Can a Company Really Change?

I went to a corporate learning event recently: they invited members of the local business community and I was given the opportunity to participate. It was about a change the company made to alter the corporate culture around communication, which is very much my area of interest. They did a process evaluation and found that they were manufacturing their products in silos of function instead of a cross-functional creative process, the latter being far more effective in terms of use of time, resources and frankly, money. I used to be a business process consultant, in my previous life, and the unwillingness of business groups to share was the root problem I encountered at EVERY company I ever went in to to perform a process evaluation on, so it wasn’t any great surprise for me to hear that. People inherently want to guard their knowledge, for fear that they will be dispensable if they share.

Here’s what was surprising: the man leading the seminar said that with this kind of cultural change, there were 20% who were on board and happy to make the changes. There were 60% who were skeptical or ambivalent but went along with it because they didn’t want to rock the boat. (Up to this point, I was nodding my head in agreement, having witnessed this many times in the past). Then there were 20% who didn’t want to play ball but and I quote: “but who cares because they don’t produce much anyway”.

20% of your staff doesn’t matter because they don’t produce much anyway? I couldn’t decide if he meant it the way it sounded. Probably not, but it left me wondering: is corporate culture change just another evaluation point for the HR department or is it being viewed as a legitimate necessity by the executive for the company’s growth and financials?

The seminar leader did say that the executive was part of the 20% on board group, which is essential for this kind of change to work. If the leaders don’t buy it, it won’t sell. But his attitude towards the bottom 20% concerned me. He alluded to them as older workers, which he defined as 50+ and set in their ways. Of the “we’ve been doing it this way for 20 years and it has worked” variety. I guess what bothered me was the frank indifference to their position. Change is frightening. That’s why they call it “Change Management” and not “Like it or Lump it Management”. They claimed to be addressing the fact that people can’t be forced into change with the methodology they were using, but if 80% of your workforce is either going along with it grudgingly or not at all, it’s not really effective change management, is it?

Is there a better way? I think so. I think it’s better to create the change in one small place first, with strong executive and management support. Show the rest of the staff that there is an ACTUAL return on investment and how that same change could help them do their jobs better. Like I said before, people tend to want to guard their knowledge, and I understand that. Being known as something of an expert in a specific area is gratifying. It makes the long days and sometimes long nights worthwhile. The speaker was absolutely right when he said that you can’t force change. You have to show people the light, literally. But people are visual. Just because you say it will help them doesn’t mean they will believe you. For many, it’s one more thing to deal with on their already overburdened work schedules. It’s one more HR requirement to get that bonus or to be considered for promotion. It’s a tick box on the to do list.

Change needs to be more than that. People need to be inspired and motivated to change. People need to feel that their worth is not in their specific knowledge but in the sharing of that knowledge for the greater good of the organization. Not an easy sell, I grant you, but worthwhile for the companies that can get it right.

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