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OPINION

Labour Markets: A new perspective on change

Dubai, May 22, 2013

Cliff Oswick

Cliff Oswick is a professor in Organisation Theory at Cass Business School and Cass Dubai Centre.

In 2011, the Arab Spring swept across parts of the Mena region. Many western nations were quick to support the social activism and democratic principles/right to individual expression that they believed underpinned the wave of civil unrest.

Yet, if you take a closer look at companies in western democracies - the building blocks of free market capitalism - employee involvement is conspicuously absent from the strategic decision making processes in most organisations.

But not for long. A transformation is underway, as greater numbers of employees demand to set the organisational change agenda.

The traditional approach to organisational change is top down, linear, and diagnostic. Management perceives a problem - maybe productivity is down, or production faults increasing; perhaps employee morale is low, or labour turnover rising. Whatever it is, management diagnose the problem, then identify and implement a solution.

But this approach has significant drawbacks. It often results in organisations just treating a problem’s symptoms, for example. High labour turnover is addressed by implementing exit interviews, or long service bonuses. Quality problems lead to Business Process Re-engineering - the symptoms are alleviated, but there is no cure for the underlying cause.

There is also the risk of a high level of employee disillusionment. Employees’ involvement in developing a change strategy is limited. From the employee’s perspective they experience a series of change journeys that continually promise something better at the end, based on the premise that managers know best. Yet, in many employees’ experience, the reality does not match the rhetoric. All too frequently the change process is blown off course, the destination, if ever reached, can be different but not necessarily better.

Alternative approaches to tackling organisational change are emerging, though. These avoid some pitfalls of the top down approach by harnessing the talents of a much greater proportion of the workforce.

A possible starting point for organisations is appreciative inquiry; a new philosophy on addressing change by focusing on practices that work well, and taking those and applying them elsewhere in the organisation rather than just concentrating on problems. In this way, a series of punctuated change journeys to constantly shifting destinations becomes a voyage of experimental discovery instead.

The role of the employee is central to this more discursive approach to change. The employees take ownership of change. Whatever term you use, whether it is employee activism, internal crowd sourcing, or structured dissent, for example, the essence is empowering and engaging employees in the decision making around change. Wisdom of crowds theory suggests that, by involving the workforce in meaningful and productive discussions, organisations will make better quality change choices.

Management can take action to unleash this new change approach. There are techniques like Future Search, for example, devised by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, which allows hundreds of people across an organisation to come together in a planning meeting, working in parallel to shape organisational change. New social networking technologies also enable employees to participate in the change conversation, providing mechanisms for feedback and dialogue.

Senior management can signal its intention, setting the tone from the top, by facilitating bottom-up generation of ideas, and encouraging employees to discuss future possibilities. It can frame the dialogue in terms of, “if we are going to change, how should we change?,”, instead of setting the agenda, then pushing it out for consultation within imposed constraints.

There is no question it can be an uncomfortable process for senior managers. Employees may suggest taking change in unanticipated directions. Managers may not like the feedback they receive. But it is important to stress this should be a constructive process. Ideas still need to be filtered. And managers have not abrogated their rights and responsibilities as the primary decision makers on which course of action to pursue.

Like it or not, managers would do well to consider this new approach. We live in an increasingly networked world. As consumers, and members of society, individuals expect to have a say. They can use new technologies to find their voice and be heard. Unsurprisingly, people expect to carry their need to engage and influence into working life.

Society is transforming. For the moment these shifts in the landscape of corporate life, are barely reflected in the way in which organisations engage with their employees. But trying to maintain organisations that are very top down in a traditional sense is untenable. Take note managers, change is coming; it is just matter of time. If your organisation does not facilitate that change, your employees are likely to find an organisation that does.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Gulf.




Tags: democracy | Labour market | Arab Spring |

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