Looking at those ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, which I was doing to construct an org design case study, leaves me wondering who they are directed at. They contain useful, perhaps factual, and certainly carefully chosen information that presents aspects people in External Comms Departments want other people to know.  But it’s not clear which people they are targeting – researchers, analysts, investors customers, employees?  Thus, in general, an organisation’s ‘about’ page tells a thin, partial story.

In some aspects the ‘About’ page is like an organisation chart.  It has some information but is significantly incomplete – an organisation chart doesn’t tell you what the organisation is ‘about’ and neither does the ‘About’ page.   As an example, compare two banks’ ‘About’ opening paras:

Triodos Bank is a global pioneer in sustainable banking, using the power of finance to support projects that benefit people and the planet. We believe that banking can be a powerful force for good: serving individuals and communities as well as building a more sustainable society’.

HSBC is ‘one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations. We serve around 38 million customers through four global businesses: Retail Banking and Wealth Management, Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets, and Global Private Banking’.

Although these paint very different pictures of each organisation and hint at different pre-occupations and organisation designs, they both miss what I think is a key feature of ‘Aboutness’ –  the feelings, behaviours,  experiences and human-ness that includes stories,  anecdotes and conversations illustrating answers to questions like  ‘What does it feel like to work in this place?  How do our customers experience our products and services?  How principled are we in what we do?  How do we relate to each other?  What makes us laugh?  How do we look out for each other’?

Last week when I was pondering ‘About’, I was also acting as a guide to a friend who was visiting the UK for the first time.  I took her to various places to give her a flavour of ‘about UK’. (Read the BBC version here.)  Heaven knows what she now thinks the UK is ‘about’ but we had a good time and she gave up the idea that we all ate buttered crumpets and drank tea from bone china teacups at 4:00 p.m. every day, sitting in Cotswold cottages with Farrow and Ball wallpaper.  (Possibly these ideas were gleaned from some other ‘About Britain’ page?)

In the course of the week, I (we) met four people who were all volunteer workers in their respective organisations.  Philip, an ‘ambassador’ (according to the badge he wore) was very amusing in his telling of Blickling Hall’s history, Margaret, a volunteer encouraged us to participate in Blickling’s ‘The Word Defiant’ participative art installation. Roger educated us, in the most delightful way on Cromer’s RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) station and Shelia co-hosted the Freedom from Torture, Write to Life group’s summer party.

They told us the ‘party-line’ story that they were there to tell – for example, Philip talked about the history of Blickling Hall, told us why some of the buildings had chimneys and some didn’t and gave us various other info snippets.   The fun thing was he did so in an uninhibited, involving, humorous way that left us asking each other if in his non-volunteer role he was a comic actor or had been an eccentric history teacher (or both) – he gave people a toffee if they could answer one of his questions correctly.

In telling their ‘required’ story the volunteers also told different story about their organisations – almost as an unconscious variant of that left-hand column right hand column exercise.  Margaret, for example, said that ‘Head Office’ was expecting the volunteers to encourage Blickling House visitors to interact with the Defiant activities ‘Head Office thinks it’s a good thing so we have to do it.’   She expressed amusement tinged with bemusement as visitors, prompted by her in a kind, considerate, way busily redacted words from a copy of a page of Northanger Abbey to create a sentence about their experience of the exhibition from the words they left visible.

Roger was amazing in his knowledge of the RNLI and a passionate supporter of its principles.  He loved the way, as he put it, the organisation is run as efficiently as possible in a pragmatic/common sense way that gets the best from people.  He was a real champion of its value to communities and societies.

And Sheila was adamant that she wasn’t the Write to Life group’s ‘co-ordinator’.  She said she supported and facilitated what the group wanted to do, but it’s ‘their group.’

What I found strking about the four was they didn’t have any of the aura of  ’employees’. They loved what they were doing and that’s why they did it.  (Notice they are also not subject to the same organisationational stuff as employees, which may be what makes a difference).

Each gave us a rich and human glimpse of their organisations – a very different take from the sterile and impersonal ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, or many employees give in the course of delivering ‘the customer experience’. All four were hugely enthusiastic, energetic, and involved in their first-hand ‘abouts’ of their organisations and the bit they worked in.  They were upbeat, positive, and dedicated to serving what they saw as the clear purpose of their organisations.

Contrast their attitudes with what Jeffrey Pfeffer would have us believe in his new book ‘Dying for a Paycheck’.  This ‘maps a range of ills in the modern workplace — from the disappearance of good health insurance to the psychological effects of long hours and work-family conflict — and how these are killing people’ or a similar book by David Graebner, Bullshit Jobs which examines the question, ‘Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need?’

Neither book celebrates the joy of working that the volunteers demonstrated.  So now I’m wondering if volunteer work is ‘about’ enjoyment, purpose and contribution while paid employment is about meaningless jobs? It can’t be as clear cut as that.  Surely the people on the payroll of the RNLI, Blickling Hall, or Freedom from Torture don’t feel they are in bullshit jobs.  And what about people who are in paid jobs but are also volunteers in other organisations, or who participate in employer-led volunteer schemes?  How do they feel about working in the different contexts?

What is it about volunteers and their work that makes them about advocating for their organisations in a way that being a paid employee doesn’t?   If we could capitalise on their enthusiasm and commitment would our organisations, and their ‘about’ pages start looking and feeling like great places to work.  What can we learn from the volunteer experience that we could apply to our employed workforce?  Let me know.

Image: Stained glass window, Cromer Lifeboat Station



Organisation design and national cultures

In the last several months I’ve facilitated organisation design programmes in four countries:  China, Dubai (UAE), South Africa, and UK.  In some of them there have been both that country’s nationals and people from other countries.  Across the programmes I remember representatives from Iran, Zambia, Egypt, America, Canada, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uganda, and Germany.  There may have been others.

During the last programme someone asked whether I’d noticed national cultural differences in approaches to organisation design.   This question led to quite long discussion on three aspects in particular:

  1. Are some organisational structures more prevalent than others in certain countries?
  2. Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?
  3. What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?

The question on whether some organisational structures are more prevalent than othres in certain countries led us to look at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and see what they could offer as insights.  Does a high score on the Power-Distance dimension, for example, lead to more hierarchical organisational structures in countries with a high score on that?  The Power-Distance dimension ‘deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.  … At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized’ (China’s ranking on this dimension is  80, United Arab Emirates 90, South Africa 49, UK at 35).

This dimension could lead to the assumption that hierarchical structures are more favoured in China than in the UK.  Obviously, this is a risky assumption – I’d like to know how many multi-national companies adjust their structures in relation to a perceived cultural dimension.   (Either to challenge or reinforce it).   And there are many critiques of Hofstede’s work.  One, well thought-through and frequently cited is the paper by Brendan McSweeney, ‘Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith — a failure of analysis’.  Having done his analysis and discussion he comments on the “on-going unquestioning acceptance of Hofstede’s national culture research by his evangelized entourage”

However, in our case, it led to a rich debate on the relationship of structure (as in organisation chart) to culture and how we recognise the ways in which our cultural biases – conscious or unconscious – influence our guidance of our organisation towards an appropriate structure.

The second question ‘Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?’  led us again to the power-distance dimension of Hofstede’s model.  This time applied to the role of leaders.  People talked about:

  1. Leaders who think design is moving the lines and boxes with the organisation chart and there is no swaying them from this process.  (One participant in the programme was being barraged by SMS messages from a member of her executive team urging her to produce the new organisation chart immediately).   Participants were very anxious about this leadership tendency to ‘do’ re-design by organisation chart which they felt was risky, it often focused on personalities and not purpose (beyond the personalities), it neglected the involvement and participation of people actually doing the work being re-allocated, and it was unreflective of the possible unintended consequences.   A Deloitte survey found that ‘Restructuring efforts like that can undermine faith in the wisdom of an organization’s leadership, which actually erodes value and team coherence.’
  2. The difficulties they (course participants) have in selling the benefits to resistant leaders of reflective systems thinking, employee participation in the process, developing more than one design option and thinking of the work before the structure. This difficulties are exacerbated for internal organisation designers as they are typically hierarchically subordinate to their client/sponsor and sometimes lack business credibility in terms of language, operational background, perceived business savvy and other factors.

In relation to the resistant leader issue, Hofstede’s power/distance dimension is picked up in Erin Meyer’s culture map work, where her scale on leading ‘measures the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures, placing countries on a spectrum from egalitarian to hierarchical.’  Her map draws on Hofstede’s work and also on that of Robert House and his colleagues in their GLOBE (global leadership and organizational behaviour effectiveness) study of 62 societies.

The studies suggest that where leaders behave as authority figures they expect others to behave as subordinate to them – and subordinates, consciously and unconsciously, do just that.  It’s often hard for a subordinate organisation designer to challenge a superior leader to discuss alternate ways of designing and for a superior to accept the challenge from a subordinate, even if the challenge comes from a position of consultant expertise.

We discussed how to overcome this superior/subordinate response in order to generate a more reflective approach from leaders.  A few suggestions surfaced:

  • Building leader awareness of the risks of ‘org chart’ restructures – a short video from Q5 Partners is a good discussion starter.
  • The Deloitte paper, mentioned above, could foster discussion, as could an article by strategy& 10 Principles of Organization Design that urges leaders to fix the structure last not first. ‘Structure should be the last thing you change: the capstone, not the cornerstone, of that [organization design] sequence. Otherwise, the change won’t sustain itself.’
  • There’s an excellent one-pager on systems thinking, from the Waters Foundation,  that you could broker a discussion with.
  • Using external consultants as influencers and persuaders on the merits of systems based design can help mitigate the risks of going down the lines and boxes approach.

(I’m not convinced that unwillingness to reflect on a systems/participative approach to organisation design work is part and parcel of a national cultural attribute of power/distance but it’s a reasonable hanger for a discussion on how to stop leaders heading first for the organisation chart).

The third question ‘What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?’ can also be discussed in relation to one of Hofstede’s dimensions, long term orientation. ‘Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.  Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.’ (China’s score on this dimension is 87, UAE has no score, United Kingdom 51 and South Africa 34).

This suggests that China may be more open to designing organisations differently, but a recent research article ‘uncovered twelve barriers to strategic design practice and leadership in China. Six of these are similar to hindrances experienced elsewhere, and the other six are unique to this study. The six common barriers include CEOs don’t understand strategic design, and ‘design is not given the ability to lead’ explained as ‘Designers tend to be seen as third-class citizens and ‘Top managers don’t see design as essential; no discernible design process’.

If you have a discernible organisation design process and still want to short-cut it what are the choices?  I’m still working on that one for the next programme!

Do you think national culture is an important factor in developing and/or applying an organisation design process?  Let me know.

Image: Canvas of Diversity