the organisation for a while and were seen as being disruptive to even minor changes to current ways of working.  These ‘old guard employees’ were seen as too negative and dissatisfied and the participants couldn’t understand how they could be so negative about an organisation that they themselves loved.  These other employees were even described as ‘organisational terrorists’!  Fast forward 12 months and now the participants are complaining about ‘new people’ who have been brought in to drive forward change and how these new people don’t respect the history of the organisation!

This struck me as really interesting and something for me to bear in mind in future consultancy assignments.  I’ve previously used the change curve to talk to clients about how people move through a change programme but I hadn’t really considered that people move through a lifecycle in terms of their temporal relationship with their employer, i.e. who is new? who is old guard?  And that this can be different in different organisations.  In my research organisation, long service is not unusual and so someone can be considered to be ‘new’ even if they have been with the organisation for 5 years.  When I worked for one of the Big 4 consultancy firms, my 10 year tenure made me positively prehistoric.

So, what am I going to take away from this experience so far?  Well, I’m hoping that more insights will emerge as I continue my writing but so far, I have learnt that:

  • It can be really difficult to pin down how an organisation culture or values are created but if they are something that employees identify strongly with and if they are positive to the organisation, then efforts need to be made to maintain them during change…even if they are difficult to define.  Efforts should be made to communicate with employees during change to understand what elements of the organisation they identify with and how this can be maintained.
  • Employees can change their perception of their place in the organisation during a period of change and so can switch from being a ‘newbie’ who supports change, to an ‘oldie’ who fears it.  In a short space of time.  So, as a consultant, I need to be mindful of that in my dealings with them.  And also, be mindful of my place as a newcomer to the organisation.

I always knew that change was a journey but my research so far has surprised me with some of the outcomes.  I’m sure that there is more to come.