This case study tells the story about an organizational health evaluation of a newly integrated (post-merger) company. While a principal goal of this study was to evaluate job satisfaction, loyalty and engagement, we extended our research model a step further.
The focus of this case study is to sidestep the findings about satisfaction, loyalty and engagement. Instead, we focus on the insights through looking at organizational health from a dynamic perspective.
First, it’s probably pretty important to explain why we feel that an added step is necessary. Research findings about job satisfaction, loyalty, and engagement are imperative, but only tell part of the story. At the consumer level, our level of satisfaction, loyalty and engagement tend to be simpler than many. While we as consumers might struggle with the paradox of choice, for the most part, we know what we like and we trend towards our preferences.
Therefore, measuring a marketplace is a bit simpler than measuring an organization. What does my target market prefer? What drives their decisions? And ultimately, how am I, or my company:
- Performing in delivering what is preferred?
- Navigating the parameters that drive decision?
However, at the organizational level, our level of satisfaction, loyalty and engagement are a bit more complex. The primary reason is that the predictors about these items are less tangible than in consumer markets.
For example, let’s say we find that employees feel disengaged. With more rigorous investigation, we might find that the explanation is that many employees do not feel connected to what’s going on within the company.
Admittedly, this is a finding that is tough to pin down. Are they disengaged because they are not involved or informed about the company strategy? Are they disengaged because they do not even know what the company strategy is? What if they are clearly aware of the strategy and simply do not agree with the current approach? Is it possible that they are disengaged because they feel leaders do not behave in a means that enables the strategy to be effective? Maybe they have not found their place in the sun in terms in assisting the company strategy. All of these explanations are entirely possible, and fairly common explanations for lacking engagement.
Let’s assume that we discover that one of the above questions best explains the disconnect going on. To close the gap here, several solutions might be possible. Maybe the company should send more mass communication via email to all employees? Maybe managers and leaders should spend more time with employees at the lower levels of the chain of command?
These solutions, however, might prove to be band-aids rather than a growth solution. There are many other possible explanations to disengagement that we might not observe in a traditional engagement study. Maybe these employees are silo’ed from the organization. More interestingly, maybe they are choosing to silo themselves from the inner workings of the organization. Maybe the primary source of information for disengaged employees comes from the rumor mill rather than someone closer to facts. Maybe employees are dealing with competing priorities, juggling between what is required of them vs. what is expected of them.
I think you get the idea by now, or at least we hope you do. In this case study, we will outline how an organization of this type, like most organizations, operates non-linearly. This non-linear operation thus requires a unique approach. The insights we discuss here are the result of a more rigorous approach to diagnosing organizational health.
Background & Objectives
At the organizational level, fear of change is customary, and likely escalated when a dynamic variable of uncertainty is incorporated: a corporate merger. Rarely have we seen mergers or acquisitions run smoothly, from the due diligence process to the late phases of integration execution.
In fact, if you polled employees previously influenced by a merger, you would likely only find two types of individuals with positive sentiment toward a merger:
- Those in desperation of losing a job or closing a business otherwise
- Those that stand to profit from the exchange
In the case of this company, we were pleasantly surprised to discover their level of success in terms of operational execution post-merger integration.
Nonetheless, every organization, post-integration or otherwise, tends to have some areas of improvement to consider. Albeit more subtle than one might anticipate, the context to this case is no different than many.
Organizational change often yields organizational uncertainty, subsequently yielding fear within employee circles.
Regardless of the fears present, mergers are regularly occurring business activities. We have our fair share of experience dealing with organizations before, during and after. When we engage with a client, we like to establish the parameters of the relationship early, and for this specific case, those parameters were imperative. Paramount to these is the purpose of our engagement, or simply, why did you call us, and how can we help you?
Purpose of Research – Informing the Decision
During critical time-periods in the organizational lifecycle, leadership typically favors an evaluation of the organization in terms of job satisfaction, loyalty and engagement.
While we view these as important metrics of organizational health, these benchmarks alone are one dimensional, even when coupled with adjacent attributes and composite scales.
At the consumer level, these measures might serve as an accurate and precise evaluation tool, but organizations are more complex than consumer markets. And through our Discovery Phase, we came to understand that this case was more complex than a standard organizational health inquiry. Simply, just “getting some numbers” about the health of the organization is not the optimal approach.
At the core, the goal of this study is to evaluate the organizational health within the company. This is imperative for several reasons:
- We want to ensure the organizational brand is consistent and congruent with the goal set forth by the leadership. Organizations with a consistent and congruent organizational brand usually contain more loyal and engaged employees and are more likely to recruit and hire employees that are culturally fit.
- Obtaining a pulse about job satisfaction, loyalty and engagement is a healthy practice, notably among recently integrated companies.
While the core of the problem appears simple, extrapolating from our Discovery phase findings, the environment operated in non-linear fashion.
Knowing this, we needed a more refined organizational health definition. This case required a more dynamic approach than a typical “off the shelf” organizational health evaluation. Beyond the scope of studying job satisfaction, loyalty and engagement, we needed to employ a dynamic diagnosis of the organizational environment.
Via our learning through the Discovery phase, we fixated on several areas of emphasis for research and evaluation:
- Process & Task Flow
- Structural Optimization
- Relational Ties
- Strategic Alignment & Goal Congruence
- Organizational Learning & Information Flow
- Departmental Interaction & Interdependency
In an elevator…We would tell you that our goal is to conduct an assessment of the organizational environment conditioned on several widely accepted principles of effective organizational dynamics. The question we posed is simple: what is the organizational health diagnosis post-integration?
Answering this question informs the critical components of an action plan and strategy for HR to develop, execute and evaluate.
The Business/Organizational Environment
On the surface, the transition of the two companies appeared operationally and organizationally sound. Both organizations embraced a philosophy of brand consciousness, albeit more recently than that of companies in other industries. Coupling brand consciousness and a strong brand health internally, initial conflict often occurs as two or more organizations look to integrate the overall brand, or opt to keep brands separated operationally. Both organizations operate as Net Promoter organizations, thus the customer experience drivers are very similar, thus execution methods are likely very similar.
The Net Promoter concept and customer loyalty were firmly entrenched in their organizational culture. The leadership team mainly felt that this played a significant role in what appeared to be a sound integration plan.
Both companies, despite the extensive tenure of serving their respective markets, operate naturally from the Growth Stage framework in the business life cycle model. This is primarily a result of their recent merger activity. The key challenge in this life cycle stage environment is often delegation, notably in assigning roles and responsibilities with respect to departmental employees in a newly established organization.
Many organizations have trouble identifying if they are truly in a phase with a need for growth. Thus, they often find themselves in compromising positions relating to business decisions.
As with many energy companies we have worked with, employees were tenured. Many have been with the same company for 15 or more years. As expected with tenured organizations, the employee population trended towards older generations, with very few employees under the age of 35 in the primary line divisions.
From a research perspective, it was imperative for us to define our target audience and ensure that the feedback from this audience was congruent with the objectives of our efforts. The primary target (as identified by leadership) was leadership, management, and technical expert roles within the organization.
Despite the narrow scope of our audience, we discover quickly that the makeup of this audience is congruent with the primary objectives for several reasons. This audience is the primary voice to speak to our research emphasis areas, most notably relational ties as well as organizational learning.
The organizational structure primarily operates under the framework of Functional Strategy, one that is tactical, and divided into the following departments:
- Information Systems/IT
- Research & Development (R&D)
- Finance & Accounting
- Marketing & Sales
- Communications/Public Relations (PR)
- Human Resources (HR)
While we were engaged by senior leadership, our intention is to inform HR and Governance in their efforts for strategy development. Given the target audience – that again of managers and leaders of the organization – it is imperative to capture a sound qualifying rate and subsequent completion rate. By achieving a 78% response rate, we felt comfortable with, at a minimum, generalizing some overarching findings relevant to the structure of strategy development.
Overall, seven (7) overarching themes emerge, yielding substantial intelligence for the current state of affairs about organizational health, areas for modeling within the organizational culture, and critical areas where the organization can take the next step in terms of organizational performance.
*Note: The findings in this case study were abridged for usability as well as to protect the identity of the client. Recommendations at the end of this case study only speak specifically to operational strategy for Human Resources only.
Theme 1 - Clarity and Transparency/Flow of Knowledge and Information
Many organizations struggle with communication, knowledge and information flow.
It is extremely difficult to run an organization that executes consistently when there are barriers to knowledge and information flow. For example, let’s assume a key task is passed down from the Chief Operations Officer (COO), and managers from both the Operations and IT departments accept ownership of the task.
When there are barriers to communication, both departments execute on the tasks, unaware that the other department is working to achieve the same exact outcome. A more optimal outcome is for key personnel from both departments to partner on the task, whereby both departments can employ their expertise, and likely complete the task in a fraction of the time.
The commonalities among this larger problem yielded multiple specializations in the management space, notably that of knowledge management and organizational learning (OL). Many of these key components in the knowledge management and organizational learning space occur within this organizational environment.
First, we do not see any behavior commonly associated with operating from organizational silos.
Organizational silos are like organizational cliques, in that like employees (usually in the same department) are most likely to cluster together, with one key addition. Silos are cliques that have clear separation from other silos, either in location, knowledge, information, task responsibility, or a combination of factors.
Think about an organization with multiple locations. If marketing and sales operated out of a single location, it is likely they are silo’ed from the aggregate organization, thus are not accessing critical pieces of information.
For example – if R&D at a drug company is working on a new drug in another company site, the sales and marketing team will likely have to pull away from their sales tasks to be trained on the new drug.
Managers and leaders note multiple relationships by department with a steady stream of knowledge exchange. Managers and leaders among all departments feel confident about the information they receive from other departments, and reciprocate this information and knowledge flow with other departments.
Second, participants relayed their appreciation for clarity and transparency about key organizational decisions, activity, and positions.
These primarily came from the hub of Communications, being that of the Communications/PR department. Managers say that communications about the organization as a whole are clear, timely, and highly relevant to each department and the organizational as a whole.
Additionally, we see success in this area from two other critical departments: Finance & Accounting, and HR.
From the Finance & Accounting department clarity and transparency about financial performance and cost implications for new and ongoing initiatives are well-received from all departments. Managers feel they are equipped with adequate information about financial information, and receive clear guidance on matters relating to finances. This reflects the partnerships between gatekeepers between departments about their own financial standing as well as the financial performance of the company.
Much the same emerges from feedback about HR relating to communication exchange. Questions and concerns posed to HR are addressed with a sense of urgency, and HR is earnest in their efforts about payroll, benefits, etc. Additionally, HR operates with a sound open door policy to discuss HR matters. The one lacking area perhaps is the provision of consultative services relating to recruitment, staffing and employee related matters, which we will speak to in another section.
Why this finding is critical to the organization:
One of the most widely adopted, albeit very difficult to execute, organizational and strategic intervention strategies is that of what Peter Senge coined the “Learning Organization.” Organizations that operate from the model of a Learning Organization enhance their capabilities to adapt to changes in the environment, especially important as the business environment moves towards more agile processes and strategies. We see evidence that this organization meets multiple criteria of Senge’s Learning Organization.
We see evidence throughout this study to support this organization having sound Learning Organization practices. We will speak to these throughout this case, but specifically to knowledge and information flow, we find that this organization is learning via the entire system.
Theme 2 - Strong Relational Ties and Effective Business Partnerships
Arguably, the most welcoming finding throughout this entire initiative is the level of satisfaction and trust between managers across all departmental relationships. Participants report high satisfaction with departmental interaction, and strongly agree that there is mutual trust between departments.
Additionally, managers believe they can patch up differences easily. It is apparent that healthy confrontation occurs within this organization, as is likely with many organizations. Moderate conflict is often considered healthy for organizational growth, as it often leads to more innovative solutions and/or adaptive processes.
Finally, across the board, managers claim to have a “go-to” solution in other departments, and, as noted prior, no silo’ing behavior appears present.
Why this finding is critical to the organization:
If we had weak ties within the organization with respect to departmental partnerships, we would expect organizational goals to be a substantial challenge until some internal integration models were running at full speed. A key note given that there are multiple sites via the merger – watch for silo’ing behavior. This could be a detrimental outcome and a significant deterrent to the growth the company currently enjoys.
Theme 4 - Moderation via Departmental Interaction and Interdependency
Organizational theory and supporting empirical research suggests that moderation is optimal in organizations, notably that of interaction and interdependency, etc. Three key items of evidence suggest moderate interaction and interdependency is optimal.
For our purposes, interdependency is the means of how dependence on one individual (or department) is likely equal to another individual in an effort to execute organizational tasks.
To explore interdependency further, let’s take a simple sports example. American football is a game that is an ideal example of interdependency. For a team to be successful, the offensive line needs to block for their quarterback, while the quarterback needs to use their limited resources afforded to him by the offensive line (in this case, time) to hit an open receiver, hand the ball off to a running back, or run the ball himself for a positive gain in yardage.
The first item of evidence is that of the claimed frequency of interaction. Interaction occurs on an as-needed or warranted basis. There is not every day interaction – interaction is weekly, if not monthly. Several departments get a “rarely” mark, but overall, this organization would file under the “moderate interaction” block. Think about it this way – if you see a colleague every day, it is either a positive outcome or a point of caution. Usually when we see someone every day, we make a conscious choice to do so. However, frequent exchanges that are non-voluntary are often for reasons that are not pleasant (e.g., if IT visits your desk every day, it’s likely because your computer, network system, etc., is consistently non-operational).
Second, very few managers claim interaction is perceived to feel as if it is a requirement. Departments acting in earnest for the greater vision of the company is an instrumental and welcoming finding given that this can be a sleeping giant of a problem for even the most successful of organizations.
Third, participants claim the importance of collaboration to perform job related tasks is moderate to high, but mostly balanced. Collaboration demand is top heavy toward two departments – IT and HR – which we will speak to in greater detail in another section.
Why this finding is critical to the organization:
Low interaction and interdependency would suggest a very low sense of urgency about organizational goals, thus would prove difficult to achieve. High interaction and interdependency would suggest wasteful demand and likely a lot of share tasks, thus a system that is far from efficient. In either situation, the organization would likely find itself tripping over its own feet.
Theme 5 - Established Task Precedence and Task Efficiency
One of the most inefficient processes within an organization is when multiple tasks that precede the operations of another important task must be performed first. This becomes exceptionally difficult when these preceding tasks are conducted by one or two departments, thus the organization must wait for these to be performed by these one or two departments before executing their own jobs.
Let’s explore an example of task precedence: imagine conducting online research about a topic of interest, like, say, organizational development research companies. Before you can surf the web to do your homework, you first have to turn on your computer. Then you have to log into your computer. Then you have to ensure you have access to the internet. Then you have to choose your source for your investigation. It all seems pretty easy, right? Well, imagine that your computer takes five minutes to boot up. Once it does, then your mouse battery expires. Once you find a new battery, your computer will not sync your mouse appropriately. Then you borrow a wired mouse. You click on your favorite browser only to find out that you are not connected to the web.
We just made a very simple task into one filled with unnecessary obstacles. Now imagine how this might work for a task you need to complete. It could be the most standard of day-to-day tasks, and when a few things get in the way of executing, it is obviously a significant issue. Well, an organization that has task precedence and task efficiency issues is like working for a company where you are consistently playing “cat and mouse” with your computer mouse.
Fortunately for this organization, we observed a well-designed system in terms of individual departmental execution being congruent with what needs to be executed for the organization as a whole. Simply, the execution strategy of the organization maintains that departmental efforts are in sync.
Through the integration process, the due diligence team made a hard effort at reengineering. In doing so, the team took a detailed inventory of the organization, looking for opportunities to eliminate unnecessary processes, thus improving efficiency.
Overall, participants identify moderate departmental influence over one’s own ability to perform job related tasks. More importantly, dual reliance (e.g., PR relies on HR to do their job, and vice versa) is close to evenly distributed from one department to the next, thus there are few departments or individuals with a stronghold over other departments or individuals. Simply, departments have a natural flow about execution to enable other departments to execute. On the other hand, departments have negotiation stability. For example, if the Marketing & Sales department has a need from Communications & PR, the PR department knows, at some point, they will also need something from the Marketing & Sales department. Therefore, it is optimal for Marketing & Sales to deliver, knowing that PR will likely reciprocate accordingly.
Why this finding is critical to the organization:
Redundancies of tasks can be extremely detrimental to the execution of meeting or exceeding organizational goals. Companies that have an efficient system free of redundancies are not only efficient but also highly effective in their ability to execute on their goals at a high level. It is a lot easier to be a high achiever when unnecessary limitations are eradicated.
The Weaknesses & Opportunities
Theme 1 - Areas of Limitation in Task Precedence and Flow Dynamics
As we should expect, not all parts of this story are sunshine and rainbows. There are some alarming findings, however, with respect to task precedence and task efficiency, in that the Operations department does not stand out as a department of key influence. The primary role of the Operations department is to provide goods and services to customers, with a focus on productivity, quality, cost, delivery and performance. This role seems instrumental, however, participants do not reflect a significant demand for the execution of the Operations department. How can the Marketing & Sales department do their job effectively if the Operations department isn’t at the top of their game?
There are a few likely explanations to this. The first is that the Operations department is executing at a level of efficiency and productivity that is to a borderline fault. If the department is executing at a level where they are not even a concern, what happens when there is a miscue down the road?
The second explanation is that the Operations department does not assert their position in terms of execution. Managers and leaders prove knowledgeable about Operations day-to-day execution, cite numerous times about the successful partnership with Operations, and rate Operations highly on communication clarity and consultative ability.
The second issue is a recurring one, that of IT. Not surprisingly, IT, as we see often, has the greatest influence over the ability of other departments to execute on their roles. A key area of risk is that of task precedence and collaborative demand on the IT department. IT is the most demanded department, and also claims the lowest need for other departments. Simply, collaboration between IT and other departments is not a win-win relationship. This is common in an organization of this type, where IT’s primary role is to service information and network infrastructure rather than playing a role in reducing costs or creating a strategic or competitive advantage.
The long and short of IT is simple: IT wields a lot of power in terms of task precedence, task efficiency, and execution effectiveness. Dependence on IT is a 3:1 ratio, significantly favoring IT. A majority of participants feel working with IT is a requirement, and this is likely an accurate assessment. In every sense, IT is a gatekeeper to task efficiency and task effectiveness. While they demonstrate a willingness to work with other managers, it is not perceived to be a win-win relationship, less so in being timely in follow up, and the likelihood of moving past disagreements to execute a common goal. IT is admittedly the department many managers claim lower awareness about their goals and functions.
Why this finding is a cautionary tale to the organization:
A department stretched to capacity is a risk. To add insult to injury, when said department plays a substantial role in maintaining the sustainability of the organizational system, it becomes a greater risk.
Theme 2 – The Paradox of Overdependence
There is some form of a paradox going on in two departments: IT and HR. The two departments with strongest dependence ratios are IT and HR. However, the dependence and influence that are placed on IT and HR are dynamically different in terms of need vs. desire.
Human Resources (HR)
The organizational perspective of HR is that of a team-player mentality. They execute their day to day tasks very well, notably in terms of servicing other departments. Managers say that questions and concerns are addressed with a sense of urgency, with sound information flow about the standard tasks of hard skill HR delivery (payroll, benefits, etc). Additionally, HR appears to have a sound open door policy to discuss HR matters, hence why many managers and leaders agree that there is a great deal of trust about the department. If this were not the case, this theme would likely be at the top of the page and have multiple recommendations attached.
However, lacking in HR is a strategic partnership, whereby HR takes ownership of all strategic HR planning, human capital management planning, job design, onboarding, training, etc. In short, departments have a desire for HR to take the next step in their role within the organization via a consultative approach relating to workforce planning and employment, notably relating to recruitment, staffing and employee related matters.
Information Technology (IT)
Simply, the IT department is not a strategic department, it is an operational department. The goal of a Strategic IT department is to create competitive advantage and play an integral role in company strategy from a number of angles (e.g., process analysis, job design, specialization, workflow analysis, etc.). On the other hand, the goal of operational IT is to decrease costs and increase productivity. This usually means minimizing and eliminating system and network downtime, ensuring efficient processes and consistently adapting processes where alternations are made with the organization, and a host of other responsibilities relating to ensuring business continuity.
Additionally, many managers feel there is no infrastructure for automation of their tasks relating to technology, and they are absent the necessary technological tools to systemize some of their process. Overall, managers say they do not receive consultative services from IT, and IT is not providing adequate tools for other managers to do their job.
Why this finding is a cautionary tale to the organization:
In the current position, HR and IT are “do’ers.” They might play their role from two positions: (1) sit back and wait for a servicing opportunity, (2) navigate the log jam in the queue on servicing tasks to the best of their ability. By activating either position, HR and IT are unable to step outside the servicing role to innovate, advise or consult. While they likely have process constraints in play, it is important for the organization to position these departments in the light of servicing and the consultative.
Recommendations for HR
HR should position themselves at the center of the internal business environment in dealings that are relating to HR practices but involve other departments. Additionally, HR should support the efforts of other departments through the resources and capabilities in HR. It is important to understand the perspective of internal business partners; therefore, there is a need to create a flow of communication and collaboration. While they appear to communicate and collaborate very well, waiting for an opportunity to collaborate is not a solution. HR needs to proactively identify internal needs and emerging issues. It is imperative that HR professionals understand the goals of the other departments within the organization.
While HR has a sound Working Relationship, they need to establish a more effective Strategic Relationship, intended to advance and enhance contribution of HR function towards achieving organizational goals and better serving the vision and mission. Credibility is necessary to develop and be productive within organizations. The ability to work collaboratively enables the organization to better achieve optimal outcomes. Credibility is established when HR provides solutions within the organizational chain.
WHERE HR IS WINNING:
- HR strategy supports other functional strategies.
- Assisting in building and acquiring talent.
- Understanding every function’s role and processes.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR HR:
- HR should establish a strategic partnership position.
- Work as the subject matter expert on strategic HR planning.
- Support succession planning and mentoring.
- Serve the organization and its functions, not just HR.
- Create and maintain a motivated, participative workforce.
- Build partnerships across the organization and relationships inside and outside the organization.
- Learn about the HR industry.
- Support ideas with facts and data.
- Help the organization measure its strategic success.
- Develop policies, procedures and organizational rules.
- Establishing measures for compliance with regulatory and legal standards.
- Creating and aligning the Human Capital Management Plan (HCMP) with the strategic initiatives within the organization, usually identified in the strategic planning process previously discussed.
- Analyzing job roles, tasks and responsibilities to develop job descriptions and measurement methods of expected and desired outcomes of employees.
- Assume the role of the Change Agent in Organizational Development interventions
Overall, we see an organization with many characteristics adjacent to Senge’s Learning Organization. The organization operates at a high-level system thinking approach, whether employees are aware or not. The organization is learning, transferring knowledge, negotiating tasks, and executing the overall goal via the organizational system as a whole. Senior employees are networking throughout the organization, within department, with other departments, and with leadership. Finally, it appears that change is embraced. While we do not have an organizational health view from either organization prior to the merger, there is very little evidence to suggest this organization has struggled as a result. These are all welcoming findings as would be expected.
Counter to these welcoming findings, we are finding that several departments, and the subsequent system as a whole, need to take another step forward in terms of owning departmental expertise.
There are several limitations to this study. First, we only surveyed those in the management and leadership roles. We could not identify from this study if employees at the subordinate level are operating from a systems model perspective. While partnerships at the managerial level may be of the highest quality, this only accounts for a block of the entire population of human capital.
Additionally, where there is extensive tenure within the organization, we are not seeing a great deal of natural differences in terms of generational perspectives. It would be interesting to get the perspective of several Millenials and Gen Y employees, notably given that HR may be looking to these individuals for mentoring, promotions and succession planning. How the culture would look with greater diversity, lower the moderate organizational tenure remains left to be seen.